The Ottawa Citizen

November 20, 1997

Israel's violent pacifists

Ultra-orthodox Hasids display little tolerance

by David Warren

A Hasid was asked if he visited his Tsadik to hear words of wisdom. "No," he said, "I wanted to see how he ties his shoelaces."
Source forgotten.

Each time I go to file one of these columns in Jerusalem, I walk through the neighbourhood of Me'a She'arim. I don't have to, I could go around it, but I am drawn to the people in their gorgeous costumage.

The neighbourhood was established in 1874, one of the first Jewish colonies outside the walls of the Old City, in what was then wilderness.

Now it is inner city. It was meant as a home for strictly orthodox Jews, of several kinds and elevations. To this day, the denizens dismiss the conventionally orthodox as beneath their contempt, and indistinguishable from goyim.

They are ultra-orthodox, or ultra-ultra, or ne plus ultra, or ne plus squared. They fight constantly among themselves over fine points of doctrine and deportment (like certain Christians), and cover each other's walls with crudely printed posters. (I had some translated, but dare not record the fearsome epithets in a family newspaper.) Although at first sight their houses are grim, long rows presenting a common wall to outsiders, but with rubbish-strewn alleyways, hiding within they have also a harsh and timeless beauty. One is transported to another century, into the Jewish shtetl of feudal north-east Europe, from where the ancestors of most of these people came. One thinks of the painted lyricism of Chagall, mystical violins and swaying dances: the poetry that is just under the skin.

Like Ontario's Mennonites in their carriages, but less moderate, and less mobile, the ultra-orthodox Hasids do not change even the smallest habits, regardless of climate and though the world sails by. They wear precisely what their grandparents wore, and their grandparents likewise in the ghettos of Germany, Poland, Russia.

The hats on the men are alone worth a visit: great halos of fur mounting high above black, white, or sometimes pin-striped caftans; wide-brimmed felts like Franciscan padres; or black homburgs like pre-war bankers (but with silken yarmulkes showing underneath). Wild beards on the grand old men, and spiralling earlocks on the slender young ones accentuate bespectacled faces that seem never to have been warmed by the sun.

Women are less visible. Occasionally one appears in Sabbath raiments of Oriental splendour. More often they are frumpy ghosts, glimpsed in a window before they turn away.

Stern warnings against female immodesty (sleeveless blouses, for instance, or necklines that plunge below the larynx) are posted in English at the entrances to each ward, on banners that stretch right across the road. The inmates smash windows on shops that are slow to close on Friday afternoons (the eve of the Sabbath), and are notorious for setting fire to bus shelters. It is their singular form of communication with the depraved who inhabit the big world impinging on their bubble.

I always dress modestly, myself, but on my last walk through didn't escape a stoning. Let me admit that I was acting immodestly.

Curiosity overcame me when I found an arch open into the interior of one of the little courts. I got as far as a communal kitchen when I felt the first sting against the nape of my neck. Another pebble grazed my chin as I turned towards my assailant, then a third on a shoulder as he came into view. His left hand was full of little stones, which he was fingering as a rosary.

It was a young man -- he looked about 20 in the homburg and earlock combination, the cuffs of his black trousers tucked into white socks. His aim was deadly: I imagined that he practises on squirrels and sparrows, this David to my Goliath.

I raised my hands in the conventional posture of surrender, and the pelting stopped. It was replaced by a guttural flow of Yiddish abuse (I had been expecting Hebrew).

To be fair, I was trespassing. I didn't think it would help to show my press card.

He let me go, still cussing as I passed, with one more pong half way up my spine when I presented my back to him. (I wouldn't want to be a milkman in this neighbourhood.) God bless the ultras. Like most incurably violent people, they are pacifists. They refuse service in the Israel Defence Force, and until recently, refused to vote. Now they are part of Binyamin Netanyahu's governing coalition, their seats assured by the grace of proportional representation.

The small religious parties vote with Mr. Netanyahu's Likud (though they sometimes cut a better deal with Labour) in exchange for special considerations. In addition to exemption from military conscription, they get sacks of money for ultra-orthodox schools and welfare institutions.

These latter pay the men to study all day, their Talmud and Midrash, while their wives get on with raising eight or nine children.

In return, the ultras are prepared to go along with privatization and deregulation policies that they think will not affect them, and to passively support Mr. Netanyahu's chillingly aggressive stance towards "the Arab." It is a lose-lose-lose political arrangement, in which the various nutbars prop each other up, at a time when Israel is threatened by a growing arsenal of Arab surface-to-surface missiles.

But that's another story, over my head. It would take years of careful, tedious study for an outsider like me to master the complexities of Israeli politics, and thereby account for the paranoid swamp into which they would seem to be descending.

I can, however, see that it would be a mistake to blame the religious parties for the quagmire. It is Mr. Netanyahu who picks fights with everyone from the Palestinians to the Americans, while stabbing his cabinet colleagues in the back, and playing on divisions in the home front. (He is Israel's answer to the late John Diefenbaker.) The ultra-orthodox are invincibly naive, when it comes to politics, and happy to take the blame. Yet they are among the few Israelis who have no problem with the Arabs (most act neutral whenever Israel goes to war). In fact, they don't have problems with anyone in the fallen outside world, until somebody messes in.

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