An American — Gentile — diplomat visiting the Jerusalem Great Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah looked entirely comfortable among the shtreimels and kittels of the many Charedim who come to hear our marvellous chazan and choir. I could not resist observing that not many of his colleagues in the region would be visiting mosques these days of violent — in Libya, lethal — rioting against America over an idiotic film insulting the Prophet.
Yet it’s not all always peace and quiet for US diplomats here. Just last week, in my suburban Jerusalem street, a percussion grenade (noisy but harmless) was tossed at a building where a US consular official lives. Police cars darted around for days. The talk on the street was of “Price Taggers”, the extremist Jewish settlers who use arson and violence to make their political point.
That got me thinking, too.
All too often, in the international media but also in our own Israeli press, and indeed in our Israeli — and diaspora Jewish — minds, Jewish “extremism” or “fundamentalism” are words bandied about undefined, without discernment, without responsibility.
The Charedim, Jewry’s fastest-growing demographic group, are not extremist in the political sense, and certainly not in the seriously violent sense. Three examples from our recent history: Yitzhak Rabin (1992) insisted on having a Charedi party, Shas, in his government, when he embarked on his peace policy; Ehud Barak (1999) also brought in Shas, in defiance of his own supporters, when he shaped his pro-peace government; Ariel Sharon (2005) brought in United Torah Judaism when he created the coalition that undertook the Gaza disengagement.
That is no coincidence. Nor is it coincidental that the huge Charedi “settlements” of Betar Ilit and Modiin Ilit are sited close to the 1967 border-line and that hardly any Charedim live deep inside the West Bank. Charedi rabbis, strategically and theologically, incline to moderation in the Israeli-Arab conflict — in sharp contradistinction with the rabbis and lay leaders of the national-religious camp who support the settlers and lean strongly to the hard right.
By the same token, Charedism is not fundamentalist, not politically and not in its exegesis of the biblical texts, while today’s religious-Zionism most certainly — and frighteningly — is.
Nevertheless, apart from those three brief interludes, the Charedi parties nestle for the most part in the bosom of the “national camp” — the rightist-religious alliance founded by Menachem Begin back in the 1970s and carefully, brilliantly nurtured by Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Charedim regard “the left”, the parties of the “peace camp”, as ideologically inimical to their way of life. And “the left”, short-sightedly and arrogantly, has done little to disabuse them of that perception.
Unemployment among male Charedim, at 60-plus per cent, is weighing down the Israeli economy. Mr Netanyahu, as finance minister under Ariel Sharon, made a first, bold bid to get Charedim working. The UK-Jewish philanthropist Leo Noe is at the forefront of non-governmental efforts in this vital venture. But just recently, as prime minister, Mr Netanyahu passed on the chance to team up with Kadima, the large opposition party, and ram through legislation that would put more Charedim through the army and into the productive economy. He preferred to maintain his rightist-religious coalition.
The real extremists and fundamentalists of the national-religious movement breathed a sigh of relief.
David Landau is a former editor of Ha’aretz