By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
That an Iranian scholar, Abbas Milani of Stanford University, should get it wrong about Israel in a piece in the New York Times of April 11 is understandable. But that his co-author, Israel Weismel-Manor of Haifa University and currently a visiting professor at Stanford should so misrepresent Israel suggests malice, not just ignorance.
Their article, entitled “Are Iran and Israel Trading Places?” asserts that as Iran is becoming more liberal, Israel is becoming more Orthodox. As “evidence” they cite a couple of stupid statements by Israel’s minister of defense, Moshe Yaalon, and the pro-settler hard line of Naftali Bennett, the leader of the modern Orthodox Zionist Habayit Hayehudi.
To choose to mistake the modern Orthodoxy of Bennett, who plays an important part in the current Israeli government, with the extremist Orthodoxy of the haredim that are currently in opposition, suggests that the intention of the article may have been to scare readers and perhaps encourage them to distance themselves from Israel, for example by engaging in various forms of anti-Israel boycott.
Such a view may be consistent with the politics of an Iranian, however great a scholar. Alas, it may also be possible for an Israeli “post-Zionist” who, like a number of his intellectual compatriots, may have a need to denigrate Israel.
Yair Rosenberg – in an article in the online Tablet dated the same day, called, “No, Israel Isn’t About to Turn Into a Theocracy” – describes the New York Times piece as misleading and its authors, somewhat benignly in my view, as ignorant.
Rosenberg makes the obvious point that Bennett’s modern Orthodox Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists are at loggerheads and that Bennett, more than previous politicians, has tried to put the haredim in their place. Thus he has authorized salaries for non-Orthodox rabbis; he has taken steps to curb the power of the rabbinate in matters of conversion and marriage; he’s even seeking to limit subsidies to ultra-Orthodox yeshivot and compelling its “students” to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces.
Not only does Bennett have secular members in his own party, but his closest ally in the government coalition seems to be Yair Lapid, the very secular leader of the largely secular Yesh Atid party.
The above shouldn’t be read as an endorsement of Bennett’s politics. They’re pro-settlement and often quite reactionary, especially in his determination to complicate, perhaps derail, the peace process under one or another nationalist slogan, e.g., concerning the release of Palestinian terrorists from Israeli jails.
Nor does this piece suggest that the ultra-Orthodox aren’t a terrible nuisance. They’re a heavy economic burden because of their lack of secular education and a demographic challenge because of their high birth rate. But they’re not hawks when it comes to foreign or social policy and can always be bought off to vote with the government. Their ayatollahs seek to impose Jewish law, not to dictate broad policies.
There’re many reasons to be worried about the future of Israel: not that it’ll turn ultra-Orthodox but ultra-nationalist. However, despite these and other fears, there’s so much in today’s Israel that’s positive, promising and exciting that even concerns for the almost-aborted peace process cannot and must not dampen our spirits.