Published in The Jerusalem Post on August 13, 2000
Imagine what the reaction would be here in Israel if a morally-crusading MK who was a sharp critic both of Yasser Arafat *and* of the holy, trendy music, film and television industries were to run for Prime Minister. Imagine further that this MK was both an environmental activist *and* a defense and security hawk. Imagine that he was both for abortion rights *and* an outspoken supporter of family values.
The Israeli press would go crazy. They wouldn’t know what to make of him.
Now throw into the mix the fact that this candidate was an Orthodox Jew who actually knows what an *eiruv* and *techum shabbat* are and takes care to conduct his political career within the limits prescribed by the laws of travelling and carrying on the Sabbath.
The Israeli press couldn’t hack it. Haaretz and Israel Television editors would be tearing their hair out. No doubt they’d begin tearing into the candidate soon enough, as well.
Why? Because conventional wisdom – the smug, self-congratulatory set of convictions that characterize an entire cross-section of liberal, secular Israeli society – is incapable of dealing with the notion that tradition beneficially can be blended with worldly achievement. The reigning elites can not accept that adherence to Orthodoxy alongside modernity might actually result in a more refined intellectual leadership.
Over the past two weeks – in reactions to the election of Moshe Katsav and the selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman — we got a whiff of the horror and panic that grips the leftist, secular Israeli media when faced with the ‘predicament’ of tradition resurgent.
About Katsav’s election as President of Israel they were apoplectic. He’s going to establish a *shul* in the President’s residence — oy vey! He both likes the theatre and yet *davens* with, and respects, big rabbis! He thinks that Jews have right to live in Hebron, and actually believes in the ‘mantra’ of united Jerusalem, Israel’s undivided capital forever! He had the chutzpah to defeat the prince of peace, Shimon Peres — obvious choice of all decent, enlightened people!
About Joe Lieberman’s selection by Al Gore as his vice presidential running mate the press here was at first amazed, even a little proud. But then the sour grapes, embarrassed secular egos and anti-religious insecurities set in.
“Actually, he’s too Jewish”, is the tone that has begun to seep into local columns and coverage. “Too right-wing” on Israeli issues, too. (Lieberman has supported congressional initiatives to have the US embassy moved to Jerusalem and legislation that holds Arafat to his commitment to fight terror).
“How is he going to campaign effectively during October, the critical month before the US presidential elections – with all the Jewish holidays, observed orthodoxly, stuck in the middle?”, worried one Israeli writer. “What if Gore loses because of this?”. “How are US Jews going to explain to other Americans Lieberman pounding the ground with palm fronds on Hoshana Rabba?”, fretted another oracle.
“Will he eat *milichigs* out?’, mocked an Israeli columnist, referring sarcastically to the practice of some, liberal Orthodox Jews to relax the dietary laws when it come to consumption of dairy products. This, from an Israeli correspondent known to enjoy *treif* White House dinners.
You see, once the initial thrill of Lieberman’s selection wears off, his candidacy scares lapsed Israeli and Diaspora Jews. Lieberman’s standing for such a high post, and the respect his religiosity has won him in American politics, is the ultimate “shtoch” – a slap in the face, or dig in the ribs — for Jews embarrassed by “too much” religion.
For more than a century, Reform Jewry has argued that in order to get ahead in American society US Jews had to shed much of their Jewish over-distinctiveness; to assimilate and blend in. Secular Zionism, for its part, argued much the same thing about Israeli society. To be accepted by the world, to be normal, we had to adopt the “enlightened”, anti-religious weltanschauung of twentieth century liberal democracy. Just ask Justice Aharon Barak or almost any journalist in this country.
And now, Al Gore throws Joe Lieberman in their face. A man of integrity and moral conscience. An Orthodox Jew who has ‘made it’, without assimilating or compromising the strictures of tradition. Oy vey.
The assimilationists of Israel always are ready to point to, and import from, America that which their hearts desire: everything from boundless liberal democracy to pornography. But not the tolerance, appreciation of religious faith and political maturity which allows a Joe Lieberman to reach the White House.
Only in America? Orthodox Jews and Jewish religious tradition really will have made a comeback when an observant Jew is a serious candidate for Prime Minister in Israel!