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Orthodoxy and Right-Wing Extremism Go Hand-in-Hand in Israel — Pew Study Explains Why

TEL AVIV — Why are Israeli Orthodox Jews more attracted to politically extremist views than their non-Orthodox fellow citizens?

The question is not a provocation. It’s one that grows out of a new analysis of data from the Pew Research Center’s study in March showing that nearly half of all Israeli Jews want Arabs expelled from their midst.

To obtain a finer-grained understanding from the Pew survey of just who in Israel holds the most hard line exclusionary positions, Steven M. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, created an “exclusivity index.” The index, which Cohen devised for the Forward, combines data from two questions on the Pew survey: whether Israeli Jews agree — and if so, how strongly — that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel,” and whether “Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel.”

The results did not reveal secular Israeli Jews, or Hilonim as they are termed in Hebrew, as being invariably moderate on these questions; some 70% in this group — which makes up 40% of the country’s population — support preferential treatment for Jews over other Israeli citizens. But among the one-third of Israel’s Jewish population who define themselves as either ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) or religious (Dati), Cohen found, “as many as 95% believe that ‘Jews deserve preferential treatment in Israel.’”

On the question of expelling Arabs from the state, the divide is even clearer. According to Cohen’s breakdowns, two-thirds of the Orthodox public supports the idea with just one third against it. “In contrast, we have almost the reverse among secular Israeli Jews,” he said: “37% in favor and 63% opposed.”

The question is, why? To observers of Israeli society today, Cohen’s breakdowns may seem painfully self-evident, even without parsing detailed data. The most shocking acts of terrorist violence by Jews — like Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians in the Cave of the Patriarchs or Yigal Amir’s 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — have been carried out by Orthodox extremists with exclusivist ideologies of the sort measured in the Pew polls.

But the temptation to conclude that this springs from something essential and inherent within Judaism is at least challenged by the fact that this nexus between Orthodoxy and extremist views didn’t always exist, even in Israel.

From the time of Israel’s founding in 1948, through at least the first two decades of its existence, Orthodox Israelis voted, like other citizens, for a variety of political parties, but clustered especially under the political umbrella of the party known as Mafdal, an Ashkenazi dominated faction known in English as the National Religious Party. Though that party later evolved into one that focused almost exclusively on settling Jews in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and furious resistance to any move toward territorial compromise in any peace process, its initial profile was quite different. Mafdal’s policies on questions relating to Arabs, including Arab Israelis, were quite moderate and pragmatic. Its real focus was on domestic political issues with religious implications, such as the maintenance of kashrut in public places and in the army, public services such as buses on the Sabbath, and private status issues such as marriage, divorce and conversion.

According to Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute, today’s Orthodox exclusivist outlook reflects the existence of a duality within Judaism, rather than a singular essence within it. Exclusivist ideology is part of Judaism, he said, but so is universalist ideology.

This duality goes straight to the question of what it means to be the “chosen people,” said Hartman, whose institute is devoted to the study of Judaism in public life in the modern Jewish state and diaspora.

Israel’s very founding included both Judaism’s universalist and exclusivist strains, he said; the notion that the Jewish people needed to live apart with an army of their own and the concept that Israel could be part of the world community as a “light unto the nations,” a phrase from the Book of Isaiah that has been repeated by modern Israeli and Jewish leaders.

But in recent years, the exclusionary version of “chosenness” has become the more dominant one in Israel, said Hartman. Since the failure of the Oslo Peace Accords and the second intifada, “Israelis don’t experience life in the Middle East as a welcoming one,” he said. “We are hunkering down again in a very isolationist mode of being and this isolationism is much worse than it was in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Then it was an isolationism with a hope of peaceful resolution.”

It’s a common perspective among Israelis despite the fact that two of the country’s immediate neighbors — including Egypt, Israel’s strongest military neighbor — have signed peace treaties with Israel and now maintain formal relations with it. Meanwhile, the Arab League, representing all 22 Arab countries of the region, has a longstanding proposal on the table for peace and “normal relations” with Israel in exchange for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the basis of Israel’s borders prior to the 1967 Six Day War, with mutually agreed upon adjustments. Israel objects to some of the plan’s key provisions, but top Israeli leaders, from former president Shimon Peres to current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have spoken positively of the outreach effort to negotiate with Israel.

In contrast, during the state’s earlier period, when many Orthodox voters were politically more moderate, the Arab world rejected the very notion of negotiating with Israel or accepting its existence.

Among religiously traditional Jews in Israel, the exclusivist ideology reflected in the Pew survey inevitably has a powerful nationalist tinge, said Yair Sheleg, an expert on religion and state issues at the Israel Democracy Institute. “In Israel, religion and religiosity are connected more to particularistic national values,” he said. And this is, in part, a product of history.

Israel’s near defeat in the 1973 Yom Kippur war fomented a crisis in Israel society, deeply dividing the country between left and right. It was around this time that Orthodox Zionists, under the tutelage of Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, veered right and created the Gush Emunim movement to establish settlements in the territories that Israel captured in the 1967 War — the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These early settlers believed that they were fulfilling a commandment to settle territories that were part of the biblical land of Israel, to hasten the coming of the messiah.

Gush Emunim soon came to dominate the National Religious Party.

Meanwhile, as Israel integrated into the Western world, the state’s secular elite became more closely associated with Western-oriented universal values. Orthodox Jews took up the mantle of Israeli nationalism as they realized that the old secular elites “can’t be relied on” to maintain a strong nationalist stance, said Sheleg.

“In a way, the religious values are only enacted to keep the national values,” he said, a kind of instrumental use of religiosity in Israel for particularistic nationalist ends.

In this nationalism undergirded by religion, the expulsion of Arabs is seen as means to strengthening the “Jewish pillar” of the state, said Sheleg. Fed up with the seemingly unending conflict between Jews and Arabs, many Israelis have endorsed this view as a solution to the impasse. Their thinking is: “We can’t solve it in a peaceful way, so maybe this should be the solution,” said Sheleg.

Israeli nationalists fear that if liberal values take hold in Israel, their national identity as a Jewish state could be broken. That’s why “religious Zionism,” as the Zionist Modern Orthodox refer to their ideology, has a powerful ideological sway in Israel, and not only for Orthodox Jews.

Sheleg cited a recent Israeli Democracy Institute study that found that 12% of Israeli Jews identify as “national religious.” Yet of that 12%, only 59% identify religiously with that group. The other 41% describe themselves as secular, traditional or ultra-Orthodox. They just happen to share the values of the so-called national religious.

That could explain why the Orthodox Zionist ideology is so powerful in Israel, even though Orthodox Jews are a minority.

“Significantly, while [Orthodox] Jews are less than a quarter of the Israeli population, including Arab citizens, they comprise almost two-fifths of those who voted for the parties in the current Israeli government,” said Cohen. “With the secular right-wing Jewish voters, we come to realize that a vast majority of the electorate who supported this government wants to expel or transfer Arabs from Israel, and almost all believe that Jews should get preferential treatment.”

A final note on the Pew findings is that while both Haredi and Dati Jews strongly support Jewish supremacy and Arab expulsion, they do so for divergent reasons.

Broadly speaking, Haredim are what Sheleg calls “negative hawkish.” Their ancient mistrust of all non-Jews informs their political views about Arabs. Dati Jews are “positive hawkish,” he said, propelled by their desire to control the biblical land of Israel, rather than their feelings towards Arabs.

Still, in recent years, a more extreme wing of Dati Judaism has developed with hard line positions towards Arabs and Palestinians. On Cohen’s exclusivity index, about 57% of Haredi Jews are strongly in favor of preferred treatment for Jews and the expulsion of Arabs, with almost 40% in favor of one or the other viewpoint, while about 68% of Dati Jews are strongly in favor of preferred treatment for Jews and the expulsion of Arabs, with almost 29% in favor of one or the other either viewpoint.

When the Pew survey was released in March, the expulsion question caused a firestorm of controversy in Israel and abroad. Sammy Smooha, one of Israel’s leading sociologists, told Haaretz that the question was phrased in a “vague” way that didn’t specify exactly which Arabs — the state’s Israeli Arab citizens, or West Bank or East Jerusalem Palestinians — should be expelled, or what, exactly, expulsion means or entails.

But Tamar Hermann, a professor at the Open University of Israel who consulted on the study, told the Forward that Israeli respondents understood the question to apply to Israel’s Arab citizens, and that the transfer question meant “putting them on trucks and sending them away” across the Jordan River, to Jordan.

Regardless, these extreme perspectives contrast sharply with the universalist stance of many American Jews. For that reason, the Pew findings not only raise serious questions about Israel’s relationship with its Arab minority, but also about the future of diaspora-Israel relations.

“Where do we go from here?” asked Hartman. “We have to realize that the battle for the survival of the state of Israel is not just with external enemies but with internal Jewish ideologies.”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at [email protected] or on Twitter @NaomiZeveloff


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