Is Rise of Jewish Fundamentalism Endangering Israeli Democracy?

Authors See Conflict Between Haredim and Secular World

Clear and Present Danger: Yuval Elizur and Lawrence Malkin predict dire consequences as a result of the struggle for power between the sectarian and the secular.
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Clear and Present Danger: Yuval Elizur and Lawrence Malkin predict dire consequences as a result of the struggle for power between the sectarian and the secular.

By Jerome Chanes

Published April 22, 2013, issue of April 26, 2013.
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● The War Within: Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Threat to Democracy and the Nation
Yuval Elizur and Lawrence Malkin
Overlook Press, 224 pages, $26.95

As my 17-year-old son said, “This book could double as Yair Lapid’s Tanach.” And he’s not wrong. One of the many merits of Yuval Elizur’s and Lawrence Malkin’s “The War Within: Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Threat to Democracy and the Nation” is the timing of its publication, coming, as it does, in an era of Orthodox Haredi vigor and triumphalism, and at the cusp of a new government that could curb some of the sectarian Orthodox power in Israel.

Lawrence Malkin
Courtesy of Overlook Press
Lawrence Malkin

Today, the eponymous “threat” to Israeli society comes, “The War Within” argues, from the world of sectarian Israeli “Haredim” — the “ultra-Orthodox,” as the Western press crudely characterizes them; the term “sectarian” is much preferred — religious Jews who shun the interaction of traditional Judaism and the contemporary secular world.

Veteran journalists Elizur and Malkin offer a basic, and bleak, thesis: Absent a separation of religion and state in Israel, the very future of Israel itself, to say nothing of America-Israel relations, will be jeopardized by sectarian/Haredi excesses in crucial areas of domestic public policy in Israel and, by extension, hegemony over the secular state.

“The War Within,” written before the 2013 Israeli elections, presciently makes the case for the reformist stance of Lapid’s Yesh Atid and for Naftali Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi parties, new to the governing coalition in Israel.

That “The War Within” appears in 2013 is not surprising. Of the numerous fault-lines in Israeli society, the fissures between sectarian/Haredi and secular — and especially between sectarian and moderate Orthodox — are uncommonly damaging to the fiber of the society. What is a tad puzzling is that “The War Within” is the first book since David Landau’s 1991 “Piety and Power” to examine the resurgence of “Haredism” and its sociopolitical impact in Israel and worldwide.

Elizur and Malkin both expand on and narrow the discussion of the sectarian surge. “The War Within,” on one level, is a primer on the genesis and history of this ongoing, indeed escalating conflict. On a more basic level, the book is a bare-knuckles brawl in which Elizur and Malkin go 15 rounds with the sectarian/Haredi world in Israel.

Elizur and Malkin ask a basic question: How did it happen that the sectarians in Israel were able to hijack central religious and political processes and thereby secure the ability to sway the destiny of much of the Israeli body politic? Who, in fact, are the “Ultras,” who absolutely possess the authors and whose outsized presence in Israeli society is, as the authors assert, morbific, even toxic?


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