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Israel’s Culture Wars


Anyone who thought Israel was immune to the kind of divisive “culture wars” that have beset America in recent years was in for a rude awakening this past week.

After Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman dared to suggest that Jewish law should play a more active role in the judicial system of the Jewish state, he quickly came under rhetorical fire from the left, the likes of which has neither been seen nor heard here in recent memory.

Neeman, who was speaking at a conference in Jerusalem, said that, “step by step, Torah law will become the binding law in the State of Israel. We have to reinstate the traditions of our forefathers, the teaching of the rabbis of the ages, because these offer a solution to all the issues we are dealing with today.”

It was a straightforward, and noble, attempt on Neeman’s part to reinforce the status – and stature – of Jewish law in Israel’s court system, where it is often overlooked or completely ignored by the esteemed judges whose task it is to dispense justice.

Nowhere in his remarks did Neeman suggest that Jewish law should replace Israel’s current legal system, nor did he call for the creation of a “halachic state.” He simply stated that Jewish law should no longer be shunted aside.

As a matter of fact, his comments were neither revolutionary in nature nor radical in perspective. They merely embodied a healthy desire to restore Jewish law to its rightful place as part of our national life.

But that of course didn’t stop Israel’s left from launching a campaign bordering on hysteria, which included calls for Neeman’s resignation. The reaction of the left was fast, fierce and furious, but most of all it was sadly revealing.

Among the more forceful responses was that of Knesset Member Haim Oron, the leader of the Meretz Party and a veteran parliamentarian.

Oron said that, “it is unfortunate that the justice minister has detached himself from the State of Israel’s basic values,” as though Judaism itself is not one of them. He then thundered that Neeman’s remarks “reflect a disturbing process of Talibanization occurring in Israeli society”.

Since when does suggesting that Jewish law play a role in the judicial system constitute “Talibanization”? Oron’s insinuation that the beauty of Judaism has anything in common with the shadowy movement that sheltered Osama Bin-Laden in Afghanistan is nothing less than morally obscene and theologically obtuse.

But Oron was not the only one who was foaming at the mouth in response to Neeman’s statements.

Not content with comparisons to the Taliban, former minister Yossi Sarid went a step further, bemoaning that, “we have become like Iran of the ayatollahs, like Afghanistan of the Taliban, and Sodom is no longer so bad.”

Sarid further denounced what he termed Neeman’s “fundamentalist impulses and Judeo-evangelist sensibilities” – whatever that means – before launching an assault on the Torah itself, terming it “a crown of thorns and thistles and prohibitions and sufferings and cruelties that are not from the world of justice.”

Reading such words, it is hard not to feel sorry for such people, who neither appreciate nor understand the precious heritage our forefathers bequeathed to us.

For all their proclaimed adherence to progressive values and their ostensible tolerance of others, they seem unable to show even a modicum of respect for their own people’s most cherished beliefs. How pitiful.

Even more worrisome, however, was the fact that such expressions of hate were not limited to a coterie of publicity-seeking politicians, but included others in the public sphere as well.

Take, for example, Dr. Orit Kamir, an academic who heads an outfit ironically called the Israel Center for Human Dignity.

In an opinion piece, the learned lecturer declared that, “Jewish laws are neither democratic nor liberal or Zionistic.” Applying it as the state’s law, she warned, “would turn us into the Jewish version of Iran.”

Coming just days before the onset of Chanukah, when we commemorate the stalwart stance of the Maccabees on behalf of Torah, such words were a telling reminder of the extent to which certain elements of Israel’s extreme left have strayed.

Their growing malice toward Judaism, and their readiness to compare its tenets with those of our worst enemies, boggles the mind. And it reveals a growing chasm within Israeli society, one that is likely to worsen still further if steps are not taken to mend it.

But as hurtful as such statements might be, we cannot and must not allow ourselves to be dragged into an internecine conflict that pits Jew against Jew. The best response to the Orons, Sarids and Kamirs of the world is not to stoop to their level but to redouble our efforts to reach out to our fellow Israelis and Jews.

Indeed, as we kindle the Chanukah lights, and watch them sway before us, we are reminded of the well-known adage that the best way to dispel the darkness is by adding additional light.

There is no struggle, no battle that takes place between the luminosity of the candles and the dark that envelops the room. Once the light emerges, the darkness naturally and logically gives way.

In other words, if we do our part, and behave as we are supposed to in our relations with one another and with our Creator, then everything else will fall into place.

As Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook prophetically foretold, “Out of the profane, holiness will also come forth.”

As hard as it may be to conceive when we hear the vitriol that often emerges from the left, we can rest assured that this bright vision of the future will ultimately come to pass.

Michael Freund, whose Jewish Press-exclusive column appears the third week of each month, served as deputy director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office under Benjamin Netanyahu from 1996 to 1999. He is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which reaches out and assists “lost Jews” seeking to return to the Jewish people.

About the Author: Michael Freund is the Founder and Chairman of Shavei Israel. He writes a syndicated column and feature stories for the Jerusalem Post, Israel’s leading English-language daily, and he previously served as Deputy Director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Prime Minister’s Office under Benjamin Netanyahu. A native of New York, he holds an MBA in Finance from Columbia University and a BA from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.


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