Among the platitudes being promoted here and elsewhere is that the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party SHAS is one of the extremist elements keeping the Netanyahu government from acting with good sense. The conventional line is that Israel must leave the West Bank to Palestine, in compliance with the views expressed by right thinking people throughout the world.
There are several reasons why this view is too simple. Just one of them is the nature of SHAS.
SHAS won 11 seats in the most recent election to the Knesset, which makes it the third largest party in a coalition of six parties with 74 seats in total. There is one SHAS MK contemplating a rebellion against his party. So far that is a interesting, but minor event in national politics.
Like other religious parties, SHAS Knesset members answer to the decisions of leading rabbis, and in this case to one rabbi in particular. Ovadia Yosef is 90, said to be isolated from current events, and inclined to public statements that require the explanation of party politicians in order to limit their embarrassment. Nonetheless, several features of his teachings over the years are important in understanding the postures taken by SHAS and other religious parties. These come out of Rabbinical Judaism, and may appear strange to the uninformed, but include elements that are anything but extreme in the current context.
Important to Orthodox (and ultra-Orthodox) thought are:
The Jewish people were Chosen by God and are subject to a different set of rights and limitations than others
The historic truthfulness of God's gift of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people
The recognition that some of God's laws can only be implemented by the Almighty himself in Paradise rather than by humans here on earth
The importance of rabbis in interpreting God's law, and applying them to current controversies
The recognition that rabbis disagree, and argue issues of interpretation
The recognition of leading rabbis in each generation, who are accorded priority in interpretation
The recognition that each community has its own designation of its leading rabbis
The recognition that world powers may hold the future of the Jewish people in their hands, and that it is unwise to challenge the great powers
Conservative and Reform Jews who dominate the liberal wings of the American community may not accept these principles. However, Jews from the Diaspora do not vote in Israel. Their leaders receive a polite audience from Israeli leaders, but are not assured more than that. Conservative and Reform Jews are a tiny minority among Israeli voters.
Those willing to think through this collection of Orthodox principles should recognize the moderation that is inherent in them. For one thing, it is not necessarily the task of humans to realize what they perceive to be God's will. Rewards as well as punishments may come from the heavens, in Paradise, and not in the here and now. That means, among other things, that God's gift of the Land of Israel may not be realizable in the foreseeable future.
Secondly, and even more moderate, is the notion that the Jews must not offend great powers.
This is something that was taught by the Prophet Jeremiah in the sixth century BCE when Babylon was the great power, and again by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai who recognized the folly of continuing to fight Rome. He began the process of Jewish withdrawal into itself that occurred with the destruction of Jerusalem in the first century CE. Except for a disastrous effort at rebellion in the second century, this posture marked Jewish history until 1948, and has been considered important by Israeli leaders since then..
Rabbi Ovadia has followed the same line as Jeremiah and ben Zakai. Currently this has the political leader of SHAS (Interior Minister Eli Yishai) in a bind. He does not want to offend the current great power. But he does not want to abandon other principles of competing importance. Prominent among these is the right of Jews to build in Jerusalem, and the needs of his constituency for housing. SHAS supporters are prominent in the communities of Beitar Ilit, Modiin Ilit, and several neighborhoods of Jerusalem that the United States views as within the West Bank.
The promoters of platitudes who identify with the current occupant of the White House may view these postures as intolerably extreme, but they ought to compare them with other extreme postures heard in this region. Chief among them are those of Palestinians who insist on the rights of refugees from 1948. The Palestinian narrative is that were pushed unjustly out of their homes by Jews, and must return to what they claim as theirs.
No doubt some were pushed out of their homes by Jews, who were fighting Arabs in a messy war that allowed no casual assignment of innocent and guilty parties. But their homes no longer exist. Things have changed in 62 years. Political flexibility is the way to the future. Insisting on recreating the past is not feasible, especially when it threatens the demographic inundation of the country that has the political and military capacity to say no. Demanding something so unlikely is even more extreme than the postures being pursued by SHAS.
Perhaps the thinking of SHAS and other religious parties is best described as the thinking of people who are living on another planet. But so is the thinking of the Palestinian leadership. Neither religious Israelis nor Palestinians can be assuaged by the arguments coming out of the White House and other western places, where people seem to think that moving a few pieces here and there is feasible, and holds the key to solving the problems of Israel and Palestine. Some also think that solving those problems will also take a giant step toward dealing with all of Islamic extremism, and doing away with inconvenient security procedures in airports.
It is too bad that this region does not work according to a few easily learned platitudes expressed by people who claim to be wise and forward thinking. Insofar as some of those people are living in the White House, the ideas of Jeremiah, ben Zakai, and Ovadia tell us that we should not offend them so greatly that the Jewish people will suffer.
There is wiggle room in this prescription. It is the task of Israel's leaders to use that wiggle room for our advantage..
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem