Authors: Gershom Gorenberg
To make sense of this, I must first dispense with the myth that present-day Orthodox Judaism is old-time religion as once practiced by all Jews, and that today’s ultra-Orthodox Jews in particular, the black-hatted men and wig-wearing women whom tourists see in parts of Jerusalem and New York, have preserved intact the pristine Jewish lifestyle of Eastern Europe. As the preeminent Jewish historian Jacob Katz wrote, “The claim of the Orthodox to be no more than the guardians of the pure Judaism of the past is a fiction.”
Like Zionism, Reform Judaism, and secular Yiddish culture, Orthodoxy is a product of the earthquake of modernity that began shaking Western Europe’s Jews in the eighteenth century and Eastern Europe’s in the nineteenth. The shockwaves included access to modern education, the half-fulfilled promise of acceptance into Christian society, drastic economic shifts, migration from villages to cities and from Eastern Europe westward, a population explosion, and modern anti-Semitism. Beforehand, Jewish religious tradition was simply how Jews lived; children learned more about it from parents than from books; Jews’ observance of religious laws ranged from strict to merely socially acceptable. Modernity turned religion from an assumption into a question. Particularly in Protestant countries, some Jews began reforming religious practices to fit the aesthetics of the surrounding culture. New ideologies, including secular Zionism, saw the Jews as a nationality—and Judaism as obsolete. Secular Zionism claimed the Bible as a national epic that portrayed the golden age when Jews were fighters and farmers in their own land, an era that Zionism would restore.
Orthodoxy was the movement of people who held on to traditional belief and practice—in a way “both more self-conscious and less self-confident” than in the past, as Katz writes. To keep the dietary laws, avoid work on the Sabbath, pray thrice daily in Hebrew, was now a statement, an ideology.
One form of Orthodoxy advocated keeping religious law while integrating into non-Jewish society and putting positive value on secular education. The alternative that would largely shape ultra-Orthodoxy was postulated by Central European rabbi Moshe Sofer: “Anything new is forbidden by the Torah,” the Five Books of Moses, the original revelation on which Jewish tradition is based. Ironically, that rigid rejection of change to fit new circumstances was new in Judaism. The ultra-Orthodox foreswore secular studies, made an ideal of observing Jewish law in the strictest possible way, and made a point of dressing distinctly as a visible sign of separation from other Jews as well as non-Jews. Reacting against the intellectual openness of the Enlightenment, against modernity’s vertiginous option of questioning faith, ultra-Orthodoxy posited “belief in the sages” as the new foundation of Jewish life: truly religious Jews must accept the authority of the leading rabbis of their time to make decisions for them in all areas of life—not just in religious practice, but in politics and personal affairs as well. That, too, was a radical innovation masquerading as conservatism.
An Orthodox minority endorsed Zionism, and founded the Mizrahi movement. Most Orthodox rabbis, and especially ultra-Orthodox ones, denounced Zionism as a secular rebellion against God. They formed Agudat Yisrael in opposition to Mizrahi. In the nineteenth century, a few ultra-Orthodox Jews came to Jerusalem to devote themselves to a life of religious study far from the heresies of Europe. During the British Mandate, more came to escape rising anti-Semitism, especially in Poland and Germany. (Beginning in the 1930s, the Hebrew term
, “God-fearing,” came to refer specifically to the ultra-Orthodox.) But Palestine, like America, was a place where young people left the fold under the influence of secular surroundings. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis discouraged emigration from Eastern Europe—with catastrophic consequences during the Holocaust. When Israel became independent,
comprised 5 to 7 percent of the Jewish population, according to sociologist Menachem Friedman, who pioneered the study of
society. The European center of their culture was gone. In Palestine, their schools were few and starved for funds; teachers could go for months without getting paid. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews felt “that they represented a Jewish identity that would vanish in the foreseeable future,” Friedman writes. While a few zealots wanted no dealings with the secular state, Agudat Yisrael saw little alternative but to enter Israeli politics, and for a brief time even formed the United Religious Front in alliance with the rival religious Zionists and joined Ben-Gurion’s coalition.
The compromises that the Orthodox parties wrung from Mapai were intended partly to protect their constituents from secular coercion, and partly to impose their own view that a “Jewish state” meant one governed by religion. The army’s kitchens were kept kosher so that Orthodox Jews could serve. During the war of independence, about 400 men studying at ultra-Orthodox yeshivot—Talmudic academies—in Jerusalem were exempted from the universal draft, though other
men were conscripted. Jerusalem was outside the partition lines, and the government apparently wanted to avoid the spectacle of a conflict with extreme anti-Zionist groups in a place where its rule was tenuous. Yet the precedent stuck, and after the war the army continued to give several hundred deferments to yeshivah students. The concession seemed negligible.
More glaringly, the state left marriage and divorce in the hands of the religious authorities of each religion, as had been the case since the Ottoman Empire ruled Palestine. For Jews, that meant it was only possible to marry through the state-run chief rabbinate and to get a divorce through rabbinic courts, also an arm of the government. The only way for a Jew to marry a non-Jew was to go abroad. The arrangement created a rabbinic bureaucracy, with jobs parceled out as patronage by Orthodox parties. This impinged on the freedom of religious Jews as well as secular ones: for important parts of their religious life, they were obligated to turn to clergy that the state chose for them.
In 1953, the fight between the parties over educating immigrant children finally ended with a law creating a state school system. The time of the party-run school was over, it seemed. Yet the state system had two parts—one secular, and one “state religious.” De facto, the latter was controlled by functionaries of the religious Zionist parties, which merged soon after to create the National Religious Party. The ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael party was allowed to keep the school system it had recently established, with state funding but with minimal state supervision. Those schools taught children religious law and sacred texts, along with basic math, perhaps a bit of English. Civics was not part of the curriculum. Their job was to protect children from modern society, not to prepare them for it.
One explanation for why Ben-Gurion accepted these compromises is that they were the cost of coalition making. Another is that he did not want to deepen the secular-religious split. Dissident Orthodox philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz quoted Ben-Gurion as telling him explicitly, “I will never agree to the separation of state and religion. I want the state to hold religion in the palm of its hand.”
But the expectations of the era must be remembered—as captured in novelist Amos Oz’s memoir,
A Tale of Love and Darkness
. In the mid-1940s, when it was time for Oz to start first grade, his father was in a bind. Two schools were within walking distance in their Jerusalem neighborhood—one belonging to the labor system, the other religious Zionist. Oz’s father was a right-wing secularist. He chose the Orthodox school because the “red tide was on the upsurge in our land” and the socialist school might turn the boy into a Bolshevik. The religious school posed no parallel risk because “religious Jews . . . with their synagogues would disappear off the face of the earth in a few years.”
A few years later, after independence, secular politicians could make the same assumption, especially about ultra-Orthodoxy. The profound consequences of those early arrangements for both state and religion were entirely unexpected. No one imagined, for instance, that by funding
schools, the state would transform ultra-Orthodox society and risk ending up in the palm of
The politics of religion also played a role in the Knesset’s 1950 vote not to frame a written constitution for Israel. Ben-Gurion’s opposition was more significant. In any case, this is one early decision that deserves less blame for hobbling democracy than is usually assigned to it.
Strikingly, the strongest advocates of a constitution in the Knesset debate came from Mapam and the Communists on the left, and from Menachem Begin’s Herut on the right. “There is one thing that you wish to prevent,” said Begin, railing at the ruling Mapai party, “a law of freedom, of justice, that takes precedence over other laws, and that you cannot rescind one fine morning with a mechanical majority.” A Mapam legislator, Yisrael Bar-Yehudah, made the classic argument that a constitution was needed to protect “the rights of the individual in relation to the government—what is the minimum that the legislative, executive and judicial powers cannot harm.”
The Religious Front’s stated objection to a constitution was that the Torah had been the constitution of Jews throughout history, and a Jewish state needed no other. One function of a constitution was educational, said Agudat Yisrael’s Meir David Levenstein; its preamble would be used to teach children the nation’s “spiritual profile”—and for precisely that reason no religious school could teach a secular constitution. A
would ensue, he said. The Orthodox politicians’ more practical fear may have been that a constitution would separate synagogue and state, or even impose restrictions on the practice of religion. The left’s militant secularism and the example of the East Bloc—including the infamous Yevsektsia, the Jewish Sections of the Communist Party in Russia, responsible for suppressing Judaism—frightened them.
The real danger to democracy, argued Mapai’s Yosef Lam, came from the very parties that demanded a constitution. Neither Herut nor Mapam understood democracy, he said. “In a democratic regime you don’t change the direction of the majority with threats that its leaders will be brought to trial,” he said, referring to Herut’s rhetoric. As for Mapam, it believed in “people’s democracy,” in protecting the rights of the minority only until the next “revolutionary moment,” when it could take power. With those parties in parliament, no consensus wide enough to frame a constitution could be reached, he said. Ben-Gurion, concluding the debate, took a similar line: normal laws could protect civil rights, but the majority should not be straitjacketed. Unlike the United States, the pioneer of modern constitutionalism, Israel did not need to resolve the relations between a federal government and individual states. Most important, it could not afford to restrict the power of a democratic government to defend itself against antidemocratic minorities. Turning to Mapam leader Meir Ya’ari, he said, “It cannot be that Knesset Member Ya’ari does not know that there are people in the Knesset and in the country who want to destroy the democratic regime in Israel and who aspire to a totalitarian regime.”
It may be true that in the name of protecting democracy, Ben-Gurion was really resisting restrictions on his own powers. It may also be true that an ideal constitution could have guaranteed basic freedoms, the equality of non-Jewish citizens, the power of the courts to overturn repressive laws. Then again, Mapai’s Lam was right when, speaking at the Knesset lectern, he said that the constitutions adopted after World War I had not saved democracy in Poland, Latvia, Italy, or Germany.
Besides that, a real—rather than ideal—constitution can set in stone the unjust compromises that are necessary at the time of its passage. The U.S. Constitution originally obligated free states to return fugitive slaves to slave states. To this day, it grants disproportionate power in the Senate to the citizens of states with tiny populations, defying the principle of majority rule.
An Israeli constitution ratified in 1950 could well have stood in the way of progress toward a more liberal democracy. In the Knesset debate, Mapam wanted the constitution to require turning shopkeepers into workers. Menachem Begin attacked Ben-Gurion’s willingness to cede Jewish claims to Bethlehem, Hebron, and the rest of the West Bank, implying that he would want a constitution to declare Israel’s everlasting right to that territory. To satisfy the Orthodox parties, a constitution would have married Judaism and the state, not divorced them. In 1950, it would almost certainly have established the inequality of Jewish and Arab citizens.
Here we come to the most basic question about the condition of Israeli democracy, the question that existed not only from its birth but from its gestation: what the status of Arabs would be in a Jewish state. The answer is riddled with contradictions.
On the surface, the partition plan approved by the United Nations in November 1947 offered a straightforward way to deal with two national groups claiming the same territory: each would get part of the land. The problem with that solution was the same one faced in drawing borders between nation-states in Europe after both world wars, or in partitioning the Punjab between India and Pakistan in 1947. No clean geographic line separated the groups that were to be divided. They lived among each other. The UN plan for Palestine gave 55 percent of its territory to the Jewish state and 40 percent to the Arab state, with Jerusalem as an international enclave. In the area designated for the Jewish state lived 500,000 Jews and 450,000 Arabs. Another 100,000 Jews lived in Jerusalem, and a small number in scattered communities in the land assigned to the Arab state.
Given those numbers, and given what happened to the Palestinian Arabs in 1948, it is easy to conclude that the founders of the Jewish state adopted a policy of expulsion and proceeded to carry it out. Zionist leaders, asserts Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi, “understood the well-established demographic calculus of Palestine” and therefore planned to “clear as much of the country as they could of its Palestinian population.” The conclusion, however, is too neat. It suffers from the fallacy of intent—assuming that if things turned out a certain way, someone planned it that way. More subtly, it fails to distinguish between political mood and explicit policy.