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September 4, 2015 | 20th Elul 5775

Majority Rules (II)

Galilee Diary #566, February 29, 2012
Marc Rosenstein

All glorious is the king's daughter within the palace...
-Psalm 45:14

Until the beginning of Zionist immigration in the early 1880s, the Jewish population of the land of Israel was entirely "Ultra-orthodox," concentrated in the four "holy cities" of Jerusalem, Safed, Hebron and Tiberias. This community saw its mission as to study Torah, pray, and live piously in the land on behalf of the rest of the Jewish people who did not have that privilege, and thus to maintain our spiritual pathway to God and our connection to the land. Most of these Jews lived in poverty, supported by the "chalukah," a kind of UJA that organized fundraising abroad and distribution here in Israel. In the second half of the 19th century, the insufficiency of the chalukah system, and the faint breezes of modernity that arrived here, led to some modest experiments in modernization, in the form of new neighborhoods outside the walled cities, vocational training, and attempts at agriculture.

Conflict between this "Old Yishuv" (community) and the Zionist pioneers was inevitable, not least because these Ultra-orthodox Jews represented to the Zionists everything that they did not want to be, the very epitome of the Judaism against which Zionism was rebelling. And the Old Yishuv, which saw its mission as to preserve a holy, traditional life style against the encroachments of modernity, felt severely threatened by these new arrivals from Europe.

One of the first major confrontations occurred in the early years of British rule (1918-19) when the process of creating the promised "Jewish National Home" got underway with the setting up of an autonomous governing body for the Jews in Palestine. At that point the Jewish population of under 60,000 was divided roughly evenly between the Old Yishuv and the New Yishuv. In seeking to create democratic institutions, the issue of women's suffrage, active and passive (i.e., active = voting; passive = being elected), became a serious bone of contention. The Orthodox Zionists went along with the rest of the New Yishuv, in insisting on equality. But for the Old Yishuv, this became a do-or-die symbolic issue that would determine the possibility of their participation in the state-building process. Their motto was the above verse from Psalm 45, with the emphasis on the word "within." Note, by the way, that this struggle coincided with that for women's suffrage in the United States; the 19th Amendment was not passed until 1920.

The Old Yishuv quickly lost this battle, and was left with the clear understanding that it was doomed to an unending defensive struggle to maintain the values and lifestyle it perceived as holy and timeless. The Zionists, for their part, continued to see the Old Yishuv through the eyes of the anti-semites they had left behind in Europe – as backwards, benighted, and parasitical, and thus as a threat to their own self-image as "New Jews," strong and self-reliant and modern.

Each side was pretty sure that the other would soon fade away, an annoying blip in the flow of Jewish history, to be tolerated, reluctantly, in the hope that that day of redemption would come soon. A century later no one has disappeared; here we all are, still fighting the same battle over and over again, with gender equality remaining the central symbolic issue of the conflict.

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