Fighting Back Against Fundamentalism

The Polymath

Fighting Mad: Ultra-Orthodox Jews are pushing back against efforts to fight gender segregation and harassment. Secular Jews must not allow fundamentalists to hijack Judaism.
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Fighting Mad: Ultra-Orthodox Jews are pushing back against efforts to fight gender segregation and harassment. Secular Jews must not allow fundamentalists to hijack Judaism.

By Jay Michaelson

Published January 06, 2012, issue of January 13, 2012.
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How many wake-up calls do we need?

The spate of communal misogyny in Israel and the United States, carried out under the pretext of a religious mandate, yet unjustified even by ultra-Orthodox interpretations of Halacha; Haredi America’s wall of silence about sexual abuse; and a variety of other scandals in the Haredi world, such as the targeting of a dissident Hasid in New Square, N.Y., and allegations of financial improprieties. All of these have made headlines.

Yet those of us who care about Jewish communities in the U.S. and Israel have yet to get serious about the threat of Jewish fundamentalism to the vibrancy of our people. Yes, in recent weeks, girls being spit on and women pushed to the back of public buses have attracted public outrage, media exposure and statements of condemnation from across the Israeli political spectrum.

But the deeper problem remains: Not this or that policy, or this or that outrageous display of hypocrisy or sexism, but Jewish fundamentalism in general.

According to a recent study by CBS, the Haredi population of Israel is set to grow 580% in the next half-century. National Religious (Orthodox), secular and other Israeli Jews are expected to become a minority in Israel, squeezed between growing ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations. Even in America, Haredi Jews represent the fastest-growing sector of the Jewish population, threatening not only secular Jewish culture but non-fundamentalist religious Judaism as well.

Ignoring this demographic threat would bring costs as severe as ignoring assimilation or anti-Semitism: the shrinking of the Jewish culture and people, and a powerful fundamentalist bloc that, as in much of the Islamic world, will eventually define Judaism, both internally and externally.

The majority of Jews have remained silent for a variety of reasons: There is a sense that we Jews should stick together and not attack one another. There’s a reluctance even to name Jewish fundamentalism as such, and recognize it for what it is. There’s the false nostalgia of, say, “Fiddler on the Roof,” which depicts Haredim as cuddly and quaint, rather than, as they often are, deliberately ignorant of modernity, misogynist, complicit in violence and actively desirous — as evidenced by the recent Channel 10 report in Israel — of taking over Israeli civic institutions.

And worst of all, I think, is the sneaking suspicion many Jews have that Haredim are the “real Jews.” (Think of how Haredim are often depicted that way in popular culture.) They’re the most religious, the most committed, the most traditional. All the rest of us, even the Orthodox, have compromised with modernity, with our desires. They’re the stalwart ones, and while we might not want to live that way ourselves, we think they are guaranteeing the Jewish future.

They are not. They are undermining it. Sure, by having very large families, they are producing more Jews. But the Jewish future they would create looks more like Islamist Iran than any Jewish culture that I, and most progressives, would want to be part of. If this is the Jewish future, count me out.

Jewish fundamentalism, like other religious fundamentalisms, is a recent phenomenon. All fundamentalisms arose in response to modernity, and all grasp onto an invented history and invented authenticity to justify ever more reactionary policies. Even newer is the power that these fundamentalists have. This is not powerless Tevye in an isolated shtetl: These are powerful, focused and highly sophisticated forces.


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