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Secular Versus Ultra- Orthodox: The Struggle For Jewish Identity In Israel (Hardcover)

jan peczkis|Friday, May 1, 2015

There are many reviews of this item already posted. These other reviews inform the reader on the essential content of this work, and I will not repeat them. I take a totally different approach. Although this is not a book on Polish-Jewish relations, I write this review from that vantage point.


Nowadays, anti-Semitism is usually blamed on traditional Christian teachings and the attitudes of devout Christians (as in Poland), trends in political reaction, and hostility to universalist or humanist ideals. The truth is rather different. Efron comments, (quote) The image of the Haredim in Israel's popular culture bears a striking resemblance to European anti-Semitic stereotypes of the Jews, which have maintained currency over the past two centuries. It is well known that many Enlightenment intellectuals--and, no less, several generations of European literati that followed--disliked Jews, feared them, and distrusted them. Scholars disagree about where to squeeze this "Enlightened" anti-Semitism into a typology of Jew hating. Because post-Enlightenment intellectuals were by and large enchanted by reason and ostensibly guided by it, their brand of anti-Semitism rarely rested explicitly on a foundation of rank fabrication or fantasy (Jews killing for blood...). And because their own ties to the Church were often attenuated, their dislike of Jews rarely had a dogmatic foundation (Jews killed Christ). The new "Enlightened" Jew hatred was, in keeping with its Enlightenment image, more a "science" of anti-Semitism...Voltaire, perhaps the archetype of the "Enlightened" anti-Semite...Post-Enlightenment literature is filled with statements that echo Voltaire... (unquote). (pp. 255-256).

Throughout this work, the reader will see a striking resemblance between the attitudes of Jews against other Jews, and anti-Semitic attitudes by gentiles. Is this solely caused by internalized anti-Semitism among Jews, or is there something in Jewish conduct that sometimes provokes hostility among other Jews as well as among gentiles?


It is interesting to note that the MASKILIM (enlightened Jews), in late 18th-century Austrian-ruled Poland, shared the Poles' abhorrence towards the vocational choices of most Jews. Efron quips, (quote) Other MASKILIM petitioned civil authorities to prohibit Jewish innkeeping, leasing of land, moneylending, and other debauched occupations, hoping instead to train Jews for more productive work in agriculture or crafts. Another prominent MASKIL, Zalkand Hourwitz, suggested that the use of Yiddish and Hebrew be banned in business contracts, even between Jews, so that all transactions be transparent to all, Jew and gentile alike. Yiddish, in particular, took a beating, and was denounced regularly in the pages of HASKALAH journals... (unquote). (p. 20).

Elsewhere, Efron repeats the standard explanation (or exculpation) about Jews forced into these vocations. This does not make sense. If Jews were systematically barred, by law, from taking jobs in productive occupations, what sense would there have been for the MASKILIM to try to train Jews for these productive occupations? If unproductive occupations were the only ones legally available to Jews, what would be the point in the MASKILIM trying to get Jews banned from these occupations?


The usual model for understanding Polish-Jewish relations, especially in recent centuries, consists of the dialectic of the intolerant Polish majority and the persecuted Jewish minority. However, an alternative model could entertain the possibility of the minority being aggressively nonconformist--often trying to impress, or even impose, its will on the majority. The latter model is illustrated by the situation faced by Jews in Palestine in the 19th century, soon after the arrival of Russia's Jews following the pogroms. Efron comments, (quote) Relations between these new settlements and existing Jewish settlements were tense from the start. Though many of the new settlers were religiously observant--some more, some less--they didn't admire the Jews they found in Palestine. The new settlers were not live-and-let-live types. They had come to the Holy Land with reform on their mind and critique on their tongue, and they found much to disparage in the traditionalist communities. (unquote). (p. 27).


In 1936, Polish cardinal August Hlond made a since-condemned statement about Jews as freethinkers, vanguards of Bolshevism, and a threat to morals. This occurred after much of Poland's Jewish population had undergone self-atheization to varying degrees. Interestingly, the way that today's Haredim experience Israel's secular Zionist-oriented Judaism sounds very much like 1930's Poland's devout Catholics had experienced the emerging secularization of Poland's Jews. Efron's comments are instructive, (quote) Ultra-Orthodox distanced themselves from Zionist culture, which was, as Rabbi Eliezer Schach put it memorably, "poisoned by the secular press, full of heresy and alienation, which incites and demeans all that is holy to us." (unquote). (p. 51). (Quote) Most Haredim regret exposing their children to the mores of secular Jews. (unquote). (p. 138).


As for Bolshevism (Communism), Efron touches on it several times. Even with just casual mention, it become obvious that Communism had much deeper roots than membership in the Communist Party and its front organizations. For instance, the youth group Ha-Shomer ha-Tzair [Hashomer Hatzair] (Young Guard) is characterized by Efron as "Marxist and vigorous in its rejection of religion." (p. 43).

Elchanan Wasserman, the headmaster of the Talmudic academy in Baranowicze, Poland, who was murdered by the German Nazis in 1941, condemned modern Zionism as consisting of two idolatries: socialism and nationalism. [Note that socialism is often a euphemism for Communism. For example, it was the USSR, not the USCR.] Moreover, these very two heresies became fused together in National Socialism (Nazism), and then turned in such deadly fashion against the Jews. (pp. 45-46). Such anti-Zionist views were common among religious Jews, even in Israel. (p. 46).

Interestingly, even though religious Jews such as the Haredim are supposed to be anti-Communist, this does not prevent them from naming one of their units the Nahal Haredi. "Nahal" stands for Noar Halutzi Lohem, "Fighting Pioneering Youth", which Efron describes as one of the earnest institutions of post-revolutionary Russia and China and, in Efron's words, a "tool of socialism". The Nahlawim were the onetime nucleus of Israel's kibbutzim, and most of its members had attended meetings of the Communist youth movement. (p. 76).


The author juxtaposes the religious Jews' fear of service in the Israeli Army with the earlier Jewish fear of service in the tsarist Russian Army. Of course, the two are not remotely comparable. In the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), unlike the tsarist Russian Army, Jewishness is not only respected but celebrated, kosher is usually kept, Jewish soldiers have regular contact with their relatives and communities, the duration of service is relatively short, and Jews can take intervals of time off to return to Talmudic studies. (p. 73). In spite of all this, the fear remains, among religious Jews, that they will be lured away from religious convictions and practices. After all, the army has its own distinctive culture--one that is not exactly secularist but definitely this-worldly. (p. 74).

The foregoing has historical significance. The informed reader may recount that one of the Polish objections to the Minorities Treaty of 1918 was the fact that Jews could use the provisions of this Treaty to avoid serving in the Polish Army on a variety of religious grounds.

Pointedly, avoidance of military service, in Israel, is not limited to the Haredim. By some estimates, as many as a quarter to a third of secular Jews manage to avoid military service on various grounds, (p. 71, 84), though values as low as 1.5% are also quoted. (p. 85). Author Noah J. Efron adds that there is no way of knowing how many secular eighteen-year-olds go abroad, or fake physical and psychological disabilities, to avoid military service. (p. 71).

The author elaborates on the overall situation, (quote) This trend both reflects and contributes to the fact that service in the IDF is no longer viewed by many Israelis as the sole measure of good citizenship. This fact is especially evident in the reserves. Several years ago, the police uncovered a "factory" for medical exemptions from military service, based on the army's central hospital, Tel ha-Shomer (Sheba Medical Center). For a fee running from hundreds to thousands of dollars (depending, among other things, on the length and permanence of the exemption), military doctors signed forms releasing reservists from service. The list included some of Israel's wealthiest and most successful men... (unquote). (p. 85).

Let us examine the implications of all this. The attempt of many of pre-WWII Poland's Jews to avoid service in the Polish Army is usually framed in terms of Jewish unwillingness to serve in the army of a state that had anti-Semitism, and that had denied them the rights that they were entitled to (or to rights that they thought they were entitled to). However, this could not possibly apply to Jewish military service in the modern Jewish state of Israel. Instead, the avoidance of military service to the IDF (Israel Defense Forces), by many religious AND secular Jews, suggests that a deeper dynamic is involved in such conduct.
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