Is Israel giving in to Jewish fundamentalism?

The British Economist is conducting a public debate on the following: “Is Israel succumbing to Jewish fundamentalism?” You can vote (I’d expect Economist readers will largely vote yes), you can read the ongoing debate between Avraham Burg (the “left” — voting yes) and Daniel Gordis (the “right” — voting no). You can read the background material, including the special report on the state of Judaism and the Jews, written by my former boss, former colleague and current friend David Landau.

I am not engaged in the ongoing dialogue between Burg and Gordis. I’m only addressing this challenging question: “Is Israel succumbing to Jewish fundamentalism?” Here is my answer:

Judaism is not easy to define. It is a religion and a civilization, a culture and a tradition. Judaism really is what Jews are doing at a given time. And one of its components is a never-ending debate over what Jews should be doing instead of what they are actually doing.

Fundamentalism is also not easy to define. Too often, it is merely what people with whom one does not agree are doing. Example: Jewish Orthodox groups that support separation of the sexes on public transport are deemed “fundamentalists” by Orthodox groups that are also supportive of separation of the sexes but only in synagogues and schools. What is it that makes Orthodox A worthy of the “fundamentalist” tag and Orthodox B unworthy of it? One might say: Buses are for everybody; synagogues are voluntary. You don’t have to go into a synagogue if you don’t like separation of the sexes. But what about public schools separating children? True, you can send your children to a secular school where there’s no separation. So should we accept separation on buses if there are also mixed buses for the less strictly observant public?

These are all tricky questions without which one cannot answer the question this debate poses: “Is Israel succumbing to Jewish fundamentalism?”

Judaism is a living entity. Thus Jewish Israel is constantly changing, and is constantly influenced by new and contradictory trends. Thirty years ago it was fashionable to dismissively compare the one-dimensional second and third generation of know-nothing seculars with the founding fathers who were Jewish-educated seculars. But that was then. Nowadays, it is trendier to complain about too much Jewish content in schools’ curriculums, about Israelis’ “worrisome” percentage of belief in God and about the tendency of the more traditional Israelis to be less concerned with democratic values. 

Israeli Jews often defy expectations and rebel against predictions of impending doom. They are pragmatic to the core. A case in point: In Israel, the rabbinate is the only body entitled to officiate over the marriage of Jews. It is a lousy arrangement that originated under Ottoman rule and was never altered — one of the often-used prime examples of the Israel-is-a-fundamentalist-country camp. But how valid is the example? Just a few days ago, Israel’s dependable Bureau of Statistics released its report on Israelis’ habits of pairing and marriage. Apparently, 20 percent of Jewish Israeli couples marry abroad. That is, one out of every five couples is shunning the rabbinate and tying the knot elsewhere. True, the lousy arrangement is still unchanged, but Israeli Jews are slowly and gradually voting with the wedding ring to make it irrelevant. Between 1970 and 2012 the percentage of single men ages 25-29 rose from 28 percent to 65 percent, and the percentage of single women ages 25-29 jumped from 13 percent to 46 percent. In a fundamentalist society, such a percentage of unmarried adults would not be tolerated. So, the law can at times problematic and even coercive, but the state still accepts the many choices that people make.

And speaking of the people, there’s an urgent need to separate real people from those pretending to be speaking for the people — sometimes called “rabbis” (at other times they can be called intellectuals and hold just the opposite views). There are many rabbis in Israel who believe that the masses obey their orders. And there are many fly-by writers, or ideological hacks, or manipulative politicians, or hysterical citizens who are buying this empty propaganda and reselling it for their own purposes —to prove that Israel is becoming undemocratic, or is controlled by the settlers or by ultra-Orthodox parties, or is going down the drain for other internal reasons.

There is one problem with the selling of rabbinical outrageous rhetoric as proof that Israel is becoming more fundamentalist: Most Israelis — even the ultra-Orthodox — listen to the rabbis only when their message resonates with them. Rabbis say: Marry! They don’t. Rabbis say: Marry at the rabbinate! They don’t. Rabbis — just before the 2005 “disengagement” from Gaza — said: Disobey military orders! Only a negligible number of soldiers followed through. Rabbis — the more radical — say: Don’t use mobile phones! And they do use them. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis want their community to resist any change, but young Charedis are rebelling against the status quo. David Zolden, an ultra-Orthodox columnist whom I met recently, is reporting that “the change that Charedi society is going through is fundamental and deep.”

Israel is in an ongoing state of transition. Nothing stands still; nothing is fixed. And the flow of ideas and trends may be in several directions simultaneously. Shopping malls and restaurants and cinemas are open on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, but official conversion to Judaism is governed by stricter rules. Homosexuals are treated equally by the state, but radical rabbinical writings are becoming more prevalent. Mixed-seating synagogues are becoming more common, but soldiers defying orders because of newly observed religious sensitivities are becoming less rare. 

There is more: in the 1990s, a wave of former Soviet immigrants brought with it a laissez-faire approach to eating pork and a much higher tolerance for erecting a Christmas tree in a Jewish or half-Jewish home. At about the same time, an amazing rise of Sephardic ultra-Orthodox power became a fixed Israeli reality. Russian Jews seemed to make Israel more secular, Moroccan Jews seemed to make it more religious. 

These are not “fundamentalists,” these are groups in transition and in search of political and societal power. These are groups that make life in Israel more challenging and more interesting, and — at times — also more worrying. A lot more worrying. These are the groups that are shaping the real Israel, not the imaginary country preferred by those who are unable or unwilling to win and lose and grudgingly compromise in this constant fight for Israel’s soul. I fear those it-has-to-be-the-Israel-we-want fundamentalists more than I fear all others.

To read other articles in the debate, visit this post on Shmuel Rosner’s blog, Rosner’s Domain, at

Ex-JDL member urges faith without fanaticism

Brad Hirschfield was a member of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), the militant organization bent on fighting anti-Semitism. He spent time with JDL leader Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Israeli political party was banned for racism and who was assassinated in 1990. By the time Hirschfield was 18 and studying at yeshiva in Israel, he was entrenched with the Gush Emunim in Hebron — Israelis intent on establishing settlements in the midst of the Palestinian population. There, Hirschfield found the passion and Zionist commitment he’d craved during his childhood in Chicago, where he became Orthodox on his own, despite his Conservative Jewish family.

But after a few years, when some settlers killed Palestinian children in retaliation for violence, it all fell apart.

“I was stunned by their deaths,” he wrote more than two decades later in his memoir, “You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism” (Harmony Books, Random House, 2007). “When I sought the advice of one of their settlement leaders, he said, ‘Yes, this is a problem, but it is not a fundamental problem.’ That was when I knew something horrible had happened.

Staying in Hebron was destroying the very things that brought us there: the desire to take back power and walk the land our ancestors had. These are good things. But even the best things have limits. A lesson that I learned in Hebron was that the best things can become the most seductive — and deadly.”

The book is not called “Confessions of a Former Fanatic,” although that is what one publisher wanted — a memoir about leaving the extremist life. But that notion did not appeal to Hirschfield, who is now a rabbi and president of CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The book is not a confessional tell-all — his life as an extremist and the fallout from that is discussed in snippets, as asides. In fact, it was a different extreme event that made him decide to write the book: Sept. 11.

“After 9/11 I felt that I wanted to explain the religious impulse at its most extreme, to dig into the anatomy of fanaticism, really to probe the destructive tendencies that are part of all religions,” he wrote. “After years of simply avoiding any real examination of that part of my life, it was time to come clean and share my journey into and out of fierce faith precisely because, unlike most people who make that journey, it had left me still in love with what I left behind.”

Which is why Hirschfield’s not looking to fan the flames of extremism, hate and finger-pointing. He’s looking to bring the heat down a notch, with a prescription for how people on all sides of every argument can learn to hear each other out: “That is finally what I want this book to be: a guide to our common humanity and a source of strength and stamina and hope.”

“Look, there is a way to be passionate and proud of who you are and still embrace who others may be, even when it disagrees with who they are: that’s what this is about,” Hirschfield said in an interview from The Jewish Federation headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard, where he was about to give a lecture on the subject to different agency workers.

Federation members are also guilty of the them-and-us syndrome, he said, regarding people as insiders and outsiders.

“We spend money on studying ‘Are they coming in’ and not, ‘What do they need?'” Outsiders, he said, “don’t understand that without the institutions there is no community.”

But his book is not about addressing problems in institutional Jewish life — or Jewish life specifically. has listed the book on its Christian site, and Hirschfield gives talks to Christian groups as well. It’s not even just about religion.

“This is about liberals and Conservatives and Republicans and Democrats,” he said, adding that tt’s about relationships of all sorts, from marital relations to global politics.

“The real issue is not to get everyone to agree, but how do you treat people with whom you don’t agree?” he said. “That is the test of a great society. You’re not Jewish because Christians are stupid, you don’t go to your shul because God doesn’t hear everyone else’s prayers. It’s a terrible way to think. That is simply cover for not being happy where you are,” he said. “Whatever person or ideology one really opposes — I understand that they’re not all equal — but even if you give me the worst one, there’s no way to teach someone what you most believe if you don’t learn from what they most believe.”

But aren’t the very people who need to ascribe to this approach the very fanatics who are probably not going to?

No such thing, Hirschfield says; everyone can learn tolerance and respect. “People pick their lines,” he said. “Traditionalists wrap it up in God’s will but liberals wrap it up in decency.”

For example, while Reform and Conservative Jews accept gay marriage, “Try and be a person who is opposed to gay ordination — that’s not so easy,” he said. Or on the subject of God, “the assertion that God is nonexistent is about as absurd as someone who says, ‘Of course God exists, and I can say what he wants.'”

Hirschfield is trying to do for religion what mediation has done for conflict resolution: instead of pitting the sides against each other with lawyers in a court of law, draining the resources of both sides until someone “wins” (where both parties really may lose), mediators find common ground between two sides and get them to come to agreement.

Easier said than done. How would one go about doing this?

God’s Warriors

Is there an Emmy Award for Biggest Disappointment?

If so, I nominate CNN’s three-part series, “God’s Warriors,” hosted or read or fronted — but certainly not reported – by Christiane Amanpour. The investigation – their claim – into radicals of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim persuasion was CNN’s highest-rated documentary ever, which just goes to show: Scratch any responsible news organization deep enough and you’ll find a shallow, sensationalizing ratings whore.

The big reveal of the program was this: There are extremists out there ready to blow us up or hijack our elections.

There was no analysis: not what these extremists have in common, not how they’ve risen and fallen throughout history; not how moderates can effectively counteract them, not even the relative numbers of extremists within each religion. Just this: they exist – as if we had never heard of Jerry Falwell and weren’t watching TV on Sept. 11.

As for Amanpour’s segment on God’s Jewish “warriors,” it managed to be both insidious and laughable. She rightly mentioned Jewish extremists like Baruch Goldstein, the doctor who slaughtered Muslims in prayer in Hebron, but failed to note that while the Israeli government and the vast majority of Jews take pains to prosecute and condemn their extremists, Muslim nations fund or sanction theirs.

Amanpour then focused on Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza who claim God deeded that land to the Jewish people and oppose giving up their homes under any circumstances. She failed to point out that it is indeed the Israeli government these people are fighting – theirs is not some global campaign to force Jewish law upon the West.

Then Amanpour reported on AIPAC, the legal, mainstream pro-Israel lobbying group, in the same series and context as abortion doctor assassins and suicide bombers. The impression she gave was that every religion has its crazies; one is no different than the others.

Join the discussion on the CNN program in the Reader Forums

Did CNN really place the pro-Israel lobby in the same “investigation” as Islamic Jihad? Yes, and there was former President Jimmy Carter greeting Amanpour with a warm hug before confiding in her how dangerous the pro-Israel lobby is to American foreign policy.

Rational people can raise any number of objections to AIPAC’s policies or strategies – and I have over the years – but to single them out under the guise of balance is ludicrous.

For my own sense of sanity and balance, I switched off the TV and picked up last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

There was a cover story on religious fundamentalism by a writer and thinker smart enough and bold enough to understand where exactly the threat is, and where it isn’t.

“…. Millions of people, particularly in the Muslim orbit, believe that God has revealed a law governing the whole of human affairs,” Mark Lilla wrote in his essay, “The Great Separation,” in The New York Times Magazine of Aug. 18.

Lilla’s essay did everything Amanpour failed to do: it traced the historical development of the separation between Church and State, the divorce between theology and politics that we in the West took for granted, and how that “Great Separation” is not a given in the Muslim world.

Muslim law, wrote Lilla, “is meant to cover the whole of life, not some arbitrarily demarcated private sphere, and its legal system has few theological resources for establishing the independence of politics from detailed divine commands…. So long as a sizable population believes in the truth of a comprehensive political theology, its full reconciliation with modern liberal democracy cannot be expected.”

And that is why the world is roiling with religiously inspired violence – not, as it turns out, because of AIPAC.

It’s an open question whether we moderates can go the distance against the toxic religious and ethnic extremists out there.

For Muslims, Lilla points out, the issue is even more difficult. To offer a liberal version of Islam that meshes with Western ideas of “the great separation,” is to drain Islam of the very power that its new generation of adherents finds so hypnotic.

Lilla finds more promise in contemporary Islamic theologians like UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl and Swiss cleric Tariq Ramadan, “whose writings show Western Muslims that their political theology, properly interpreted, offers guidance for living with confidence in their faith and gaining acceptance in what he calls an alien ‘abode..'”

Lilla sums up with as powerful a charge as we religious moderates could ever take to heart. “We have made a choice that is at once simpler and harder,” he writes, ” we have chosen to limit our politics to protecting individuals from the worst harms they can inflict on one another, to securing fundamental liberties and providing for their basic welfare, while leaving their spiritual destinies in their own hands. We have wagered that it is wiser to beware the forces unleashed by the Bible’s messianic promise than to try exploiting them for the public good. We have chosen to keep our politics unilluminated by divine revelation. All we have is our own lucidity, which we must train on a world where faith still inflames the minds of men.”

Clearly, we moderates have our work cut out for us. And it’s a job not made any easier by the junk CNN just tried passing off as journalism.

Large-Scale Israel Solidarity Rally Planned for Sunday

In an effort to demonstrate solidarity with Israel, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and other Jewish groups are organizing a major community rally to take place in front of the Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters this Sunday, July 23 at 4 p.m.


The Federation

Board of Rabbis

Wiesenthal Center Hosts 900+ for Pro-Israel Rally

Simon Wiesenthal Center

United Jewish Communities (UJC)

Planners hope to attract 10,000 supporters.

“This is an opportunity for a broad cross-section of our community to come together for the people of Israel at this difficult time,” Federation President John Fishel said.

The Federation and the Board of Rabbis of Southern California are coordinating the rally, which will include the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, among other organizations. Fischel said The Federation will work with public agencies to ensure participants’ safety.

First Federation Rally

Sunday’s event is the first major pro-Israel rally organized by the Federation since 2001, Fischel said. That year, the nonprofit organization held a rally in support of Israel just after the outbreak of the Second Intifada.

To publicize the rally, many local rabbis are emailing congregants and will speak from the pulpit on Shabbat about the demonstration’s importance, said Board of Rabbis Executive Vice President Mark Diamond.

“The rally will send a clear message to American politicians, the U.N. and to world leaders that the people of Los Angeles stand with Israel,” Diamond said. “I think the world needs to be reminded over and over again what started this war, and that Israel is a sovereign state that has a right to defend its people.”

The attacks on Israel by Hezbollah and Hamas represent nothing less than the latest step in radical Islam’s quest for world domination, said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Standing up to the threat, whether on the frontlines of Israel or the streets of Los Angeles, is a needed challenge to the forces of darkness.

“Their first step may be the state of Israel, but it is not the last stop in their international Jihadist journey,” Hier said. “This is an historical moment for the state of Israel. And Israel is doing what the world should be doing: confronting terrorists.”

Wiesenthal Center Plans Screenings

As part of its attempts to educate the public about the roots of the current crisis in the Middle East, the Wiesenthal Center has plans to screen three films, beginning July 25. “The Long Way Home,” discusses the story of Israel’s creation; “In Search of Peace” details the conflict from 1948 to 1967; and “Ever Again,” Hier said, spotlights the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Semitism.

Meanwhile, the Federation has established an Israel in Crisis Fund. One hundred percent of all monies raised will go toward sending Israeli children living in northern communities under attack to summer camp in safer areas.

The Federation’s emergency campaign is part of an initiative among U.S. and Canadian federations to raise $1 million weekly for the summer camp program.

As a measure of its support, the L.A. Federation announced that it had donated $100,000 to the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization for 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent Jewish communities across North America.
New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington D.C. and Toronto have had or will also hold rallies to show solidarity with the Jewish state.

The upcoming Los Angeles event comes less than a week after a Chabad-sponsored pray-in and two weeks after an emotional rally at the Wiesenthal Center.
On July 17, Chabad held a pro-Israel prayer rally at Rabbi Schneerson Square in Los Angeles. The lunchtime gathering attracted about 1,000 people, including 500 children from local Chabad camps and youth groups.

“Whenever the Jewish people are threatened, our special weapon is the prayers of our beautiful children who now cry to the Almighty for the safety of our brothers and sisters in the Holy Land,” said Rabbi Boruch S. Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad.

Four days earlier, about 500 supporters of Israel attended the last-minute gathering. The two-hour ceremony included speeches from Wiesenthal Rabbis Hier and Abraham Cooper, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yarsolavsky, L.A. Consul General to Israel Ehud Danoch, Judea Pearl (father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl) and The Federation’s Fishel.
“This operation will not end until we make an end to Hezbollah,” Danoch said. “Israel is strong. The government is strong. The Jewish people are strong, and we will last an eternity.”

Religion Editor Amy Klein contributed to this report.

Iran’s New Export — Suicide Bombers

Behind the horrible scenes left by four explosions in London on July 7, loomed a more fearsome reality: The perpetrators, most of them very young, had voluntarily turned themselves into living bombs. Europe experienced its first suicide bombings. More horrible yet, was that not even the closest ones around the culprits had realized the disaster coming. The world was shocked to see that youngsters in a western democracy could be turned into suicide bombers with so much ease, without anybody noticing.

People are looking for the roots. In London, the government’s liberal approach to Londonistan, eastern London’s safe haven for fundamentalist activists, where hard-line preachers used to openly instigate violence among the Muslim youth, is put under question. France’s interior minister said he was astonished by the suicide bombers’ youth. He criticized the British for their liberal approach in dealing with fundamentalists.

But in going lean on fundamentalism, the British are not alone. Together with their French critics, and the Germans, they are pursuing a far more liberal approach with a country known as the first state sponsor of terrorism — Iran. They are busy negotiating with Iran on a range of issues — mainly its nuclear program, human rights and security, with luxurious trade relations on the agenda as well.

Recently, news reports from Iran affirmed that a military garrison has been opened in Iran to recruit and train volunteers for “martyrdom-seeking operations.” Its commander, Jaafari, a senior officer in the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, told a hard-line weekly close to Iran’s ultra-conservative President-elect Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that the new “Lovers of Martyrdom Garrison” would recruit individuals willing to carry out suicide operations against Western targets.

“One of our garrison’s aims is to spot martyrdom-seeking individuals in society and then recruit and organize them, so that, God willing, at the right moment when the commander-in-chief of the country’s armed forces [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] gives the order, they would be able to enter the scene and carry out their missions,” Jaafari told the Parto-Sokhan weekly.

Jaafari’s remarks were widely reported by Iran’s state-run media. The brigade claims that 30,000 young Iranians have thus far registered for getting a chance to take part in such operations, and more than 20,000 are currently being trained.

It might be true that none of Jaafari’s recruits have found their way to London or other European capitals. Besides, all of them are Shiite Muslims, and not of the Salafist brand of Islam thought to be responsible for the bombings. But that is the least important point. The London bombings have shown that recruits are abundant locally; they just need to be inspired.

Those Muslim teenage kamikazes in London or elsewhere, like others of their age, have their idols. Theirs is not necessarily Michael Jackson or Lance Armstrong. Shows, like one orchestrated in Tehran, depict a new world of heavenly death where martyrs are welcomed like glorious heroes, much like those in Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” carried to heaven by heavenly female warriors. If you were 18 years old, and fond of holy jihad against the infidels, you would have found enormous inspiration by thinking that thousands of people somewhere in the world watch you with admiration, sharing your sinister zest and waiting for your ultimate heroic act. It is only of secondary importance if they are Shiite and you are not.

Don’t forget that Khamenei’s official title is the leader of the world’s Muslims, and not Shiites. That title holds even in Lebanon, where Shiite Hezbollah fighters put up parades of would-be suicide bombers with explosive-filled belts around their torsos under his huge portraits. All fundamentalists share a common hatred toward the West, toward modernism and toward democracy. They all say they want to annihilate Israel. This is a devastating ideology claiming the leadership of 1.2 billion Muslims the world over.

With the world facing such a serious threat, responsible international behavior is expected from all countries. Those not abiding by the general rules should be boycotted, isolated and brought to their senses. Firm positions from other countries are imperative for making them abide.

When Europeans openly meet and talk with leaders of a country boasting about an army of would-be suicide bombers on their state television, little can be done to send a message of firmness to homegrown imams and fundamentalists in Europe. More important, it would be interpreted as a sort of recognition for a devastating ideology, with its message of death and blind terror.

Nooredin Abedian taught in Iranian higher-education institutions before settling in France as a political refugee in 1981. He writes for a variety of publications on Iranian politics and issues concerning human rights.