Review: Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel


Jewish Fundamentalism In Israel, by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky, is billed as a “thorough assessment of fundamentalism in modern Israel.” The book’s stated objective is to demonstrate the similarities which exist between Jewish fundamentalism and fundamentalism well-studied in other religious cultures, how such Jewish fundamentalism threatens Israel’s democracy.

Shahak and Mezvinsky’s relatively slim volume does an admirable job of providing an overview of the political contours and basic ideological affinities of Israel’s various orthodox religious movements. They delineate in basic terms the pre-Israeli-state history of the haredim (elsewhere the “ultraorthodox”), the internal fracturing of the movement between hasidim and mitnagdim, and the social and religious mores to which they adhere. The authors describe the conflicts which emerged between the Ashkenazi hasidim and mitnagdim in Israeli politics represented by the Agudath Israel and Degel HaTorah factions of the sometimes united Yahadut HaTorah HaMeukhedet (United Torah Judaism)  and the rise of Shas as the vanguard of the Sephardi haredim.

They also chart the rise of the National Religious Party (today split between Habayit Hayehudi and Ichud Leumi), and differentiate between the largely anti-Zionist ideologies of the haredim and the Zionist and perhaps messianic ideologies of the national religious as expressed by Gush Emunim and to much more limited extent Kach. Finally, the authors’ express what they believe to be the violent potential of these movements should they control the government or should settlement activities continue unimpeded. In this, they devote considerable attention to the violence of Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir and what they believe it indicates about the state of Israeli democracy and social tolerance.

Yet, the overall tone of Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel suggests it is less a serious analysis of the “threats” posed by the rise of religious fundamentalism than it is a treatise on the authors’ own ideological opposition to Jewish religious thought. Throughout, the authors express an undisguised revulsion toward Jewish religiosity and its place in Israeli national culture. This is illustrated not only through the authors’ recurrent belittling of traditional Jewish scholarship but through their choice to highlight only its most violent, closed-minded, and apocalyptic elements.

They also go to great lengths to minimize the degree to which secular, even leftist Israelis, identify with the religious elements of Jewish Israeli national culture allowing only that secular right sympathizes with the religious as “perpetrators of the past” who offer evidence of Jewish uniqueness vis-à-vis a hostile gentile world (11-13). Here religious and secular nationalist rightist beliefs regarding the relative relationship of Jewish and non-Jewish rights are regularly compared to racist, fascist, and even Nazi ideology making it appear that non-Jewish life is less than worthless in the eyes of the religious.

A reader exposed only to Shahak and Mezvinsky’s study of Jewish fundamentalism could quite easily finish the book believing that all religious Jews harbor a deep-seated desire to commit violence against non-Jews restrained only by material and political limitations. Their hyper-emphasis on the “messianic” foundations of the Gush Emunim movement and the Israeli national religious in general lead them to shocking conclusions. Among them, “It is not unreasonable to assume that Gush Emunim, if it possessed the power and control, would use nuclear weapons in warfare to attempt to achieve its purpose,” here the expansion of Israel’s borders to their greatest biblical ideal (72).

Logical leaps such as these not only wantonly disregard the functional pragmatism of the majority of political leadership of the national religious and the settlement movement today, but the incredible unlikelihood such a development. While some significant elements of the settlement movement indeed takes cues from religious leadership and an ideology of redemption of biblical lands, this leadership is highly fragmented and their ideology is far from homogenous. The haredim, under the much clearer hierarchical authority of rabbinical patrimonies, may pose an anti-democratic threat, but given the many fractures within this community and their tendency to seek autonomy from rather than control over the state, this “threat” too seems overblown.

Jewish Fundamentalism clearly expresses the frustration and anger of many in the Israeli left, marginalized by the failures of the peace process, liberal economic reforms, and greater identification by average Israelis with religious and historical elements of Jewish culture. It also is indicative of the fear felt by many secular Israelis regarding a growing population of haredim with whom, unlike the national religious who serve in the army, typically express ultimate allegiance to the state, and participate in secular as well as religious national life, they have almost no common frame of reference.

Such concerns are certainly legitimate and must be addressed as the Israeli demographic balance increasingly favors the haredi population. So too must the territorial-maximalist ideology of the settlement movement be reconciled with the territorial-minimalist preference of the Israeli left before Israeli society itself can determine its final preferred boundaries. There are significant gaps to be bridged between all three populations.

In response to the author’s central thesis, Jewish religious culture is most certainly asserting a more prominent place in an Israel once dominated by hardcore secularism with which the authors strongly identify. That the rejection of religious values is no longer socially acceptable and that alternative voices have gained increasing political power, however, is not equivalent to the rise of a Jewish fundamentalist regime. If there is a productive message to be gleaned, it is that secular and religious in Israel must make a greater effort to engage with one another. Resorting to alarmism with selective attachment to realities on the ground, whether it be the religious claiming that all of secular culture is vile and abominable or secular leftists claiming that religiosity invariably leads to violence and social oppression, will only further polarize the Israeli political space.

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