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Agudah Rediscovers Its Peacenik Roots


It is a common misconception that all ultra-Orthodox Jews are political extremists. In Israel for example, most, though not all, very Orthodox rabbis have always argued that peace is more important than land. After all, they base themselves on the main and moderate Pharisee leadership two thousand years ago, at the time of the Roman occupation, who wanted to negotiate a deal. Sadly, the Zealots insisted on fighting to the bitter end and lost the Temple and their land as a result.

There are several ultra-Orthodox religious parties in Israel of varying ethnic and ideological bent. Over the years, they have allied themselves with whichever main party offered them the best terms, mainly financial, and it mattered little from which end of the spectrum they were. Occasionally parties such as Agudah were either excluded or themselves refused to enter government on terms they found unacceptable. The Likud party for many years funded Shas, the right-wing religious Sepharadi party. But now they need a partner who does not oppose withdrawing from territory.

All of a sudden, the main Agudah religious party is negotiating a deal with Sharon to form a coalition that will preside over withdrawal from “holy land”. Their leadership is justifying it by saying “we have always been in favor of Land for Peace”. Indeed, in theory this was so. But in practice, largely pulled that way by Lubavitch, most of them have been mouthing extremist slogans.

All of a sudden, Agudah has discovered it is moderate. Well, where the heck have you been these past five years leaving the field open to those who have preached immovable intolerance? Why suddenly now have you woken up? Because joining the coalition means money for its institutions and money is power, Agudah rabbis are suddenly coming out from behind the walls of the academy.

So ethical leadership is connected to party politics and this is what happens when politics and religion play footsie. For years, instead of crying out against extremism, instead of taking the lead in matters of social concern, materialism, hypocrisy, instead of decrying the dehumanizing of all enemies as if they were identical, they have kept silent on those issues, arguing instead that suicide bombers are punishments for not going to synagogue or that cancer is the result of apostasy or that the letter of the law matters more than the spirit! No wonder so many secular Israelis are turned off to the Jewish religion.

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