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The Roots of Fragmentation

November 17, 2002|Milton Viorst | Milton Viorst's latest book is "What Shall I Do With This People? Jews and the Fractious Politics of Judaism."

Yes, it's true that Israel is a parliamentary democracy, and yes, it's true that Israelis overwhelmingly favor a peace settlement based on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Notwithstanding Islamic extremists, suicide bombers and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, the country's pollsters found last month that 60% of Israelis wanted to reopen negotiations with the Palestinians, and no fewer than 78% were ready to withdraw from occupied territory in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. These numbers correspond with poll results over the last decade.

So, why has there been no peace, much less territorial withdrawal? And why was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's coalition, composed of doves from the opposition Labor Party as well as representatives of his right-wing Likud, recently replaced by an extremist Cabinet that repudiates not just negotiations but past efforts at a compromise peace?

The answer lies in a combination of weak leadership in the Labor Party, clumsy negotiating by the Palestinians, Washington's abandonment of its role as mediator, the calculations of ambitious politicians and the lacerating effect of terrorism on Israel's collective psyche. But there is also something deeper and more unyielding: the fragmentation of European Jewish unity two centuries ago that gave rise to the divergent political shards blocking peace today.

To understand how this happened, it's important to recall that, after their dispersion into a hostile world in the 1st century, Jews adopted a defensive posture, preserving their identity by clustering around their rabbis in closed communities known to history as ghettos. This was the life they led in exile for some 17 centuries. Change came only after Europe's Jewish population exploded from 1 million in 1600 to 11 million by 1800. Much as the rabbis tried to shore up the ghetto, Europe's Jews spilled out, to live, work and study among the Gentiles.

This was during the era called the Enlightenment, when man replaced God at the hub of the universe, when science trumped revelation in explaining life's mysteries, when clerics lost their special authority and faith became a matter of individual choice.

Untouched by Europe's previous intellectual waves, Jews were tantalized by these ideas. While portions of the community remained steadfastly pious, others adopted a secular outlook. Many talked of modernizing Judaism; a few left the faith entirely. By the 19th century, Judaism was, like Christianity, divided into denominations: Reform and Conservative, both products of the Enlightenment, and Orthodoxy, which rejected the new ideas as heresy and refused to surrender its claim to religious preeminence.

By then, the Enlightenment had also revealed an ugly underside. Napoleon infused it with a rabid nationalism, to which others added a racism that complemented the anti-Semitism long rooted in Christian theology. In the decades that followed, Charles Darwin's ideas on evolution, another fruit of the Enlightenment, were distorted to make a scientific case for Jewish inferiority. As the 20th century opened, hopes for a Jewish future based on freedom and equality were suffused with foreboding. The response of some Jews was to found Zionism, a secular movement whose aim was to provide refuge for Jews exposed to the looming dangers.

But Jews did not reunite around Zionism. Orthodoxy, bound by a belief that only the Messiah could lead them back to the Holy Land, viewed it as nothing more than Enlightenment poison. Many Reform and Conservative Jews saw it as inconsistent with Jewish integration into the larger society. A Zionist faction called Revisionism emerged, drawing upon the Enlightenment's Napoleonic wing to insist on a militant, expansive Jewish state. Still another faction, known as religious Zionism, accepted the Jews' need for refuge but insisted that a Jewish state must be governed by religious law.

All these forces -- and more -- are alive in Israel today, often stridently advancing their claims and undermining the stability of the democratic state:

* The Labor Party, direct descendant of Zionism's secular founders, led the way to the establishment of a Jewish state based on democratic practices and civil law. It also provided leadership for a series of successful wars, most notably the War of Independence in 1948 and the Six-Day War, which, in 1967, created the dilemma of the occupied lands. In recent decades the Labor Party has lost much favor with the electorate, but, supported by several secular parties with slightly different ideologies, it continues to head the campaign for a peace agreement with the Arabs based on territorial withdrawal.

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