The Good, the Sad and the Ugly

There have been two stories dominating the news in Israel this past week. While the first demonstrates everything that is good about today’s Jewish State, the second shows it at its most ugly.

18th MaccabiahAnd the good story does not relate to the start of the eighteenth Maccabiah Games. I can’t get too excited about a “Jewish Olympics” . . . which, for me, is about as interesting as an Islamic beer, or Christian Klezmer music, festival.

Indeed, to call the Maccabiah amateurish would be unkind to much non-professional sport. In the men’s 100 metres final (stumbled across whilst channel-hopping), all the sprinters were in their blocks and the starter’s gun raised . . . when this guy appears out of nowhere, unchanged and remonstrating. Not having the heart to send him, un-run, back to Canada (I think that’s where the nincompoop was from), the sprinters were made to get out of their blocks and wait while he changed in front of a ‘live’ national TV audience. The commentator’s observation, that “something like this would never happen at the real Olympics” (in fact, it was pure Hasmonean Sports Day), was more than a little redundant.

Like the role of British polytechnics (now renamed “universities” . . . though everyone knows what you really are) – to enable those who can’t get into a ‘proper’ university to obtain a (worthless) “-ology” – the primary purpose of the Maccabiah is to allow yiddishe mamas whose children could not become doctors, lawyers or accountants, but who had a little sporting ability (a lot for a Jew), to kvell (gush) about something:

“Have you heard?! Darren’s been chosen to represent Great Britain in kalooki!!”

What Mrs. Shepnaches omits to mention is that: kalooki is a card game, Darren is only 37 – and should still be participating in active sports (like lawn bowls) – and he is only going to be representing Great Britain’s 280,000 Hebrews (less than half a percent of its total population).

The Maccabiah is all a bit sad, and perhaps the time has come to question its relevance and its future.

No, the stories that I am referring to are the victory of Israel’s men’s Davis Cup tennis team over the world number ones, Russia, last weekend, and the charedi (ultra-Orthodox) riots in Jerusalem these past few days.

Andy Ram and Yoni Erlich celebrate victory over RussiaFor a sporting “minnow” like Israel – which, less than four years ago, was on the brink of virtual disappearance from the international tennis map – to beat the mighty Russia 4-1 and reach the Davis Cup semi-final (in Spain, in September) is little short of sensational. Indeed, alongside Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team’s five European Cups, it must go down as one of Israel’s greatest sporting achievements (and further poetic justice following Sweden’s spineless capitulation to Islamofascists in the previous round).

More importantly, however, and as opined by David Horovitz in his weekend Jerusalem Post Editor’s Notes (aptly subtitled “Wonderful things can happen when everybody pulls in the same direction”), it demonstrated how – as we have seen in so many of Israel’s “against all odds” military victories – a spirit of unity and solidarity can enable this miraculous little country to far out-punch its weight.

The riots in Jerusalem, conversely, illuminate the ugly side of Israeli Jewish society and a chasm of as much concern, if not more, than that between Jew and Arab. And it is one which serves to further weaken the country in the eyes of its many, queuing, detractors (see, too, Horovitz’s weekend editorial). Thousands of charedim went on the rampage after a woman belonging to a radical anti-Zionist hassidic sect, and believed to be suffering from mental illness, was arrested on suspicion that she had almost starved her three-year old son to death. Tens of police officers were injured in the clashes, with over half a million shekels worth of damage caused to municipal property. The rioters’ leaders remained silent.

Haredi protesters confront policeThese anti-Zionists do not recognise the sovereignty or legitimacy of the secular State of Israel, and – like other, merely non-Zionist, charedim (for a brief background on charedim and Zionism, click here) – pay relatively little or no tax (the vast majority don’t work), and (with a negligible number of exceptions) do not serve in the military. If I were the parent of an IDF combat soldier, I would want to know why my son has to risk – or had to sacrifice – his young life, when charedi boys of the same age get away with sitting in yeshivot (Talmudic seminaries) all day?

And please don’t insult us with the disingenuous nonsense that learning and praying have been as much a part of Israel’s great military victories as the heroism and selflessness of its young soldiers. I had to suffer more than enough of that from the feebleminded Jewish studies ‘teachers’ of my childhood and youth. We saw how much good prayer did us in Auschwitz and Treblinka. In fact, if charedim had (perish the thought) been leading this country at any one of  its many times of existential crisis, we would all now be fish food somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

I don’t hate charedim. I am from charedi stock, and most ‘connected’ to my Galician and Lithuanian roots. Indeed, should I ever be viewed as truly chiloni – secular, in the rather extreme Israeli definition of the word – I might consider it time to head back to the Diaspora.

I am, however, convinced that charedim have rather lost the plot in modern day Israel. The hassidic choice of clothing, especially, which had some rationale in Eastern Europe, is positive madness in a country with an average summer high (even in Jerusalem) pushing 30°C. No wonder Stuey and Dexxy bark when they walk past! Even the most sacred and entrenched of Jewish traditions – and the wearing of such garb could never be classed as that – have been adapted to the relevant environment and other circumstances.

There are communities of Ger and Belz hassidim living in in a spirit of peaceful coexistence in my Sheinkin area of Tel Aviv, considered the ultimate symbol of modern, chiloni Israel. I was shocked, however, to be told recently by one of their number that that he doesn’t consider chilonim to be Jews.

Devils' embraceAnyway, my suggestion to all of those charedim who don’t like it here in Israel, do not recognise and respect the country’s laws, and/or who oppose the very basis of the State – like the Neturei Karta filth who demonstrate against Israel alongside the most hateful of anti-Semites, attend Holocaust-denial conferences in Tehran (right), and who, on Thursday, paid a visit to Hamas in Gaza – is that they return to live in the shtetls (small towns) of Poland and Eastern Europe. Perhaps life will be better for them there, where they will be more or less self-governing and left to their own devices.

Charedim such as these, living in Israel, are no better than parasites. And to add chutzpah to injury, whilst considering themselves not subject to the law, they – again, like all charedim (about 8% of Israel’s citizens) – try to influence how the rest of us lead our lives.

They can’t, however, have it both ways. If they expect to enjoy the fruits of Israeli citizenship, they must obey and fulfil the same rules and obligations as the rest of us. If they are unwilling to, I am certain that the Poles, etc, will welcome them back with open arms (or, at least, blades).

Sometimes, I think that they deserve each other.

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15 responses to “The Good, the Sad and the Ugly

  1. A curious and interesting juxtaposition of religion and sport.

    Sadly for the Haredim, it seems they arrogantly believe that the ball (Judaism) belongs to them and if we will not play by their rules then we cannot play at all, ipso facto, not be Jews.

    The name of the Neturei Karta anti-Zionist sect of the Haredim indeed means “Guardians of the City” in Aramaic. The affront caused [to them] started with the opening of a car park (parking lot) on Shabbat is tantamount to chilul hashem (desecration of the Holy Name) in their eyes. In their actions (however unjustified to us), they are defending the honour of their “side”, much like sports fans might even resort to violence when the honour of their team is perceived to be threatened.

    Maybe the oddly similarly named Karta parking lot that they (the Haredim and others) are getting their streimels in a twist about, should be opened on a Saturday afternoon for a quiet game of football (the real kind, played with the feet and not the handball game played in the US). Playing football is actually not breaking the Sabbath.

    People act in ways that are reprehensible and then, in justification of their actions, blame their bad behaviour on their religious and/or political views. Maybe G-d, Allah or Barney the Dinosaur indeed told them to do something, but they (we) bear responsibility for our actions at the end of the day.

    It’s high time for the red card to be shown.

  2. Mike
    Whilst I agree that the sights seen this week in Jerusalem were the most ugly side of the Ultra-Orthodox radical behaviour, and I was “zoicheh” to see it first hand, I feel it unfair to use the behaviour of one of the most extreme factions of chassidism as an excuse to bash the whole charedi community.
    Whilst most of the community still do not serve in the army, though this is slowly changing for the better, within the secular community the number is close to 20% and rising. Many chassidim, on reaching the age of 30, join the workforce and do become productive members of society. And very few condone the behaviour witnessed this week.
    The Ger chassidim you mentioned arrived in the 1920’s to Tel-Aviv on the command of Reb Alter, their Rebbe, who specifically sent them there and not to Jerusalem. He also instructed them to speak Hebrew and not Yiddish. They became the heart of the Tel-Aviv business community.
    Whilst many charedim look for employment and are choosing to integrate, I feel the tendency of the press to generalize and not differentiate moves to alleniate rather than bridge gaps in this torn society.
    Matti Munk

  3. Dovid Maslin

    Other side of the coin.

    A friend of mine did his national service in a naval Chiloni unit. He began his service wearing a kippa and liberal in his religious beliefs. As time went on he found himself under increasing peer pressure to ditch his head gear and his spiritual practices. When he put in a polite request for kosher meals he became targeted for persistant bullying by his superiors. Is this the way a Jewish state should conduct itself?

  4. melchettmike

    Point taken, Matti, though I tried to limit the generalisations(!) to anti-Zionist haredim, whom I actually define far more narrowly than they are in the haredim and Zionism article (linked to in the post, which would seem to include even Ger and Belz).

    You write that “very few condone the behaviour witnessed this week”, but I understand that some of the riots had well over 5,000 participants, and not merely from the extremist Toldot Aharon sect. Moreover, unlike some Litvish leaders, none of the hassidic ones spoke out.

    Whilst I agree that it unfair to stigmatise all haredim “willy-nilly”, it can also not be right to let them off the hook because, as in the example your provide, some chilonim also don’t serve in the IDF (moreover, conscientious objection is quite another matter).

    And how is haredi army service “slowly changing for the better” exactly?

    On the subject of Ger hassidim in Tel Aviv, I davened with them twice a day during my year of mourning my late father. In spite of that, not one of them ever invited me for a shabbat meal (not that I particularly wanted to go!) That said a lot for me. They were very pleasant, but completely closed. I am not sure that is what Reb Alter had in mind. It is clear that they are only here on sufferance.

  5. Henri Berest

    I’d be interested to know whether or not any Charedi leaders have actually condemned the violence?
    It may be a ‘small minority’ carring out the violence, but if so I would imagine there would be criticism from the ‘large majority’?

  6. Harvey Woolf

    Note for Dovid

    Every month I spend 2 days reserve duty visiting army bases and training young doctors on them. One of the bases I visit yearly is the Nahal Haredi unit in the Jordan Valley. I have never heard of any case of anti-religous pressure from the officers, in fact from the medical side there is always an effort to provide the clinic with a religious doctor. When I did my army service some years ago we were 37 doctors and I was the only religious one – I was given extra time to davven and all my religious needs were catered for in every way. It’s true that the army is slanted to the non-religious but I believe usually soldiers that decide they want to become less religious do so because they’ve decided it for themselves anyway. In fact these religious units are an excellent way for boys who need the cohesion of an all-religious unit to be encouraged by the members with most religious conviction.

  7. Dovid Maslin

    Response to Harvey Woolf

    Perhaps, that particular case was one of day to day bullying, a universal feature of life within many army ranks. The story continued like this. One day the soldier lad had had enough of resisting the bully boy tactics. He went to the side of the ship in a ‘do I or don’t I be religious for life’ dilemma, removed his 50p kippa with his hand and was about to throw it into the sea. At that point another soldier nearby crossed his path, removing his helmet or beret to reveal a kippa and related to him a similar predicament. The two discussed their problems with the regime, reaffirming their religious convictions in the process. Nowadays the same man can be found sporting a large Mercaz Harav style Yarmulke, working as a religious educational co-ordinator and enjoying the mutual respect of his secular colleagues.

  8. toooooooovya

    dear melchett,
    sorry to hear you are unwell. ill fortune on the unrighteous?
    i really think some bright spark should work out if in siding with the holocaust denyers there might be some basis for arrest of Naturei Karta possibly on grounds of inciting racial hatred.
    This would be a great service to World jewry. If “Rabbi” Yisroel Weiss was thrown in the slammer, perhaps he could be traded for Galit Shalit, who we want back!

  9. Mike, I’m not going to comment on the Charedi/Chiloni debate running here. Everyone has a horror story/happy story and it’s never-ending. I wanted instead to comment on your somewhat disparaging remarks concerning the Maccabi Games. You said: “The Maccabiah is all a bit sad, and perhaps the time has come to question its relevance and its future.”
    If I may be so bold, I think that is because you are viewing it as an Israeli citizen/sport enthusiast, not as a Diaspora Jew. And before you assume I’m a sport fan, or indeed a participant, I am neither. And, to tell the truth, I was also pretty cynical about the Maccabiah in the past. But this year, my wife is competing in the Tennis Masters and so I went out this weekend to support her. I was really moved by what I saw. To be fair, your comments are not entirely wrong about the degree of sporting aptitude. Of the 4,000 (I think) competitors, maybe 2-300 are really international standard, and in reality they’re the guys who win all the medals. The rest of the participants are – like my wife – just keen amateurs. But that’s not the point. What is the point is the fact that thousands of Jews come together to celebrate their identity, their love of sport and yes, their love of Israel too.
    I saw a huge number of Jews from all around the world, of all different strands of religion (and, it has to be said, all shapes and sizes), playing, eating and socialising together. Other than perhaps the traditional friendly rivalries (England v Australia in cricket or Rugby) the atmosphere was one of mutual tolerance, respect and enjoyment. My wife was the only religious member of her Tel Aviv-based tennis squad, but on Friday night the whole squad changed their plans from eating in a non-kosher restaurant to staying in the hotel with her for a traditional Friday night dinner.
    And maybe that IS connected with the earlier discussions here about the chiloni/charedi divide – because when I see what I saw here, I do believe there are on occasion ways in which all Jews, whatever their backgrounds or level of knowledge, can celebrate and share their shared identity in Israel. OK, I admit I didn’t see too many Neturi Karta representatives in the Women’s Futsal, but leaving aside the very extreme peripheral sects, there’s plenty of bonding for those at least closer to a middle ground. Mike, I am a huge admirer of your writing but on this one you are wrong, wrong, wrong. There’s enough to be cynical about without denigrating something really good happening out there.

  10. Further to my last note. I just checked the Maccabiah website. I read a story about a group of GB Rugby players who were totally irreligious. Most of them had not had barmitzvahs so I guess you would classify them as Chiloni. They had just visited the Kotel as a Group and celebrated their belated barmitzvahs there, years later, for the first time. Most of them had not visited Israel before. So I guess I’m not up for a discussion about Maccabiah’s “relevance or future”.

  11. Dovid Maslin

    The selection criterion for participation at the Maccabiah is based in various cases upon who the participant knows rather than what the participant can do. Arguably, this is the case in many an amateur club although Jewish clubs and societies are notorious for it. Moreover, given the nepotism and sycophantism which is exercised currently by members of the Israeli Knesset perhaps Israel is the most fitting of venues for this event.

    Going forward the Maccabi selectors might want to look, if at all possible, at using objective measures instead of subjective measures for selecting the offspring of Mrs Shepnaches!

  12. Hi Tony,

    Good to hear from you (after a while). Apologies for my delay in responding. I have been knocked out by some unidentified virus, and haven’t had the energy to turn on the PC.

    One contention, that “maybe 2-300 are really international standard”, apart – I suspect the figure to be rather closer to 20 or 30 – I agree with your sentiments. Whilst most Israelis do ignore the Games, I think that is for the reason you highlight.

    And I will be totally honest . . . I put the finishing touches to, and posted, the above as I was coming down with the virus under the title “The Good, the Ugly and the . . . ermm, Darren”. Whilst it amused me, I realised that it probably wouldn’t anyone else, and it occurred to me that I could merely add a sentence about the Maccabiah being “sad” and improve the title enormously . . . so, that is what I did. And I wasn’t feeling well enough to do even a little justice to such a harsh claim, or to make it clearly tongue in cheek (like my poly comment . . . shhhh, don’t tell, I started at one!)

    Anyway, how did your missus fare in the tennis?

    Best,

    Mike

    PS Talking of tennis and our mutual Chendon connection, Marc Reiss and I were reminiscing, last week, about the tennis courts at Hendon Park . . . that miserable old git – in that even more miserable old hut – wielded more power in Hendon even than the legendary Angelo Balducci!

  13. Henri Berest

    The tennis bloke had a little chalkboard up on his wall – he really was a miserable git!

    How the f*ck did you remember him? I have this memory of him going nuts for some reason to do with me spilling some strawberry Cresta! Maybe it was too frothy?

  14. Daniel Hass

    Aaah the Hendon park tennis courts. The little bloke in the little hut, and of course the constant arguments with the Indian sub-continent elements as to who had rights to a court. As for the Maccabiah, I am a firm believer that it has and will continue to have huge relevance for the Diaspora community. Whether Israelis care or not is not important. Simply put, even if only a few participants make Aliya post Games then the whole exercise has been a success. As a side comment Sport 1 carried the whole of the GB/Argentina football final, all 120 minutes and penalties.

  15. More to the point, Henri, “how the f*ck do you remember” strawberry Cresta?!

    Hendon is such a shithole these days, though I am convinced that it was genuinely (i.e., not merely down to nostalgia) quite an agreeable place to grow up. Something else to write about soon . . .

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