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Rabbi Ovadia's Purimspleen

By Yair Sheleg

Rabbi Ovadia Yossef's "Haman speech" raises an interesting question: Why, in recent years, is Shas in the vanguard of the more extreme ultra-Orthodox struggles and thus stealing the show from Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Jews, despite the fact that Sephardi Halachic rulings and the religious outlook of Sephardi Jews in general are usually thought to be less extreme than the rulings and outlook of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community?

Shas's extremism is evident not only in Rabbi Yosef's no-holds-barred speeches but also in the fact that, over the last few years, it has been Shas that has led the ultra-Orthodox crusade against the Supreme Court. It should also be noted that in most of the grass-roots confrontations in recent years between religious and secular Jews, such as Pardess Hannah and Beit Shemesh, forces identified with Shas have set the tone and have thus usurped the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox as initiators of such face-offs.

Apparently, the primary reason for this development is the fact that Shas is no longer just another ultra-Orthodox group but represents, at the more substantive level, a social protest movement whose religious identity is the channel for expressing its protest. This point is certainly true when we consider not only the majority of Shas's non-ultra-Orthodox voters but also the party's tough kernel, which is ultra-Orthodox.

Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Jews grew up in the atmosphere of ideological conflict with the secular world but they have never felt that someone was trying to alter their identity (at least, not deliberately). Admittedly, during the initial decades of Israeli history, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community was a small, marginal minority representing the charred remnants of the once-illustrious ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in East Europe, which was almost totally destroyed by the Nazis. As such, the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Jewish community here sensed that it was fighting for its very survival and the struggle it mounted was also of a no-holds-barred, violent nature.

Today, that community is large and has penetrated all aspects of life in Israel. Thus, the sense of an urgent need for revolutionary action has subsided and, in recent years, there have been almost no violent struggles waged by ultra-Orthodox Jews trying to dictate their terms to society. In the present era, they focus their energies on protecting the vital interests of their community - housing for young couples, militant action in educational crises (in view of the friction with the secular world) and a rear-guard battle for the continuation of the induction exemption for yeshiva students.

In contrast, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox community did not develop from any ideology imported from the diaspora but instead is an expression of rage and humiliation over the attempts of Israeli society to alter the identity of Sephardi Jews during the early years of the state. Sephardi ultra-Orthodoxy formed as a sort of counter-culture and carried a message of social - rather than religious - protest against the hated establishment.

While the confrontation between the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community and the secular majority of Israeli society is primarily ideological, the face-off between the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox community and the "establishment" is essentially a struggle for social survival and for a separate identity. The nature of this struggle endows the members of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox community with a much stronger sense that they have the internal legitimacy to take far-reaching steps, because their struggle with the establishment has an emotional intensity that surpasses the level of feelings generated in an ideological-intellectual confrontation.

In light of this fact, when roadblocks are set up in the path of the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox "counter-culture" - whether they take the form of the High Court of Justice or Education Minister Yossi Sarid - they are seen not just as the expression of an ideological confrontation between secular and religious Jews but mainly as a new version of the conflict with the firmly-rooted Ashkenazi-secular establishment that has tried in the past to undermine Sephardi Jewish identity. As a result, all the pent-up rage of the past is unleashed and the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox community devotes its energies to ensure that history will not be repeated and that its identity will not be attacked once more. Essentially, the message that this community transmits to Israeli society in the context of such confrontations is: "We will not let you suppress our identity a second time."

The above is not intended, of course, to justify the words that have been used by Rabbi Yosef. Quite the contrary, the legitimization of those who feel that they are victims is extremely dangerous and must be approached with utmost caution. However, the need for caution also implies a two-fold conclusion: Vigilance must be exercised, but great care must also be taken in order not to escalate the conflict.

In this context, patience is vital, because, after venting its rage, the "counter-culture" will not be interested in remaining technologically and economically backward. If the necessary degree of caution and patience is exercised, we will see the emergence (in fact, initial signs are already apparent) of a new generation of Shasniks, who will display a more tolerant attitude towards the secular world and who will seek, like the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community today, its own unique defense system against the threat of modernity to religious observance.


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