Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest plans to enlist them in the Israeli army / Getty Images
When it comes to off-the-cuff remarks, we all know that stuff happens. Jokes are made that blur the boundaries of decency, people get offended, and apologies are (sometimes) made. And when it comes to broadcast media dependent on audience share, the situation is even starker: shock talk can be seen as a ratings booster. But looking at the broader context around last week’s Israeli Army Radio gaffe, there’s something’s rotten in the state of Israeli discourse.
Not far off from Yom Haatzmaut, an Israeli comedian riffed on controlling Israeli population through cannibalism. There was a catch, though, he said. The population he’d like to cull first is the ultra-Orthodox, but he didn’t think Haredim would taste good (“too bland”). Knee-slap banter about flavor and matzo balls ensued, and the station eventually issued an apology.
As a rip-off of Jonathan Swift, the joke was already suspect in quality. But the reason that Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” is funny whereas the Army Radio bit was decidedly not, is, of course, irony. Swift was mocking shameful societal attitudes — in that case, as reflected in policies towards the poor. The Army Radio segment, on the other hand, sadly serves to prop up the very attitudes that Israelis should be addressing head on.
Hatred of the Haredim in Israel is pervasively and casually disseminated. Consider Ari Shavit’s widely lauded book My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, where he mentions the various populations comprising Jerusalem’s schoolchildren. There, he decries the fact that not enough are nice, secular Jewish kids. Too many Jerusalem pupils, in his opinion, are either ultra-Orthodox or Arab.
Are there problems within the Haredi population? Certainly. Refusal to “share the burden” of military service, unsatisfactory levels of science, math and English in their school systems, and problematic attitudes and actions towards women are all too apparent within those communities.
But no one gains from inter-sectarian pot shots. What’s more, this kind of discourse is inherently bound up with every other hateful discursive act now pocking the cheeks of Israel: every “price tag” attack, every spray of hateful graffiti, and every racial slur. Every legislated or casual act of discrimination or indifference to Israel’s Palestinian minority helps entrench it, as does each moment of restricting Palestinian freedom in the occupied territories.
Of course, the tricky part comes when thinking about how hateful actions are themselves to be responded to. Consider a slightly different case: Amos Oz’s harsh comparison of “price tag” attackers to “neo-Nazis” this week. Is this simply hateful rhetoric on the part of Oz? Or is it a morally reasonable (whether or not accurate) comparison of one political movement to another? I would suggest that while the comparison may land with a thud, given Godwin’s Law and the obvious extra sensitivity Israelis have to Nazi analogies, it is ultimately legitimate discourse, especially when compared to hate directed at Haredim for being Haredim.
Why? Because as long as our societies deem religions to be legitimate forms of culture and community, their adherents deserve discursive protection. Politicized ideologies, on the other hand, are legitimate targets of critique, however harsh or however inaccurate the comparison. And when any beliefs — whether religious or political — translate into collective action, those actions should always be fair game.
All this is illuminated by the twists and turns of Israeli history. What may have initially seemed like a relatively homogeneous, or at least melting-pot, model of a Jewish state with a tolerated (and often invisible) “Arab” minority has, over the decades, given rise to more numerous and distinct communities. And these communities are articulating their political interests more vocally than ever before. To strengthen Israeli democracy, a new language of multiculturalism will need to be learned.
It’s never easy to negotiate overarching state interests against the background of a dominant majority culture interwoven with different kinds of threads. But it will be necessary if Israel’s democratic culture is to be strengthened and saved.