Chaim Potok

Israel faces a possible turning point on 17th of September, with religion at the heart of it

Israel faces a possible turning point on 17th of September, with religion at the heart of it

While rehashing the Miftah-inspired — www.miftah.org — feud between U.S. Muslim Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib and Israel, U.S. and international media should also be focusing on Israel’s September 17 elections. Vivian Bercovici, Canada’s former ambassador to Israel (in 2014-16), sees a dangerous internal split perhaps unmatched since modern Israel was founded in 1948 – or even since the 1st Century.

Media without bureaus in Israel (and that’s most of them) should be planning coverage by in-house staffers or freelance experts before and/or after the vote. They will benefit from Bercovici’s opinion piece in the summer issue of Commentary magazine and Marcy Oster’s objective roundup on the tangled parties and pols for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Israel, of course, faces endless conflict with Palestinians. But there’s an increasingly troublesome internal struggle involving a minority of “ultra-Orthodox” Haredim (a term meaning those who “tremble” before God), currently 12 percent of the population and growing steadily. (They are distinct from the equally devout Hasidim and the less rigorist modern Orthodox.)

The conflict centers on exemption from the military draft for 130,000 Haredi men who study Torah and Talmud full-time. Bercovici, an attorney living in Tel Aviv, contends that the resulting burden on the national population is divisive, unfair and has become ‘financially and ethically unsustainable.”

Journalists must note: There is no way to escape the religious issues linked to these conflicts.

The system dates from a compromise by the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who exempted the tiny band of 400 such students to soften resistance by the Orthodox who believed modern Israel should not be founded before the Messiah appeared (as depicted in Chaim Potok’s classic 1967 novel “The Chosen”).

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A rabbi (who belongs on your sources list) unpacks info on Orthodoxy and Zionism

A rabbi (who belongs on your sources list) unpacks info on Orthodoxy and Zionism

One of the oddest incidents during The Religion Guy’s decades on the beat was an annual Nation of Islam rally in Chicago led by Minister Louis Farrakhan (who was notably entangled with President Barack Obama’s former United Church of Christ pastor).

The oddity was that Farrakhan, America’s most prominent anti-Semite, invited Jewish rabbis to speak.

Not routine rabbis, of course, but spokesmen for Neturei Karta of Monsey, NY, a fierce faction of Orthodox Jews that condemns Zionism as “heresy” and accuses Israel of committing “aggression against all peoples.”

Orthodox Judaism’s traditional opposition to Zionism was a theme in Chaim Potok’s beloved 1967 novel “The Chosen” (a must-read for religion writers of all kinds). Potok depicted a friendship after World War Two between two Orthodox boys, the son of an ardent Zionist educator, and the heir to a Hasidic dynasty opposed to establishment of modern Israel.    

Reporters on foreign affairs, politics, and religion should be aware of Rabbi Shalom Carmy of Yeshiva University, whose latest column for the interfaith journal First Things discusses Orthodoxy and Zionism.  If not there already, carmy@yu.edu  belongs on your prime source list, since Orthodoxy is trickier to cover than Judaism’s other branches.   

Carmy makes a key point: “Secular journalists typically ascribe pockets of rigorously Orthodox antagonism to Zionism to the belief that Jews will only govern themselves in the land of Israel when the Messiah comes.”

That’s true for some Hasidic groups, he says. But historically, the rest of Orthodoxy had a different objection.

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