Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Left, Right, Wrong

Comedian Jackie Mason once said he has no problem laughing at Jews to either a Jewish or a gentile audience . It is the mixed ones that are problematic because the Gentiles are uncomfortable sitting next to Jews while laughing at them. I feel a similar constraint in my colleagues at work when the Arab Israeli conflict comes up. An uncomfortable silence usually ensues when I drop in on such a discussion. I therefore tend to keep my opinions largely to myself on this issue, at work at least.

The recent demise of the Satmar Rebbe and a newspaper article about it in which the Satmar viewpoint was described as anti-Zionist caught the eye of a co-worker of mine who had the bright idea of producing the clipping during a lunch break. She unfolded it with a shy flourish and proceeded to explain that she wished to publicly apologise for supposing that all Jews were Zionists.

Caught unawares and unprepared I had no ready answer and explained simply that Satmar’s is just one of the myriad positions that Jews hold and reminded everyone of the age old saying ‘Two Jews, three opinions’. Everyone dutifully smiled and returned to their spam and sports pages. The episode got me thinking however. On the one hand I am an avid proponent of clearly making the distinction between being Israeli and being Jewish. In that respect I believe Satmar has got it right. On the other hand I am squeamish about getting into bed with a group that is happy to curry favour at the expense of their own brethren.

The Satmar viewpoint, developed by the first Rebbe and uncle to the one that just recently passed away, was uncompromisingly anti-Zionist. He was a pragmatist however and it has been suggested by many that his message was designed to temper the euphoria within the decimated religious community that the birth of the State and the emergence of a Nation of Jews created at the time. To him and his Eastern European colleagues it was obvious that Zionism and religious Judaism did not mix, this despite the fact that a few of them were personally saved from the Nazis by the Zionist organisations active at the time. His message that the Zionist State was no God given birthright was accepted by the mainstream in ultra-O-Jism until fairly recently. It is the media and their insistence that religious settlers and Chassidim are the same, that taught younger Chassidim to identify with the State. Made it for us more than a Jew- (but not always charedi) friendly place that has falafel balls on sale everywhere and Hebrew writing - for us previously reserved for school, synagogue or dreary kosher shops - on provocative billboards and vending machines too.

Still today the concept of the powerful vanquishing Jewish soldier is an image that many Charedim identify with uneasily. The twisted blend of religious fanaticism and right-wing extremism the media paints us with is in fact no more accurate than that which the rabidly anti-Israeli and pro-palestinian Neturei Karta, often misrepresented as Satmar, tries to portray. Indeed it is only the repulsiveness of NK’s uncle-tomesque parades of blind pro-Arabism that stops me agreeing with their posters proclaiming ‘Zionism is not Judaism’. It is the images like those on worldwide TV of their heroes in shining bekishes and shabby shtreimels wearing Kaffiyes like bastardised prayer-shawls while praying for the good health of the dying Yassir Arafat that prove to me they are no more honest to true Judaism than those that proclaim the greatness of Israel from behind the barbed wire of their fortified camps where once stood a proud Palestinian’s olive grove and livelihood.

The religious Zionist settler movement espoused the belief that the land was returned to the children of Israel by God. That was the justification in their eyes for the moral wrongs that were committed, for the hardships that the locals had to endure to make way for their rebuilding of the Land of Israel. Whenever a twinge of conscience did break through there was always the steadfast security argument to paper over the gaps. And to be fair the Palestinians have done their best throughout the last decades since the creation of the State to justify these arguments. Indeed I am probably not the only one who for whom it is more the need for us to stop occupying them that needles my conscience than their need for independence.

True Religious Zionism died the day the Israel disengaged from Gaza. On that day it became clear that what the Satmar and the thinking Haredim (ultra-orthodox) had been saying from the sound ‘go’ was true. The current State of Israel is not the historic redemption we have spent two thousand years praying for. “If Jesus was the Messiah we should be living in a messianic time.” we used to glibly point out to the Christians. It is by the same token that I refuse to accept that widespread poverty, strife and discrimination coupled with a dehumanizing occupation and perpetual bloodshed are our national destiny. God, when He allowed Sharon to return Gaza to the Palestinians, was officially informing His people that the State of Israel is not The Promised Land although it certainly is on it. It therefore becomes a political entity conceived by the League of Nations and one that needs the legitimacy of the family of nations to hope to survive. This brings the real Charedi viewpoint more in line with the extreme-left in Israel and firmly back towards Satmar.

Where I have to disagree with Satmar is with their insistence on delegitimising the State altogether by insisting it is a sin to vote or take active interest in the politics of the land. Jews living in a sovereign country should be entitled to participate in the running of it, just as Satmar so blatantly and shoddily tries to in New York. The sordid money-politics of the orthodox political parties in Israel and their blatant flirtation with the right-wing might be justifiable for them, as the legitimate struggle of a minority living in a country, to create a better life for themselves. The fact that it creates the illusion abroad that all religious Jews are right-wing fanatics is unfortunate but our fault not theirs.

Yet I am glad I did not say all this to my masticating colleagues. A friend of mine told his granddad that the goyim hate us because of what happens in Israel. The old man who had spent time in Bergen Belsen shook his head. “Forty years ago when I came to this country the yobs on the street used to shout out to me that I should go back to Palestine. Now they shout we should get out of Palestine. Nothing changes.”

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