The One-State Solution
Real Jews is chock-full of stories that in America, for all its sins, would be simply inconceivable. There is Eduardo Campos, a 62-year-old Uruguayan immigrant married to an Israeli, whom ultra-Orthodox Jews tried to get fired from his job at the Vita food company merely because he is a Jehovah's Witness. There is the Israeli ad company that yanked a poster for the Disney animated film Tarzan because an ultra-Orthodox watchdog group found the picture of the muscle-bound hero in a loincloth to be obscene. There is the Israeli dairy company that discontinued a line of children's yogurts because ultra-Orthodox parents might have trouble explaining how the cartoon dinosaurs on the cover squared with a biblical tale of creation that supposedly occurred just 6,000 years ago. There is the health-and-fitness magazine that pulled an ad showing an attractive heterosexual couple arm in arm in workout clothes, because ultra-Orthodox pressure groups said it was improper to show physical contact between men and women.
In a Jewish state eternally bedeviled by the question of who or what is a Jew, power flows to "real Jews" whose identity seems least questionable. Rather than intellectuals for whom contradiction and ambiguity are the staff of life, it flows to Jewish warriors like Sharon and to religious zealots like the ultra-Orthodox, one-dimensional caricatures who have made a point of banishing all doubt. The very structure of a Jewish state gives such elements the inside track. Efron shows how secularists began by making seemingly minor concessions to the ultra-Orthodox, only to see them turn into a flood in the ensuing decades. In 1947, before Israel was even born, Ben-Gurion promised the Orthodox rabbinate that the Jewish Sabbath would be the new nation's official day of rest; that kitchens in schools, museums and other public buildings would be kosher; that traditional Jewish matrimonial laws would be enforced; and that the ultra-Orthodox would have autonomy in educating their children (with the state footing the bill). In 1948, in the middle of a desperate war for survival, he exempted full-time yeshiva students from military service. According to Uri Avnery, Ben-Gurion felt he could make an exception because Orthodox Judaism was a relic of the Middle Ages and clearly on its way out. Yet when Menachem Begin lifted the lid on military exemptions thirty years later, the numbers promptly swelled. Today, Efron reports, more than 30,000 Torah students, 10 percent of all available military recruits, are exempted per year. There are more full-time Torah students, he adds, than at any point in Jewish history and possibly more than in all of Jewish history combined. Whereas most ultra-Orthodox men in America hold down regular jobs, most do not in Israel, thanks to generous government stipends. They are an economic drag on a society they refuse to defend.
Still, the question remains: Why should secular Israelis care? Yogurt containers, movie posters, the occasional uppity woman fired from her job--it's very easy to overlook such things amid the daily grind. If an extensive government welfare apparatus is causing the ranks of yeshiva bukhers to explode, why curse the black-hatted brigades, as so many secular Israelis, according to Efron, do? Why not simply attack such perverse incentives through normal legislative means and move on? The answer is that it's not so easy. The democratic and religious sides of Israeli society are at daggerheads and neither can afford to back down. Marc Ellis's "civil war of conscience" is playing itself out on a daily basis over issues both great and small. From a secular point of view, Israeli democracy does not make religious intrusions less of an affront. It makes them more so, which is why passions are at full boil.
Under normal conditions, Israeli secularists would forge alliances not only with like-minded Palestinians but with others farther afield. But Zionism interferes not only by plunging society into a permanent state of war but by imposing a kind of conceptual prison. If not forbidden, contacts across religious lines grow very complicated in a "faith-driven ethno-state." "You don't understand," educated, secular Israelis say when European and American friends criticize the latest Israeli outrage. "You don't know what it's like to live in a society where a bomb could go off any minute. You don't know." But that is exactly the point. The purpose of Zionism, and of nationalism in general, is to impose a barrier between one group and another, to limit contact and impede understanding. By emphasizing one aspect of human experience, the ethno-religious in the case of Israel, at the expense of all others, it hobbles communication with those outside the fold. The personality is truncated, and political options are reduced. Instead of freely deciding what is to be done, people are forced to follow the logic imposed on them by the state. Hounded by rabbis, terrorized by suicide bombers, hemmed in by nationalism, Israelis see no alternative but to throw in their lot with a strongman like Sharon. The logic is irresistible but suicidal--unless someone can figure a way out of the ideological cage.