November 6, 2011
Ynet reports (fuller Hebrew version) that Ephraim Halevy, a former Mossad director, said yesterday that Iran poses no “existential threat” to Israel and that attacking it must truly be a last resort. Anyone considering such a strike must realize that it would impact not just Israel, but the entire region for the next 100 years. If this was all Halevy said it would be important, but mere reinforcement of views already expressed forcefully by Meir Dagan, the most recent past Mossad chief. What renders the former’s views even more interesting is that he identifies what he considers an even greater existential threat to Israel: the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox):
Haredi radicalism has darkened our lives. It endangers us even more than Ahmadinejad.
His attack on Haredim is shorthand for an entire range of social developments within Israeli society that includes, but goes beyond merely the ultra-Orthodox. Halevy, who himself was raised in the moderate Orthodox Bnai Akiva youth movement, refers to the increasing religious and political radicalization of the entire Orthodox movement in Israel. There has always been friction between secular and religious within Israel. But in the past, there were streams within the Orthodox movement which held moderate political and halachic views. Parties like the National Religious Party were ones which accepted a separation between synagogue and state. They participated in governing coalitions and were statist in orientation. They didn’t believe the State should be subordinate to the Jewish religion orhalacha. Leaders like Josef Burg (Avrum Burg’s father) were also sober-minded and incorruptible.
Today’s Orthodox are increasingly extreme in their views. The moderate religious parties are long extinct. In their place are the ultra-Orthodox, who are much more socially separatist and militant. They view Israeli secular society as a world–and a state apart from them. They participate in politics because of the spoils it brings them in financial subsidies, and not for patriotic reasons. For them, the State of Israel is not an end, but a means toward a successor regime that fulfills the tenets of Judaism as they see it.
Haredim generally don’t join the IDF and receive dispensation from military service as long as they are studying in yeshivot. When Haredim do join the army they serve in military units which are among the most brutal in their treatment of the Palestinians. Which brings us to Haredi political activism. Many of them are the extreme among the settlers. Their yeshivotand settlements produce the most virulent and homicidal of the Jewish terrorists in places like Yitzhar, Tapuach, and Itamar (among others).
So when Halevy calls the Haredim an existential threat the term is shorthand for a whole set of phenomena that have developed inside Israel over the past few decades and moved Israel from a place which suffered from a divide between secular and religious; into a society in which, while the secular still existed, they had been co-opted and subsumed into a state that moved more and more in the direction of racism, intolerance, and authoritarianism. These noxious elements, while always present even among secular Israelis, became far more pronounced as Haredi culture did.
Though Halevy doesn’t mention this explicitly, I’m sure he’d liken the increasing militancy of the Haredim and their settler members with that of militant Islam. Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda have their counterparts in Israel’s most violent settler rabbis and Kahanist MKs like Baruch Marzel, Michael Ben Ari, and a number of others. While it is true that Jewish terror has not achieved the level of violence of the terror acts of Al Qaeda, that is because Jewish religious extremism has had to struggle against the secular, democratic values of Israel to find traction. That’s why the process of radicalization has been gradual within the nation. Within Muslim states like Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, there were few countervailing influences to hold back this fundamentalist tide.