In praise of the 'kehila'

In our upbringing, the kehila had a place of honor among assorted stereotypes and traumas.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
"Israel is not a state," former IAF commander Gen. Benny Peled once said, "it's a kehila." The reference to the historic institution through which the Jews had run their affairs while they lacked a state was meant as a slight to the country's leadership, which the decorated pilot found weak, chaotic, unimaginative and cowardly. Whether valid or not, the analogy sure aimed well at Middle Israelis' psyche, where few things are as despicable as pre-modern Jewry's failure to gather its power and use it. In our upbringing, the kehila had a place of honor among assorted stereotypes and traumas, from the shtadlan and the Court Jew to the pogrom and Wandering Jew that added up to what our parents had abandoned and we were to scorn: galut. The kehila was the metaphorical meeting place of all these, and as such the epitome of all the degeneration, gauntness, low self-esteem and submissiveness which characterized the Old Jew whom the Jewish state's founders abhorred and set out to reinvent. Still, 60 years later the Zionist ideal of eradicating the spirit of the kehila begs revision, because the Jewish state's balance of power between government and community, which began as an ideal, has since become a monstrosity. THE KEHILA'S bad reputation wasn't mere stereotyping. It really helped facilitate oppression, whether by raising punitive taxes for the power that be, paying exorbitant ransom for hostages' release or keeping the Jews crowded within the confines of what their enemies allotted them. Indeed, the kehila took the Jews' humiliation as a given and helped prolong it by keeping the broader Jewish people disjointed. As such, it was a symptom of a national malignancy, a limb that took its own course for lack of a functioning brain and beating heart. That is why classical Zionists saw it as anathema, and that is why David Ben-Gurion, with typical vision, inspiration and resolve, placed on a high pedestal its ultimate antithesis: stateliness, or mamlahtiyut. Stateliness was an ideal, an attitude and a policy all at once. It meant that it would be demanded that Israelis care for the broad national good before, and often instead of, nurturing narrow communal concerns. This of course entailed endless confrontations, none of which scared Ben-Gurion, from bombing the right-wing Altalena weapons ship in the spring to breaking down the left-wing Palmah units in the fall, and from forcing the IDF to keep all its kitchens kosher to nationalizing private school systems, whether Orthodox or Marxist. Stateliness was always cruel to some, at times even violent. Still, even Ben-Gurion's detractors agree that the zeal with which he promoted it may have saved the Zionist enterprise, whose challenges from within were no less daunting than those it faced from without. However, mamlahtiyut was eventually compromised, misinterpreted and bastardized. The compromise came when Ben-Gurion, while passing the National Education Law in 1953, allowed ultra-Orthodoxy to retain its educational autonomy. This allowed an entire community to avoid even a toddler's civic initiation. Meanwhile, the quest to keep the public domain intact produced a governmental grip on anything and everything from hospitals, telephones, ships and airplanes to public works, kindergartens and cemeteries. In such a setting it was only natural that democracy's most elemental component, the community, be choked. THE BANKRUPTCY of Israeli stateliness became apparent twice: first, in summer '06, when the Jewish state failed to adequately equip soldiers and protect civilians, and then when it failed to get its high schools opened for a full month. Faced with the specter of thousands of displaced Jews relocating to other Jews' homes, Middle Israelis realized that at play were the old kehila's instincts and values. After all, the elders of Kasrilevke may not have known what to do with a nuclear submarine, an F-16 fighter plane or even a Beretta pistol, but they sure knew how to shelter calamity's refugees. The education crisis should remind us that the kehila not only had ways of responding to crisis, but was also efficient in running schools. Throughout the West, where stateliness is appreciated no less than it is here, communities are empowered in ways that Israelis can only dream about. Local government, for instance, is empowered to shape its own taxation policy rather than beg the government for budgets. Here mayors are effectively the government's bureaucrats, because the government refuses to shrink its power to tax and reduce its pretext for meddling in mayors' work. Israeli mayors can only dream of controlling their own police departments; giving them such elementary tools of government would compromise stateliness. Consequently, we have the same behemoth that is assigned to deal with terrorists, pimps and money launderers also assigned with fighting burglars, pickpockets and rapists. There is no police force anywhere in the world that is expected to juggle all this simultaneously. The same goes for religion. Nowhere in the West are clergy, houses of worship and cemeteries detached from the community as they are here. Abroad, it is the community that finances and runs them, often with state aid, but always at local initiative and leadership. Here we have the so-called religious councils, which are ostensibly local, but are effectively part of the national Orthodox establishment's machine of power distribution, as are of course also neighborhood and city rabbis, all of whom are state employees. This disbelief in the community is also evident in the legislature, which is the veteran free world's only one (except Iceland) where not even one lawmaker is elected by a local constituency. Needless to say, this is also the root of the crisis in our education system, whose national structure makes it so oversized that it is impossible to manage and easy to shut down. All this will change in a neo-communitarian Israel. In the future, the Jewish state will sharply reduce its tax rates, emancipate its mayors, have lawmakers elected locally and leave it to the community to manage its schools and build its theaters, cemeteries, synagogues and mikvaot. The state will be there, but only as a regulator, supervisor and adjuster, seeing to it that its ideals are taught, its laws are kept and its poorer communities are not left behind. Such an Israel will have a sounder balance between state and community, one that will harmonize Ben-Gurion's legacy with the historic kehila's resourcefulness. Ultimately, all this will produce better mayors, lawmakers, teachers and rabbis, as well as improved leadership, security and social harmony. Even Benny Peled would have saluted the newly empowered Israeli kehila, had he lived to see it.