Guest Column: Pray for the peace of Jerusalem

One can only guess at the purposes of our Creator in fashioning the haredim versus the Zionists knot.

goofy haredi arrested 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
goofy haredi arrested 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Something deep within me stirred when I first entered Jerusalem more than 60 years ago. I didn't know what to call it then; I don't know what to call it now. I first set eyes on Jerusalem as the bus snaked its way up the tortuous, twisting gorges of the Judean Hills at the end of a day, when the lowering sun illuminates a sky aflame with scarlet and crimson. My Manchester eyes, attuned to cloud and rain, had never seen such a sky, and as we came near the city center, the masonry seemed to suck up the hues, giving the walls a translucent, golden appearance, like an old masterpiece whose simplicity veils immense sophistication. And like great music, its composition - the ancient and the modern, the religious and the secular, the Jews, the Muslims, the Christians, and their multiple tones and variations - all somehow merged into an incongruous harmony. But then came Shabbat, and Jerusalem went suddenly mad in the afternoon. Black-garbed, black-hatted youngsters threw stones at passing vehicles, yelling "Shabbos! Shabbos!" while their adult betters in Sabbath finery, resplendent in the styles and furs of late-medieval Poland, with womenfolk in the most modest of attire, stood by watching. This was my introduction to the most conservative school of Judaism - the haredim. And the more I got to know about them, the more I understood that here was a sect that never wavered, never vacillated in its resistance to the imposition of modern civic society and Zionist policies. BELIEVING THAT the return of Jews to Zion must come about through divine not human intervention, they have defied Zionism with the obdurate passion of a Jacob wrestling an angel - as recent disorders in Jerusalem have shown, and as the historical record proves. A casual perusal of archives led me to Ronald Storrs' diary entry of December 21, 1917. Ronald Storrs was Britain's first Military Governor of Jerusalem, and on that date he wrote: "I held my first meeting with the anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi rabbis. Some twenty of them received me with much ceremony in the municipal council chamber, a long commonplace room and quite unworthy of the Rembrandtesque fur-gowned, fur-hatted, ringleted rabbis on either side of me down a long deal table. The only tongue they all understood was an ultra-German Yiddish. "I left this remarkable and powerful Synod after about an hour, and I do believe that, in it, I witnessed the first confrontation under British rule between the Orthodox Jews and the Zionist Jews. It was most disconcerting that the veteran Orthodox Jews would not speak to the modern Zionist Jews. In my personal effort to bring them together I am roundly defeated." Three days later this "remarkable and powerful Synod" took a decisive step in its dispute with Jerusalem's Zionists. They set up their own Ashkenazi community council, forerunner to the Eda Haredit. ON MAY 12, 1918, the influential head of the World Zionist Organization, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, normally a man of immense sophistication who rubbed shoulders with kings and premiers, made an ox of himself when he naively promised funds to Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox leaders if only they would introduce a more modern curriculum into their yeshivas. A Rabbi Avraham Aharon Prague promptly marked him with the brand of Cain when, speaking in the name of all yeshiva heads, he thundered with righteous indignation: "We have been entrusted by God with the souls of our students. Are we to violate our sacred trust for the sake of our personal welfare? We will continue to guard that trust to our last breath. And if we are fated to die of hunger, then let us die as courageous men and not sell our souls for money." I'm not sure about the money part, but assuredly the haredi yeshiva world continues to guard that trust with an obdurate independence. Then, on July 7, 1937, a Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by one Lord Peel proposed that the solution to the Jewish-Arab conflict lay in partitioning the country into a Jewish and an Arab state, just as the United Nations was to do 10 years later. An outraged delegation of haredim - among them the venerable Dr. Moshe Wallach, legendary founder of Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Hospital - testified before the Commission against Jewish sovereignty. They approved one aspect of the plan, however: the retention of Jerusalem under British control. This inspired the revered haredi leader, Rabbi Moshe Blau, to write in the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Kol Yisrael on July 4, 1937: "Those who refuse to acknowledge the formation of any secular Jewish state in any shape or form feel that Jerusalem must be spared the fate of falling into the hands of a secular Jewish government. The Royal Commission's proposition [on Jerusalem] is providential, as it saves the Holy City from the clutches of Jews who refuse to recognize Torah authority." But then came November 29, 1947, and the United Nations passed a partition resolution causing the lines of cleavage between ultra-Orthodoxy and Zionism to plunge into a no-exit confrontation. Israel's War of Independence began. Jerusalem was besieged. Britain's deadline for its final pull-out was midnight, May 14. And on April 9, hardly a month before Jewish independence on May 15, a three-man haredi delegation called on a senior British representative in utter despair. The delegation comprised Dr. Yerachmiel Vechsler, Rabbi Raphael Katzenellenbogen and Dr. Moshe Wallach. THIS IS HOW the official British report of that meeting reads: "2. They opened by saying they were speaking in the name of the Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem; that their views were held by all the 200,000 Jews of Orthodox Jewry in Palestine; and despite the unfortunate fact that the Orthodox were not, in these days, accorded as much recognition by Government as had been the case in the past, they remained absolutely loyal to the Administration and to Britain. "3. They were the original Jews of Palestine, they said. They were anxious to support Government, and were content to do whatever Government should or might order. They hated and feared the [Jewish] Agency and its atmosphere and politics; the Agency was responsible for encouraging Zionism, for bringing undesirable Jews into Palestine, and for condoning and even fostering the Jewish violence and disregard of law and of human suffering now prevalent. "4. The purpose of their visit was to press for peace in Palestine. They had heard Sir Alan's appeal [Sir Alan Cunningham, the High Commissioner]. There was a very large body of opinion in the country, Arab as well as Jew, which felt that the present strife was leading only to misery and ruin. The difficulty was to make the views of these people heard in the councils of world powers. "5. Rabbi Katzenellenbogen had organized in the Mea Shearim quarter a demonstration in favor of peace. The demonstration had been broken up by the Haganah, and the participants beaten. "6. The Orthodox Jews had been deprived of their fair share of food by the Haganah. It was of no use for them to protest to the Agency; they had to suffer. "7. For themselves, they had two main requests: 'Food. Might they be allowed to buy from Government or Army stocks say 20 tons of potatoes? They were willing to pay for this, and needed it for distribution to their poor. It would be necessary for Government to make it clear to the Haganah that the food was for the Orthodox Jews only. 'Security. They wanted security between now and the 15th May. After the 15th May, they would need it even more; might they not be treated as British subjects? They had always been loyal to the Crown and had caused no trouble. They felt that such recognition, and the right to protection that goes with it, were due to them.' "8. As regards peace generally, they suggested that the High Commissioner might feel able to address an appeal to the Security Council telling it that there were in Palestine thousands of Jews and Arabs who wanted peace above all things; and suggesting that the Security Council address President Truman, appealing to him to stop the flow of American money which was so greatly facilitating the political and military activities of the Zionists. "9. I told them that I feared that the provision of food especially for their community might be difficult, and even if it could be made, was likely to bring down on them reprisals by the Haganah. I said however that Government is doing all that it possibly could to ease the food situation generally. "10. I said I would bring the suggestion in Para. 8 to the notice of higher authority (they asked that it might be shown to H.E.) Naïve as it is, there is a good deal in it. "11. Finally, they said they did not believe that the British administration was shortly to cease in Palestine. When I assured them that it was so, they appeared downcast - beyond, I think, all possibility of simulation. They said that if we left Palestine without assuring their welfare and safety, we should be leaving harmless, well-wishing, and loyal "subjects" at the mercy of the savage elements which now ruled Jewry, or, as Rabbi Katzenellenbogen put it "100% in the lurch." Shocking as this reads, time was to show that once the dust settled the "savage elements" were to prove amazingly forbearing: an independent, largely state-sponsored haredi school network, exemption from national service, a subsidized yeshiva system making Israel the largest Torah center in the world, easy mortgages - and all in the service of a haredi community that is burgeoning by leaps and bounds. One can only guess at the purposes of our Creator in fashioning such a complex and Gordian knot as the haredim versus the Zionists. And one can only guess what this portends. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. The writer's book, The Prime Ministers. An Intimate Portrait of Israeli Leadership" (Toby Press) will appear next spring.