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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

December 26, 2002

Speaking of Shinui...

Imshin discussed this article in Haaretz by Ari Shavit extensively. (Scroll up for a follow-up). The article is about Yosef (Tomy) Lapid. If you don’t know who Lapid is, the article and Imshin’s comments are a good primer, although I agree with Imshin that Shavit is biased against Lapid. Also, for the record, I have been Lapid’s fan for years – not that I think that he is without fault.

Anyway, all this got me thinking again about something I wrote a while back, and that is the role religion plays in Israeli society, especially in its politics. I wrote then that the biggest second problem Israel faces is the conflict that exists between the secular and the ultra-orthodox segments of its population. When I wrote this, I was talking about Israel I knew for 16 years, until 12 years ago. What I failed to take into account is something that mostly happened after I left. What happened is that the demographics of the ultra-orthodox (“haredi”) community have changed significantly. While some 15-20 years ago most “haredim” were ashkenazi, i.e. Jews of European descent, this is becoming less and less true.

Mizrahim, i.e. Jews of Middle-Eastern descent, have always been more religiously observant than ashkenazim. Many of them also have been in a cultural, and thus economical disadvantage in a country founded and initially developed by European Jews. Naturally, there were people clever enough to realize a political gold mine when they saw one. Thus Tami was born in the 80ies, to be later replaced by Shas, which has since held all Israeli governments by its balls, just like their ashkenazi predecessors used to do, beginning with Ben-Gurion’s first government.

The way it works is very simple. Shas appeals to people who are poor and poorly educated. Many of them are religious anyway, or their parents are, so they “find God again” quite easily, and with God they also find the solutions to their problems. You know this scenario well from the US. The big difference is that here the churches get their money from donations by private citizens and organizations. In Israel the yeshivas run by Shas and its rabbis are financed by Israeli taxpayers, most of whom are secular. One of the ways they do this is by demanding from the government support for families with many children (yeah, “Think Of The Children” – yet again), while on the other hand encouraging those same families to have even more children, because the Torah says so. Talk about a demographic bomb.

Now, the interesting twist in all this is that historically there were two major conflicts within the Israeli society (in addition to Left vs. Right, vis-à-vis Arab aggression): Religious vs. Secular, and Ashkenazi vs. Sefaradi. The Shas phenomenon merged the two. What we actually see now is West vs. East in its larger context: Modernity vs. Backwardness. Now, before Mr. Paine jumps in and says: “Aha, I told you so!”, let me just say that I can in no way equate Judaism with Islam, not even with its most peaceful form. Farthermore, this is not so much about religion, as is about culture, of which religion is only a part.

All the usual attributes of backwardness are there: subjugation of women, lack of work ethic, rejection of any secular education - even a vocational one – come to mind. On the bright side: no inherent violence, imperialism, or tribal feuding. But still, not the kind of culture I want to live in.

So, it turns out, Israel has to fight this war on two fronts. On one of them it has to fight not only on its own behalf, but also on behalf of the entire Western world, although with very little support from it. On the other it has to fight only for itself, and entirely on its own. And it has to win on both fronts to survive.

(Crossposted here).