Shalom Goldman: Iran, Israel, and Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Opposition to Zionism

August 8, 2013

by SHALOM GOLDMAN for ISLAMiCommentary on AUGUST 8, 2013:

Shalom Goldman

Shalom Goldman

In the past few weeks the war of words between Jerusalem and Tehran has intensified. In what now seems a cyclical phenomenon, the politicos in both capitals hurl invectives and warnings at each other, and then retreat back into relative silence.

The actual shadow war between the countries continues in secrecy — among its tools assassination, car bombings, and cyber terrorism — while the war of words is out there for all to see, as we witnessed just last week.

With the election in mid-June of Iranian President Rouhani, a new round of invective and counter-invective began.

President Rouhani, speaking to state television last Friday (Aug. 2) at the annual commemoration of Al-Quds (Jerusalem ) Day, a day of solidarity with the Palestinian cause, was quoted by at least two Iranian news agencies as saying that “The Zionist regime has been a wound on the body of the Islamic world for years and the wound should be removed.”

Later that day Iranian media posted corrections, denying that President-elect Hassan Rouhani had called Israel a “wound” that should be removed.

This was the New York Times translation of Rouhani’s remarks: “In our region, a sore has been sitting on the body of the Islamic world for many years, in the shadow of the occupation of the holy land of Palestine and the dear Quds.”  “This day is in fact a reminder of the fact that Muslim people will not forget their historic right and will continue to stand against aggression and tyranny.” (So, nothing about removing the wound or IsraelWATCH

Also weighing in at the Tehran Al-Quds day commemoration (attended by hundreds of thousands of people in eight cities in Iran) was outgoing President Ahmadinejad: “I will inform you with God as my witness, a devastating storm is on the way that will uproot the basis of Zionism. Israel has no place in this region.”

Held on the last Friday of Ramadan, Al-Quds day was initiated in 1979 in the newly- proclaimed Islamic Republic of Iran. While other Muslim countries have always signaled their support of the Palestinians and their antipathy to Israel, Iran has done so only since the revolution of 1979. Prior to that, Iran under the Shah was a close military and political ally of Israel. And much of the rage of the Islamic revolutionaries was directed at that alliance — particularly against the cooperation between the Israeli intelligence services and the Iranian SAVAK, the dreaded security apparatus of the Pahlavi regime.

Netanyahu’s response that day to remarks by the president-elect — who, unlike Ahmadinejad seemed to have “signaled his wish to pursue a more conciliatory approach in world affairs” — was this: “Rouhani’s true face has been revealed earlier than expected.”

“Even if others hasten to deny his remarks, this is what the man thinks and this is the plan of the Iranian regime,” Netanyahu was quoted by the Times of Israel as saying. “His statements should shake the world from the reverie some have found themselves in since the elections. There’s a new president, but the intentions of Iran remain the same — to obtain nuclear weapons that will threaten Israel, the Middle East and the peace and security of the entire world. A country that threatens another country with annihilation cannot be allowed to obtain weapons of mass destruction.”

A Strange Twist

Against this backdrop of heightened rhetoric there was a striking story out of Jerusalem last week — the arrest last Thursday of Ultra-Orthodox Jew on charges of spying for Iran.

According to the Times of Israel: “The man, a member of the anti-Zionist fringe group Neturei Karta, was remanded for two days during a hearing at the Jerusalem District Court Monday. The 46-year-old, whose name is under gag order, is accused of meeting with Iranian officials at their embassy in Berlin and offering to spy on Israel and kill a Zionist.”

The arrest indictment disclosed that the accused had served in the IDF — but was discharged for mental health reasons.

This revelation came at a time when tensions between Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) extremists and the Israeli government are at an all-time high. Over the summer the national debate concerning majority demands that Haredim serve in the Israeli military reached the Knesset, which only last month voted to restrict and partially rescind Haredi exemptions from conscription.

But there is quite a difference between protesting government actions and being willing to spy for the enemy. And that difference was at the core of Haredi community reactions to the accused spy’s arrest. All Haredi leaders interviewed this past week, including the Rabbis of the profoundly anti-Zionist group Neturei Karta, condemned the idea of collaborating with the enemy.

In December 2007 that same anti-Zionist group  sent representatives to Tehran at the invitation of Ahmedinijad. Six Rabbis from Neturei Karta participated in a conference to “re-examine the Holocaust.”  One Rabbi in the delegation was quoted as saying  that “he prays for the destruction of Israel, but in peaceful ways.” Then too, the vast majority of Ultra-Orthodox Jews reacted with revulsion to the visit. (Haaretz,”Neturei Karta Delegate,” January 7, 2008)

The six Jewish Tehran conference attendees were at the radical fringe of Haredi opposition to Zionism. But they were building on a position of resistance as old as the state of Israel, and in a sense, even older. For during the first part of the Twentieth Century, when Zionism was gaining influence among Jewish populations in Europe and the U.S., Ultra-Orthodox Jews passionately opposed the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

As Israel historian Menahem Friedman has noted:

“The relationship between Zionism and Jewish Orthodoxy presents one of the most interesting and complicated questions in the history of the Jewish people. The idea of the Return to Zion is bound up with the idea of messianic redemption, and the establishment of a Jewish society in the Land of Israel is justified only to the extent that this society preserves religious tradition.”

As Israel, since its establishment in 1948, has been to a large extent a modern secular state, the tensions inherent in its relationship with uncompromisingly traditional Jewish communities have not lessened; in fact they have increased. That they have sharpened to the point they have reached today would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago.

So while the threat of impending war will no doubt result in social cohesion among Israeli Jews,  among the  more radical ultra-Orthodox — as among Israel’s Arab citizens — it will no doubt expose and heighten fault lines in the nation’s social fabric.

Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, and core faculty of the Duke Islamic Studies Center. His most recent book is Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land (UNC Press, January, 2010). Goldman has just returned from a month-long research sojourn in Israel.

 

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Category: History and Anthropology, i-Comment, Middle East and North Africa, Politics & Current Events, Security & Civil Liberties

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