Thursday, September 1, 2011

Ghetto in a Ghetto

The security wall soon to be completed around Jerusalem conjures up Ghetto and having come back from Israel recently I have had this ghetto obsession. I realize, of course, that Israel isn’t a ghetto in the conventional sense of the European ghettos that our ancestors lived. We aren’t herded into a confined area, nor are gates locked and a curfew maintained nightly. We are an independent country, enforcing our own laws and enter as well as exit the country when we please. As an independent nation we are masters of our own collective destiny. When necessary, to protect our citizens and our independence we raise hell with our Muslim neighbors. Nevertheless, I keep on wondering whether Israel has become another ghetto, but this time larger, self sufficient and more potent than our previous experiences as ghetto dwellers, thus giving the word ghetto a new meaning. I can’t help but think that if it were true it would be one of the cruel ironies of Jewish history. After all, the whole point of the Zionist enterprise was to free us from the ghetto mentality, to build the new Jew in a new land. Yet, when coming back from my past visit I couldn’t shake this intuitive feeling that I just experienced what my ancestors must have felt in the European ghettos.

In the European ghettos we were locked in at night, subjected to horrific indignities and intolerable discrimination at the hand of the government and good Christian neighbors. Sometimes, and not infrequently, Christian neighbors ganged up on us, a “free for all” by the “pogromchiks” when they decided to have some fun with us on our own turf. They would storm our villages, pillage, rape and murder, and then recede for a while until the next time. But you all know that. What you may not realize however is that a similar pattern has unfolded in the moledet. We aren’t at liberty to pass passport control at any of the exit points to travel to the immediate neighborhood without special entry visas to the Palestinian territories. We can’t travel at will to neighboring countries which border Israel, underscoring our minority status in a very hostile environment as we were once before in Europe. Add to that the constant barrage of rockets from Gaza and we have pogroms operated through remote control. When we go in to clear out the “pogromchiks” we are condemned by the world with a resounding: “shut up Jew, stop complaining, be happy you’re allowed to breath.”

That’s the macro ghetto, the nation of Israel living daily in the shadow of an angry and cruel neighborhood and an antisemitic United Nations. But then I wonder about the micro ghetto, you know, the ghetto within the ghetto. The ultra orthodox communities haven’t yet reconciled itself to joining the larger community and seek to separate itself socially, physically and culturally from the greater corpus of the Jewish people. It seems that the greatest of the culprits is non other than in Jerusalem.

Interestingly, the new tram that will be starting operations shortly has been shrouded in controversy from its very inception. There were those that claimed that it wouldn’t meet the transportation needs of a significant Jerusalem population and therefore the budget wasn’t justified. Others maintained that it would destroy the businesses in the city center since it would shift population away from the commercial center that has been ensconced there for a hundred years. These arguments had merit and were worth consideration. Now however, a new and totally unnecessary controversy has arisen around the tram. Will the tram provide the necessary separation between men and women, and will there be provisions for public prayer? So when the municipality made arrangements that the last car would be designated as the haredi car where only men would be seated the question arose if it was appropriate for them to have the second car, which meant that they would be seated behind women! Pathetic and insulting to a country that prides itself in being counted among the enlightened West.

And if this wasn’t enough, Jerusalem haredim are seeking to establish a new market place because the classic and historical one, the Shuk Mahane Yehudah sponsored the Balabasta Festival, which according to the rigid Puritanical standards of the haredim wasn’t halachically appropriate, not measuring up to the standards of the “Badatz” sniff test. The new and improved market will have separate shopping hours for men and women. Frankly it sounds quite colorless, and a significant deviation from Jewish religious standards – even haredi standards.

In my youth I lived in Jerusalem having attended university there and was well integrated in this universal city. Then, it was a cosmopolitan city, an intellectual magnet for students, artists and professionals. It wasn’t a ghetto. It attracted the best and the brightest from all over America and Europe. Since those halcyon days, Jerusalem has been slipping backward with no end in sight, preferring the backwater flavor of a shtetl, a ghetto, where there is little room for intellectual curiosity and growth beyond which is offered in a yeshiva. A ghetto within a ghetto.