Knesset Legislation Risks Bringing the Ghetto to Israel
The ghetto has played an enormous role in Jewish history, not all of it onerous. It bonded people together in learning and in faith. It facilitated Jewish gesheft’n (trades) like printing, banking, even medicine, and regionally some select products to almost monopolistic levels. Of course, it was not a gentile marketplace, although it was a stage from and on which commercants from entirely different communities — Jews and Christians — could meet, trust, and trade. By the near-end of the ghetto society, up to then either legally sanctioned or socially solidified, “near-end” meant unraveling.
Until, that is, the Nazi ghetto with its fascist mimics and minions performing the functions of preparing for slaughter. And for the slaughter itself. Other than a few months after May 1948 this, blessedly, was not a prospect for Israel itself. There economics and society had embarked on an entirely different and progressive strategy. But, and it is a big but, new Knesset legislation is about to create regulations that will thrust many locales in the country to the edge of racist xenophobia unless Israeli society rebels and the faithful, ever faithful Diaspora makes its conscience clear and apparent. No, xenophobia is a tame word. It will be much worse.
The truth is that there are already communities — towns, neighborhoods — that are populated by one group or shades of one group. Bnei Brak, for instance. This is already an Orthodox ghetto, as are plenty of others, smaller and even more uniform. But the social consequences of population uniformity are multiple. Most men don’t work and women are limited to non-advanced, non-scientific forms of labor. (One Israeli enterprise that is more or less successfully fighting this economic cancer is KamaTech, led by technologically-learned Rabbi Moshe Friedman of Bnei Brak. Randi Zuckerberg, der wunderkind’s sister, spoke at a New York investors meeting in April.) The ultra-Orthodox struggle against army service cannot bring any good. The fact is that it is part of two campaigns fought by two different flanks of the Israeli political system.
The religious parties have made not serving in the army and studying the holy books one sacred end. The right-wing parties consider the whole Land of Israel ours. Put the two together and you have a bare and squishy Knesset majority. Just like the one that allowed the Ministry of Education to scale back mathematics requirements in religious schools. Scale back? More like quashing anything beyond 2 x 2. It is actually a vulgar coalition on vulgar terms. And truly vulgar women and men.
But the fact is that the symbolically most ugly proposition in the legislation is a provision which is tantamount to a constitutional amendment, given the absence of a proper constitution. It permits communities and, of course, ultimately neighborhoods to define themselves out. Or, more properly, define themselves as in, counting people of other religions, sects, national origin, language groups, races, economic strata, et al. This is an invitation to ethnic, racial, spiritual, sectarian, physical division and ostracism. You don’t like Arabs or Palestinians? Keep them by deed out of Savyon. You don’t like Haredim? Keep them from Caesarea. You don’t like Ethiopians or Sudanese? Keep them from your cherished village in the Galilee or the Golan.
There is already discrimination aplenty au naturel. Aesthetic, economic, physical, psychological. Jews have been its victims for centuries. We should not in our place of national liberation be its enforcers or apologists.
Marty Peretz was editor-in-chief of The New Republic from 1974 until 2011 and taught at Harvard for nearly half a century.