Nicola Mathie. Global Discourse. Volume 6, Issue 4. 2016.
Since the State of Israel was (re)established in 1948 as an outcome of Zionist ideology and the Political Zionist Movement, division and contestation has marked the nature of Israeli society and the politics of the State. Declared as ‘a Jewish State’ (Ben-Gurion 1948), this identity has been open to contestation, not only in the question of what the ‘Jewish State’ is and how this translates upon its nature and operationality, but in serving as a site for legitimising or de-legitimising the State’s existence in space asserted as the historic Jewish homeland. Within Israel, there are a multitude of religious groups who interact with the State of Israel and Israeli society differently, each with particular belief-systems and ways of life, deploying methods to protect or advance these, and particular spaces, including violence/violent resistance. Published by the United States State Department, the annual ‘Country Reports on Terrorism 2014ʹ contains numerous statements on ‘sectarianism’ effecting states. Reports have also focussed specifically on ‘sectarian conflict’ and ‘sectarian violence’. Yet the term ‘sectarianism’ is deficient in discussions relating to divisions and tensions effecting Israeli society and is not a feature of mainstream discourse.
It is beyond the scope of this article to engage in a deep analysis of Jewish history, individual Jewish sects/branches/factions and cases of inter-/intra-Jewish sectarian characteristics over the years. Rather, the article’s focus and contribution lies in two areas. First, stimulated by language, rhetoric and actions emerging from Israel, this article seeks to explore if ‘sectarianism’ is an important and useful term/concept to be applied in inter-/intra-Jewish tensions and how Jewish religious groups react to and interact with the State of Israel? Second, in line with the aims of this Special Edition, how do cases in Judaism and Israel serve to add understanding to discussions and understandings on ‘sectarianism’? As a concept which is growing in use but receives little definition or analysis of its meaning, we will begin by opening-up this term, identifying key components. We will then briefly observe Jewish ‘sectarianism’ on an historic level before assessing cases of Jewish ‘sectarianism’ within Israel today from Ultra-Orthodox communities. Using contemporary case studies, we will critically assess the violence which has been deployed against the State and other targets and ask what is motivating such acts, how we should comprehend these tensions and can we situate these cases as Jewish ‘sectarianism’?
Throughout, I seek to argue that ‘sectarianism’ contains three central aspects: it comprises and promotes division and boundarisation; it is heavily connected with power; it is comprised of questions and practices of security and insecurity. Cases of sectarianism contain their own ideological base, system and agenda, providing members of the sect—or ‘sectarian subjects’—with a particular code of conduct and a license to act based on the belief-system and concerns of the sect. Through the case studies, we will observe how sectarianism has different components and aspects-metaphysical, religious, ontological, existential, political and societal—a recognition of important significance for deepening understandings of sectarianism. As well as the importance of inter-/intra-Jewish divisions and tensions, we are especially concerned with how Jewish sects or movements interact with modern Israeli society, the State of Israel, its sovereignty and practices. All of this at a time when Israeli society is facing dangerous internal division, conflicts and ‘extremist’ ‘fringes’ and ‘forces’ (Times of Israel Staff 2015a, 2015b).
The Term ‘Sectarianism’
Despite the increasingly popular use and reliance on the term/label ‘sectarian(ism)’, significantly there is no universal or agreed definition. The term cuts across various disciplines, where its usage is often found in contexts of insecurity/tensions/divisions/conflicts within societies. But within what circumstances/conditions can we say it is ‘sectarian(ism)’? Using the term is a political act. Attaching ‘sectarian’ to ‘violence’ or ‘conflict’ defines and categorises it in a certain way, attributing it with a particular nature, further politicising ‘sectarianism’. Again, in what circumstances/conditions do we find this happening? Is there a concern or agenda in employing the label? And what does the use of this label seek to show and demand as a response to the framing? Such critical questioning is important to take place. This discussion and assessment of key components of sectarianism, an assessment which is severely lacking in literature and discussion of sectarianism, is a contribution which this article seeks to make. Such an identification not only will allow us to develop an awareness of important features and components generally, serving to deepen understanding, but also these features and components will enable us to assess if Jewish ‘sectarianism’ is a relevant and useful term.
In modern culture, a ‘sect’ commonly refers to a group that breaks away from a larger one—or the society mainstream—and subscribes to certain beliefs, rules and principles. Division is our first feature. Authors such as Albert Baumgarten have alerted to the difficulties and indeed unattainability of providing a universal definition of ‘sectarianism’. Sects/sectarianism are found in a variety of contexts—each with their own histories, cultures, politics and societal make-up. Therefore, ‘the more precise meaning of a term such as sect, when employed by social scientists or historians, depends on a great extent on the examples chosen to determine the paradigm’ (Baumgarten 1997, 5). Furthermore, as researchers and spectators, our ability to gain thorough and comprehensive understanding of sectarian dynamics and practices is limited given the insularity and exclusivity within sects. Nevertheless, whilst not claiming to be a universal nor comprehensive paradigm, we must identify prominent features of ‘sectarianism’ because of its prevalent yet unclarified use in contemporary discourse. Division will be the starting point with the aims and consequences of this division our analytical concern.
In dividing and separating from ‘the other’ by virtue of a belief-system, a deliberate and meaningful self-definition over and against ‘the other’ is a basis for the existence of a sect. But what turns this into sectarianism? And, why do conflictual relations, struggles and violence come to be central features of cases of ‘sectarianism’? Salameh Kaileh states that ‘sectarianism is any religious or sectarian barrier that is based on inherited beliefs against the “other”’, and ‘is the tendency to undermine social cohesion by pushing for the reproduction of ancient beliefs and separations’. We should also recognise that ‘this process is not exclusive to religious minorities, but can also be observed in the majority as well’. The crucial factor is that ‘sectarianism is turning diversity to conflict’ and ‘stokes conflict with the “other” on the basis of antiquated conflicts and inherited beliefs’ (Kaileh and Shams 2014). For Azmi Bishara (2016), ‘sectarianism is not a religious issue, but a socio-political phenomenon’ and ‘while a sect is a religious community, sectarianism is zealousness for this community rather than for the religion or denomination’. However, as we will see, actions and zealousness are carried out in the name of religion. In sectarianism, identities and beliefs are themselves crucial as they are used to divide and are crucially weaponised in conflictual relations and existence both for the sectarian self and the (sectarian) ‘other’, forming an engulfing lens and framework for relations.
The historical usage of the term ‘sect’ in Christianity had pejorative connotations, referring to a group/movement with heretical beliefs or practices that deviated from those groups that considered themselves as ‘orthodox’. Sectarianism is more than religious division. It is interconnected with politics and processes of politicisation and (de)securitisation, heavily concerned with the construction of ‘the other’, inter- and intra-religion, as well as the generic (secular) ‘other’. This ‘othering’ can take the form of religious political violence. In sectarianism, individuals may deny the authenticity, legitimacy and very faith and claim-to-belief of other sects/streams/movements/individuals where ‘sectarianism’ is marked by ideological division, aggression and violence. Within Islamic sectarianism, we see expressions such as ‘Shi’a Kuffar’, or ‘goy’ or ‘shegetz’ labelled by certain Jews against non-Jews or other ‘Jews’. Within sectarian politics and conflicts, this ideological division and aggression can also involve the dehumanisation of ‘the other’.
Crucially, within sectarian politics, ‘deviancy’ does not have to be pejorative. Attracting this label can be a course of celebration, motivation and sectarian reinforcement. If a sect perceives another sect, the ‘mainstream’, or ‘religious establishment’ as unorthodox (even though they declare themselves to be), as corrupted, or inauthentic, an emphasis on ‘division’ and ‘deviance’ is positive and important. Sociologists Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch characterised sects as ‘protests’ against the practice and beliefs of the rest of society, a purposeful act of dissent, and with this protest comes a differential self-definition and existence (Baumgarten 1997). A religious/ideological belief-system alone does not bring a sect into existence but is an act of protest and power itself.
It is here that sectarianism comes to be defined by a political, as well as an ontological and metaphysical nature, aspects which may be overlooked in discussions. Sectarianism is marked by competing claims of and to legitimacy and authenticity centred upon which religious interpretation is asserted as being ‘true orthodoxy’ or being the true faith/religion. Actions are therefore promoted and legitimised in the name of possessing the true faith/religion, religious truth itself. Again, as Bishara alerts (2016), in sectarian analysis beginning with doctrinal or scriptural differences is wrong. Rather, what is important for understanding sectarianism is the wider social-political contexts and components of divisions, rivalries, and also, I argue, wills-to-(em)power. Centring the sect and the sectarian self upon and within a claim of adhering to and advancing religious truth, therefore, sees sects taking legitimacy from God, which has fundamental implications in how sects relate to modern society, political sovereignty and ‘the other’ and how this impacts on the nature, ideology and politics of sectarianism itself. The relationship between sectarianism, fundamentalism and a fundamentalist belief-system—where Ian Lustick defines ‘its adherents regard its tenets as uncompromisable and direct transcendental imperatives to political action oriented toward the rapid and comprehensive reconstruction of society’ (Lustick 1988, 6)—is an important consideration within thoughts and understandings of sectarianism.
‘Sectarianism’ can contain an historical-temporal dimension. Sects may object to how a religion has changed and seek to return back to the ‘original’ faith, to uncompromisingly follow the practices and standards of the founders/disciples/prophets/ancestors. Again, this attracts different perceptions and politics of deviancy where sectarianism is lodged in battles: claims to be either following or returning faith to a true and higher standard, the pure and authentic faith; or in claims of progressing faith/religion through (re)interpretation i.e. possessors of a ‘reformed’ authentic faith. Again, this connects back to the centrality of identities and beliefs/belief-systems weaponised over and against ‘the other’ in sectarianism and sectarian conflict. Crucially, whilst some authors on sectarianism categorise sects as subscribing to ‘past’ or ‘ancient’ beliefs, we should be critical of this. New sectarianisms can emerge from new interpretations of faith/religion, new protests and new sectarian identities, creating division and boundarisation. Furthermore, sectarian conflict is not necessarily based upon ‘antiquated conflicts’, but may be both caught-up in and has emerged out of new conflicts and tensions and still may incorporate ‘antiquated conflicts’. Whatever the historical-temporal dimension of the sect, its claims to represent, and the emergence of sectarian conflicts, claims-to-truth are central. These claims-to-truth serve to both empower/disempower, include/separate (Foucault), so sects/sectarianism operate within a regime of truth and regime and network of power.
Interpretation and claims of legitimacy and authenticity within an overall framework of division necessarily translates into action. ‘Sectarian behaviour’, or ‘sectarianism’ can take different forms which serve to demonstrate and reinforce sectarian division and the breaking-awayness/differentiation from ‘the other’. Baumgarten calls this ‘boundary-marking’ which, he argues, is a key feature of sectarianism. This can have cultural or identity dimensions, where a sect adopts/develops certain customs/practices, not merely connected to a particular belief-system but serves as a mark of distinguishment, such as a dress code, a physical marker of sectarian identity, identification and ontology. In divided and conflictual societies especially, sectarian visibility can be a source of both security/insecurity.
Sectarianism can have spatial-communal dimensions, where a sect may physically separate from ‘the other’ or ‘the outside’ in its spatial existence. Spaces are turned into sectarian spaces, a space of community, belonging, separation and control. This physical separateness provides a space for beliefs and practices to be enacted, strengthening sectarian self-identity (Valins 2003, 158-159). There is also another important ideological feature within sectarianism: ‘any sect tends to define itself by purity rules’ (Douglas 1973, 141), impacting on the nature of space. Purity/impurity is particularly powerful within the politics, metaphysics and ontology of religious sectarianism (Neusner 1973), and may be interpreted as seeking to assert or deny virtuousness, morality, righteousness, modesty, uprightness and authenticity. Sectarian spaces become perceived by the sectarian spatial community as a ‘pure’ space which reflects the claim-to-authenticity of the sect itself, as opposed to the ‘impure’ ‘other’ or ‘outside’ which is perceived as posing existential insecurity for the sect and therefore efforts may seek to ensure minimal contact with ‘the outside’. A struggle to maintain existential security through practices of control also defines sectarian existence and sectarianism. In divided societies where sectarian identities, tensions and violence are strong, these spaces become synonymous with insecurity and violence, no-go areas to ‘the other’, marking sectarianism with another dimension of existential (in)security.
Within the politics of sectarianism, we often hear how sectarian actors ‘instrumentalise sectarianism’. Whilst we should always be critical of how sectarian sentiments/identifications are employed and weaponised to stir, agitate or pursue sectarian and political agendas, we cannot purely categorise sectarianism as an ‘instrument’. As Victorious Shams alerts (Kaileh and Shams 2014), we need to be careful of objectifying and characterising sectarianism in such a way ‘as if it were a choice. Like a cloak that can be worn or discarded at will’. Often, individuals are born-into a ‘sectarian’ identity and are strictly raised to be a sectarian Being and subject where this identity and practice has engulfing impacts on the very ontology, agency and subjectivity of the individual (Valins 2003). This therefore has the capacity to impact upon the cohesiveness and security of the state/society itself, especially when states/societies have a number of sectarian divisions and conflicting relations as ‘citizenship is replaced by a sectarian understanding of sectarian authority’ (Kaileh and Shams 2014). The issue of loyalty/allegiance is another important feature within sectarianism.
Separated and differentiated from ‘the other’, the uncompromising quest/demand for attaining and adhering to religious authenticity has engulfing and authoritative effects. As members of an order which is asserted as the truth, this bases sects within a network of power. Within sects, there are rules, codes of conduct and expectations. Obedience to values, practices and teachings and loyalty to the sect is expected to take precedence, therefore providing a framework and disciplinisation within sectarian existence, i.e. a metaphysical, religious, ideological and existential basis of Being and Being-sectarian. Both these uncompromising quests and demands, as well as demands for loyalty and obedience, can bring subjects and the sect into conflict with modern society, politics and the state.
Despite living by a vision and a framework of action which is often different to the mainstream order in society, and even seeking to shield the sect from the inauthentic and corrupting ‘outside’ by creating and guarding ‘pure’ sectarian spaces, sects cannot completely avoid the outside, nor be immune from influences and changes within society and politics. The fear or reality of such an impact will create problematics over how to act and respond, potentially causing intra-sect divisions. A sect may vocally or violently object and respond to the change to protect their sectarian interests and identity or to ensure the maintenance of the status quo. A sect may strive to increase its power in society, e.g. heightening its influence in the political sphere of a state, to prevent a change willed for by an antithetical ‘other’ coming into fruition. Or, a sect may turn further insular, defensively close-off from ‘the outside’, reinforcing separateness and making further demands of obedience. With sectarian affiliation surpassing citizenship, and sects requiring continual questioning of ‘the world’ around them and how they should react to ‘the other’, ‘the individual’s relationship with the state rests upon his sectarian affiliation’ where there are different types of what can be called ‘state sectarianism’ (Kaileh and Shams 2014). In their will-to-(em)power advancing and defending sectarian interests and concerns, sectarian subjects may use political institutions of the state to further sectarian interests or to mould the state in light of sectarian interests/agendas.
Alternatively, rather than a site of opportunity to advance and securitise a sectarian agenda, sectarian subjects may perceive the state as a threat or danger, an obstacle which needs to be overcome or removed altogether. In the politicisation of sectarianism, ‘the state’ itself becomes a site of contestation, not only having to contend with sectarian tensions which are inherently conflictual in nature, but also finding itself contested vis-à-vis sectarian interpretation and politics. Caught within this political, ideological and conflictual sectarian theatre, religion and politics unite and collide vigorously. The relationships between sectarianisms and the State will be of particular significant in our forthcoming focus of Jewish sectarianism in the State of Israel.
Each case of sectarianism will have different degrees of the components above due to the particular sectarian paradigm, as well as their own unique contexts and characteristics of sects. With these components of sectarianism now at the forefront of our minds, it is time that we narrow our focus upon ‘Jewish Sectarianism’ and whether ‘sectarianism’ indeed can be an accurate and useful way of conceptualising of inter-/intra-Jewish tensions and contentions. We will begin with a brief historical discussion before moving on to significant contemporary cases.
Historic Jewish ‘Sectarianism’
For our consideration and assessment of ‘Jewish sectarianism’ and for characterising relations, divisions and tensions within Judaism and Israeli society, we must precede with caution. Using this term seems antithetical to the foundational belief-system of Judaism. The Jewish faith is centred upon the belief of the unity and oneness of the Jewish People as the Chosen People, in which Moses received the truth and Commandments from God, and all Jews share the same religious/national ‘story’ which they themselves are part. Jews are descendants of Abraham who himself—under the orders of God—separated from his society and moved to ‘the Promised Land’ to allow for a distinct Jewish society and existence to come into being, and the commandments to be faithfully followed, as the people/nation which was handed the truth and responsibility to be ‘a light unto nations’. Upon receiving the truth and by virtue of Being-Jewish, all Jews have certain obligations. Also, particularly within Diasporic existence, Jews as a collective have historically faced experiences of insecurity and persecution at the hands of non-Jews by Being-Jewish.
Today, we see appeals by rabbis for unification and to end divisions within Judaism and insults and hostilities by Jewish groups against the ‘Jewish other’, a mark of Jewish sectarianism. Such hostilities Rabbi Sylvester argues is ‘a desecration of God’s name’ (Sylvester 2013) and is therefore non- and anti-Jewish. Sylvester critiqued the refusal of some Orthodox rabbis to be in the same environment as non-Orthodox Jews and the ‘heresy hunts’ conducted by Orthodox Jews, warning:
… it is precisely because we face terrible splits in the Jewish people that rabbis and teachers must build whatever bridges we can—without compromising our beliefs—to ensure Jewish unity for as long as possible…. If we cannot find ways to sit down with our fellow Jews, learn Torah and mend the world with them, that should be a source of deep distress and soul searching, not an excuse for squalid triumphalism.
However, as Lawrence Schiffman surveys (Schiffman 2014), ‘the problem of Jewish unity and disunity is not a new one. In fact, it is one which runs like a constant motif throughout biblical period, the Hellenistic age, medieval and modern times’. Historically, Jews have had to confront different societies/cultures/influences where hybridity was considered a threat (Douglas 1966). When the Israelites entered Canaan ‘the Bible describes at length the struggle of religious and group identity which took place’ (Schiffman 2014). This struggle of Jewish identity would also have significant internal dimensions and consequences where, despite the ‘oneness’ of the Jewish people, historically the Jewish nation and Judaism itself has been marked by fragmentation and ideological division. Personal interpretation of Jewish religious texts is a fundamental aspect of Judaism where interpretations of core beliefs have splintered and solidified into what may be associated with characteristics of sects.
When discussions of Jewish ‘sectarianism’ take place, scholars point to the period of the Second Temple. Shiffman points to how the rise of the Maccabees witnessed a ferment in Jewish religious thought and the question of Jewish self-identity, in particular regarding the domination of Hellenism and the question of how Jews should accommodate or react to this influence. Celebrated each year in Hanukah, the Maccabees remain revered in Jewish history for taking a stand against ‘the other’ for ‘refusing to bow before false gods’, safeguarding Judaism, Jewish existence and national Jewish liberation even against ‘Jewish elites who preached submission and appeasement’ (Glick 2013).
The successful revolt of the Maccabees in their struggle against non-Jewish forces, Jewish elites and a threatening culture, brought to the fore issues within Jewish religious thought and Jewish law where the growth of literacy allowed individuals to assume authority for interpretation of religious texts (Baumgarten 1997), and groups had to decide how to relate to external influences and pressures as well as relations with particular theologies (Schiffman 1994). Baumgarten assesses ‘the flourishing of ancient Jewish sects in the Maccabean era’, such as Pharisees, Sadducees, and those who lived at Qumran. Here sectarian characterises can be identified, such as different ways of interacting with the establishment, an identity based upon separation from ritual impurity, claiming religious authority by following the written word of the Bible, and different sides claiming to possess the correct interpretation of the Torah. The most famous sect within Jewish history is the Essenes. Philo and Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls describe groups which separated from the dominant trends of Judaism of their times, organised into smaller groups, stressed immersion and prayer alongside Torah study, and devoted to the attainment and preservation of purity and holiness. These groups not only had distinctive customs and identity but complex systems of admission and penal codes for those who violated regulations. What is important within the rise of sectarianism is the development of distinct ideological stances which distinguished a separateness from others (Schiffman 1994).
It is in the period of the Galut—or Jewish exile—where we see a more pronounced emergence of Jewish sects. In the spatial fragmentation of the Jewish nation, the confrontation with ‘the other’ would again cause fragmentation and division within Judaism and the Jewish nation itself. ‘In this protracted period of exile … new canons, customs, and rituals developed’ (Aran and Hassner 2013, 386). Existing on the margins of society, and many European Jews living in Jewish ghettos, this not only isolated them from wider society but also preserved and strengthened culture/identity and religious observances. It is the sectarian qualities of Ultra-Orthodox Judaism which we will explore given our forthcoming focus of the significance of Ultra-Orthodox sectarianism in Israel.
‘Ultra-Orthodox’ or ‘Haredi’ Judaism arose in eighteenth-century Europe in response to the perceived weakening of Judaism, seeking to return to the fundamentals of the Jewish faith and strictly adhering to all aspects of Halakha. ‘Within the Jewish community at large, the Haredi have traditionally been regarded as eccentric, inward-looking—some would say religious extremists’ (Brown 2011). Whilst commonly known as ‘the Ultra-Orthodox’, this label has discursive impact and has been contested by different subjects. Translated from biblical Hebrew as ‘one who trembles’ (Isaiah 66:2), i.e. ‘God-fearing’, ‘the Haredi see themselves as defenders of the faith … the last redoubt of orthodoxy, taking sustenance from their rigid observance of the halacha’ (Brown 2011). All aspects of Haredi existence reflect strict religious observance and their sectarian existence from ‘the other’—both non-Jews and non-Haredi Jews in societies. Notable similarities mark Haredim as a whole: the centrality of Halakha which strictly governs every aspect of life; a central emphasis upon the primacy of Torah study; a rejection of modern culture and society in large part; distinctive traditional dress; tight internal controls within the sect and community; a strict emphasis upon modesty; and ‘their clear construction of socio-spatial boundaries to separate themselves from those they consider to be “other”’ (Valins 2000) where ‘perceptions by ultra-Orthodox Jews of themselves as moral and pure, (leads) to a perceived need to defend their way of life against outside society, portrayed as impure and corrupt’ (Valins 2003, 159). Such practices and boundary-constructions are clearly sectarian in nature.
Despite often presented as a collective force or entity, ‘the social group commonly known as Haredi Jewry is composed of many diverse factions, each of which differs significantly from the others’ (Ravitzky 1993, 146). Haredi Judaism itself is divided into a large number of sects where ‘each of which has slightly different approaches to following the regulations in the sacred texts and can be identified by variations in their style of dress’ (Valins 2003, 159). Each of these groups is further sub-divided into numerous sects led by a rebbe. ‘The differences among the various sections of Haredi Jewry occur at a number of different levels’, wrote Ravitzky (1993, 146). Thus, whilst commonalties in dress, tradition and shared aspects of religious belief and religiosity are ‘surface manifestations’ of sectarian identity, it is important to recognise ‘the underlying conflicts of philosophy and outlook’ within discussions of Haredi sectarianism (146). It is important to make clear that holding particular beliefs is not inherently conflictual, either with non-Jewish populations or with other Jewish groups, and despite historic conflicts, sects can cooperate and live peacefully side-by-side (Ferziger 2015). Whilst attitudes towards modern culture/society and degrees of moderation and isolation are significant sites of division within Haredi sectarianism and sectarian politics, it is ‘the question of the State of Israel (that) has proven even more divisive than the issue of modernity’ (Ravitzky 1993, 7).
Jewish Sectarianism and the State of Israel
The emergence of modern Political Zionism at the end of the nineteenth century was a key point within the history of Judaism and the history of the Jewish nation. Headed by Theodor Herzl, Political Zionism was essentially a secular movement seeking to achieve Jewish national liberation and independence and national, political and territorial sovereignty for the Jewish nation. Zionism would develop to explicitly set its goal of returning the Jewish nation to the historic homeland—Eretz Yisrael, or the Land of Israel, Palestine. The return to the ancient biblical land would be the space where a new Jewish ‘national renaissance’ would occur.
The emergence of modern Zionism witnessed and exacerbated division and fragmentation within the nation and Judaism itself. In particular, how would Jewish Orthodoxy react to the principles and actions of Zionism and to the (re)creation of the State of Israel, which not only put an end to Jewish exile through human efforts but brought about a wide-scale Jewish national return to Eretz Yisrael? These were actions which religious scriptures traditionally interpreted for God only to bring about. Zionism, therefore, not only symbolised and entailed a fundamental breaking-away from and overriding of tradition, a seeming blasphemy of Divine punishment and providence, but posed fundamental religious and metaphysical questions concerning messianism and the coming-of-the-redemption.
The question of what the State of Israel represented and what its existential role is would receive different answers. Some rabbis would support the aims of modern Zionism on a purely practical level for the security of the Jewish people/nation but positioned Zionism and the Jewish return devoid of any religious/messianic significance. For others, they remain in a state of ‘exile in the Holy Land’ (Ravitzky 1993, 145-180). Whilst Political Zionism itself asserted its secular essence, prominent rabbis, such as Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook and his son Zvi Yehuda Hacohen Kook—the fathers of National-Religious Zionism—asserted that Zionism’s essence is in fact messianic and the State’s (re)creation and return to Eretz Yisrael ordained by God (79-144). However, many (Ultra)orthodox circles assert that Zionism is a violation of the three Holy Oaths and the resultant (re)creation of the State of Israel is antiethical to Judaism, a harm to the Redemption and the Jewish nation and a defilement against God Himself. Each Jewish individual, as well as Jewish sects/movements, would therefore need to interpret Zionism and decide how they would interact with the State of Israel.
There are a ‘variety of Haredi attitudes toward the existence, laws, mores, and activities of the sovereign Jewish state in the current (i.e. premessianic) era … that issue stands at the center of a sharp conflict within the Haredi community’ (Ravitzky 1993, 146). As well as the fundamental religious, metaphysical and messianic questions and problematics ‘Zionism’ raised, Jewish religious populations would have to confront the State of Israel as a political and governmental operationality. Whilst Lev Tahor and other Haredi sects live-out sectarian existence in isolated communities outside Israel, having little contact with ‘the other’, Jewish sects do live in Israel where we see both coexistence and confrontation between the secular and the sacred, the political and the theological, and between different sovereignties. Existing in a particular Jewish and anti-, non- or Zionist consciousness (Ravitzky 1993), but living under the State’s political sovereignty and governance regime, how do sectarian identities interact vis-à-vis ‘Zionism’ and the State of Israel and its sovereignty? And, how do sectarian consciousness, identities and agendas have to contend with this and with Israeli society? As one member of Lev Tahor, or ‘Pure Heart’, expressed—a name which has significance in sectarianism discussions and identities—‘if we do believe that the Torah is the truth for us, and it’s Gods’ words, why should we compromise about that?’ (CBC 2014). Issues of moderation, interaction and compromise are significant markers of inter-/intra-sect differences and sectarian conflicts.
Whilst declared ‘a Jewish State’, Being-Jewish attracts different perceptions, impacting upon how the State/society is seen and related to, how (sectarian) existence is enacted, and the question of ‘Jewishness’ itself. Amanda Borschel-Dan (2016) acknowledges the significance of the ‘bitter internal denominational turf wars’ in Israel today—‘the country of the Chosen People’—with ‘one of the most historically divisive questions facing the Jewish people: Who is a Jew?’ The act of definition is not merely a religious, political and sectarian issue, a site of power, but is an existential matter, lying at the heart of sectarianism. Whilst Adam Ferzinger assesses ‘we will see a sharpened hierarchy of Jewish identity’ (Borschel-Dan 2016), Borschel-Dan speaks of a greater internal schism: ‘Is the world heading for a split, a religious and national schism, in which it will soon no longer speak about the Jewish people but rather peoples?’
With the concern of this article being whether we can conceptualise of inter-/intra-Jewish tensions within the State of Israel—and conflicts with the State of Israel itself—as ‘sectarianism’ and how particular contemporary cases and languages within Israel can contribute to understandings of sectarianism itself, we will now move on to three cases. First, we will explore sectarian extremism within Haredi communities. Second, we will assess how sectarianism is caught up in conflicts over particular spaces. Third, we will look at the significance of direct struggles with the State of Israel itself and how this impacts on intra-sectarian relations. The significance of language—which I will argue is sectarian in nature—will be a strong analytical focus for sectarianism as well as acknowledging deeper aspects contained within cases of Jewish sectarianism.
Numerous authors and commentators have focused upon the secular/religious divisions within Israeli society, particularly the practices of the Haredim. One author classified ‘Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox’ as ‘a Jewish Ghetto Within the Zionist State’ (Beit-Hallahmi 1992). Another stated: ‘their often violent struggle to secure a Jewish religious identity for Israel reinforces their image in the eyes of the secular population as a large threatening black mass’ (Pegelatrin 2012). The practices of Ultra-Orthodox Jewry—and the distinct Haredi and Hasidic sects within—most vividly signify Jewish sectarianism in Israel today, embodying and reflecting components of sectarianism discussed in this chapter’s beginning: claims to be possessors of the truth; living authentic Jewish existence; living in separate spaces and placing boundaries around these communities preserving ‘purity’ and holiness’ with ‘walls of rejection’; adopting boundary-marking features such as distinctive existence and dress; large rejection of practices of ‘the other’; tight internal controls; and demands of obedience. Yet, despite tight internal controls, it is important to recognise that obedience is not absolute (Tucker 2015). Responding to the increased use of smartphones by Haredi Jews, e.g. a technology largely banned because of the perceived threats which the devices pose and their perceived non-compatibility with Haredi-Being and existence which is deviance ‘from the straight path’, one Ultra-Orthodox leader declared: ‘Anyone who has a connection to the corrupting devices should know that he is losing all connection to us, removing himself from the camp of those who fear and are in awe of the word of G-d!!’ Whilst the Lithuanian (non-Hasidic) Ultra-Orthodox community launched a ‘Holiness Revolution’, for Vizhnitz Hasidism this is an existential struggle, reflected in their slogan ‘This is a matter of life and death’ (Ettinger 2016a). Caught in a struggle over ‘holiness’ and ‘purity’ and existence, this is also a struggle for intra-sectarian control. Whilst compromises for use have been made, high restrictions and levels of supervision remain, as well as punishments for non-compliance and the denial of certain rights and statuses for users within certain sects, therefore asserting the authoritarian framework and control within sectarianism.
In 2016, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an interview with a family who had ‘fled the ultra-Orthodox fold’, entering ‘the world outside the walls’. This valuable case provides a powerful insight into what sectarian existence means and the internal features and politics, enabling us to gain deeper awareness of sectarianism. The language used to describe this existence and experience is potent for discussions and understandings of sectarianism. Likening deviancy to a ‘revolution’, Yisrael Heller pronounced ‘I discarded Haredism and became a Jew’ (Rotem 2016). Belonging to the closed Haredi Yerushalmer sect in Ramat Beit Shemesh, the family offers a first-hand insight into sectarian existence and life in the ‘small, insular community, identified with the most extreme sects of Haredi society’ (Rotem 2016). Any modification in dress or behaviour is considered an act of deviancy, and the individual’s belief-system brought into question: ‘The members of the community are quick to spot the slightest change in shirt style or hat size; such behavior is considered a gross infringement of the rules and traditions to which it adheres’ (Rotem 2016). ‘Within a single day, rumors spread that I was becoming a “questioner” (giving up the religious life)’, Yisrael Heller reflected. ‘I started to receive threats, questions from functionaries. I realized that I was under surveillance’ (Rotem 2016). Belonging requires obedience. Sectarian existence is based upon and operates through a governance and self-governance framework, pure conformity within strict power-relations, obligations and prohibitions, described as ‘fantatacism’ and ‘shackles’. Again, power relations and the ‘system’ of the sect display the significance that sectarian belonging has engulfing grips and cannot be discarded easily: ‘Haredi society is … a dependent system that manages to hold everyone by the throat’ (Rotem 2016).
For Yisrael Heller, what sustains and fuels sectarian existence and control is the paucity of critical questioning among subjects/members. When critical questioning does happen, the framework and force of (sectarian) existence and sectarianism wanes and is destabilised, bringing new reflections and openings on different levels: metaphysical, ontological and existential:
No one thinks about God, but they are all working in the name of God, against the Zionists, against the Internet…. The moment you understand how things work, you feel disconnected. And then you ask yourself: Why do I observe Shabbat? Because I’ve been trained to do it? … when you lose the Haredism (literally, the fear), and take a critical view, there’s no other way you can continue. (Rotem 2016)
It is the politics of extremism evident in Ultra-Orthodox sects and cases of Jewish sectarianism which is especially important for this analysis. Again, issues of (self)perception, projection, division and power are prevalent in inter-sect sectarian dynamics:
In the workings of Haredi society … I discovered that there is a great deal of hatred. Every group knows that it has its ‘outstanding rabbi of the generation’—and that the rabbi of the other group must be diminished in stature. The more I push him down, the higher I will elevate my rabbi. In all Haredi politics, there is no discussion of what Hashem (God) really wants. That’s not part of the lexicon … It’s all politics between the rabbis—which is them will be more extreme. (Rotem 2016)
The significance of the ‘moral authority’ upon which sectarian Being/existence, practices and conflicts rest and operate through has been critically acknowledged. ‘One of the main sources of power enabling Haredi Jews’ extreme behavior is the Israeli public’s widely held view that their way of life represents traditional Judaism, and that when it comes to Judaism, more radical means more authentic’, writes Shahar Ilan (2012). Such perceptions/self-perceptions, as well as the creation of ‘new codes’ and ‘distorted viewpoints’ ‘presented as the pure embodiment of traditional Judaism’ are ‘myths’ Ilan states. But the critical question is what do beliefs and claims of ‘moral authority’ permit? The claim to be more ‘moral’, ‘religious’, ‘authentic’, and ‘God-fearing’ serves as ammunition within struggles on different levels, within claiming authority within society and within sectarian politics. Whilst it is important to make clear that holding, different ideologies does not make relations between groups necessarily violent, problematic or conflictual, and that different interpretations, ideologies and identities within Judaism are not inherently contentious, what forms and fuels sectarianism is assertions of particular interpretations as being more ‘authentic’ and ‘true’ and how this purposely creates boundaries, hierarchies and zealousness, shaping subjectivities. As the case studies will signify, sectarianism becomes violent and conflictual largely in cases when individuals/sects/groups feel threatened in a particular way from the actions or influences of an ‘other’, and therefore violence and conflict is deployed in attempts to resist or defend against actions which are deemed threatening. But sectarianism is also violent and conflictual when subjects seek to undertake actions to further advance sectarian agendas and beliefs. Acts of extremism within Haredi sectarianism are particularly important for this analysis.
Sectarian Extremism and Spatial Struggles
The danger of radicalism or extremism is not only ‘the atmosphere fans hatred of others’—therefore impacting upon cohesiveness, security and peace within states and societies—but how belief-systems and authorities are perceived to offer a license for extremism. Enacted by sectarian subjects, acts and a fixation upon ‘extremism’ can cause inter-/intra-sectarian divisions and societal tensions. Some of the most extreme practices are associated with the ‘Sikrikim’—an extremist anti-Zionist group of Haredi ‘radicals’ (Kasnett 2011) mostly from Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods in Mea She’arim and Ramat Beit Shemesh. Sikrikim ‘radicals’ have been linked as an off-shot of the sect of Neteuri Karta, for example. Often referred to as the ‘Mafia of Mea She’arim’, the name ‘Sikrikim’ ‘comes from … an extremist splinter group of the Zealots who tried to expel the Romans and their partisans from Judea through assassinations with concealed daggers’. The Sikrikim have made headlines for their use of violence against different communities and societal sections: ‘The modern-day Sikrikim believe in violence too-specifically, they police other Jewish people’s level of observance through verbal harassment, spitting, physical assaults, and by throwing things like rocks, garbage, and bleach at Jews who they believe are not stringent enough in their observance’ (Josephs 2012). In Mea She’arim, Sikrikim repeatedly vandalised a bookstore that ‘refused to acquiesce to the group’s modesty and purity demands’, where Sikrikim ‘forcefully (promoted their) own constrictive censorship rules on the store’, therefore seeking to control and exert influence within space (Ettinger 2011). Authoritarian Pashkevil posters appeared in Haredi neighbourhoods accusing the store owners of ‘’collaborating with the Zionists to destroy everything that is holy’ (Ettinger 2011), serving to create divisions within spaces and between populations.
Cases of Jewish sectarianism are significant in Israel because of how they spill out and are enacted within particular spaces and the divisions and hostilities sectarian struggles exacerbate amongst populations (The Yeshiva World News—Israel Desk, 2011), again serving as powerful examples for assessments of sectarianism. In Israel, non-Haredi practices and institutions have ‘become a target for the holy wars of the zealots’ (Ettinger 2011). In 2011, thousands protested in Beit Shemesh ‘against the rise of ultra-Orthodox extremism’ (Eglash and Sharon 2011). Protestors, from a number of spheres of Israeli society, declared that ‘Bet Shemesh is under a Haredi occupation’ (Eglash and Sharon 2011), pointing to acts of Haredi extremism and violence and attempts to exert Haredi influence, standards and control in space, such as enforcing gender segregation and standards of modesty. Tzipi Livni declared that ‘this is a political struggle for the character of the State of Israel’ (Eglash and Sharon 2011). Beit Shemesh has been described as a ‘hotbed of Israeli sectarian tensions’ where ‘the city has been home to rising sectarian tensions over the last several years’ particularly from ‘a growing, and in some corners increasingly radical, ultra-Orthodox population’ (Yaakov and Newman 2014). Haredi sects and ‘radicals’ within have not just conflicted with secular society but also with Jewish orthodox and Jewish National-Religious populations who also inhabit the city. ‘From their point of view I am not religious’, expressed one Orthodox Jewish woman who has been a victim of harassment and attack by Haredi individuals (Channel 2 2011).
Bordering the highly conservative Haredi neighbourhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, many Haredim opposed the Orot Banot Girls School opening, a Religious-Zionist institution which did not correspond with Haredi religious ideology and practices. ‘This will be a very difficult war, and the haredim will do everything in their power to prevent the school year from opening there … This isn’t a struggle over a building or property … but over the identity of this city’, expressed one Haredi resident (Nashoni 2011). Whilst groups of Haredi men ‘invaded’ the school, ‘state-religious’ residents ‘arrived at the site and sang Israel’s national anthem ‘as an act of provocation against the haredim’ where ‘the conflict erupted into a violent brawl’ (Nashoni 2011). In sectarian politics, issues of sectarian divisions, power and access erupt into direct conflicts in space. In Israel, such battles concern higher levels and concerns, whether this is ‘the identity of a city’ or ‘the character of the State of Israel’ itself. Such battles have been framed as ‘a war’, revealing the significance of sectarianism and how tensions/struggles are viewed by some.
Sectarian Extremism and Struggles Over ‘Modesty’
Whilst expressed that the school opening near-united Haredi circles, those engaged in the direct confrontations/violence were identified as belonging to ‘radical ultra-Orthodox factions’, ‘a faction of zealots’ (Nashoni 2011; Kaplan Sommer 2011). Haredi men, believed to be Sikrikim, insulted the students, claimed they were ‘immodestly’ dressed, threw objects at them and spat in their face. Girls as young as seven were denounced as ‘shikses’, reflecting the religious-political-ontological violence we observed is a feature of sectarianism. Deploying violence was asserted as justified by the Torah. Whilst the young girls are seen by some as ‘front-line soldiers in the battle for religious tolerance and co-existence in their city’ (Kaplan Sommer 2011), they are seen as ‘the other’ who do not belong in sectarian space. It is reported that the ‘Ultra-Orthodox leadership has strongly condemned the violence’, pointing out that ‘the perpetrators are only a small fringe minority’ (Mark 2012) and—denounced as ‘thugs’ and ‘criminals’—have seen their own authenticity and religiosity attacked. Nevertheless, accepting only one standard of behaviour and ‘Jewishness’, and taking justification from religious scriptures/laws to legitimise actions and violence, again we observe the triangulation between sectarianism-moral authority and extremism. Furthermore, where rabbinical authority is a key cornerstone of Judaism—particularly within Jewish (Ultra)Orthodoxy—what do independent actions by ‘extremists’ signify about shifts within Judaism? And how do such actions develop sectarianism?
If ‘modesty’ is a site of boundarisation, (de)securitisation, attack and religious-political-ontological violence against ‘the other’, ‘modesty’ can also be a site of disciplining, power and control within sects and communities. Haredi sects are governed according to ‘the Committee for Preserving Our Camp’s Purity’, and further take guidance from their own rabbis and community leaders. Notice the significance of the term ‘purity’. Again, sectarianism can advance to extremist practices undertaken by individuals who, in quests to attain visions and standards of uncompromising ‘authenticity’, adopt a license to ‘police’ fellow subjects. Non-Haredi practices and institutions have not only ‘become a target for the holy wars of the zealots’, but the minds and bodies of sectarian subjects themselves are targets by ‘zealots. ‘Modesty patrols’ also exist within Haredi communities and patrolling surrounding spaces, where physical violence have been perpetrated on religious and Ultra-Orthodox women deemed to be acting ‘immodestly’ or not according to standards of ‘purity’ or ‘propriety’ (Sela 2007; Ettinger 2008; Times of Israel Staff 2013; Haaretz 2014). Actions again are mandated and legitimised according to religious authority: ‘…every blow requires permission from a Torah sage’. ‘Will the rabbi’s allow these “Jewish Taliban” groups to terrorize the general haredi public with their heresy?’ asked one commentator. Whilst extremist Haredi groups, such as the Sikrikim, have been compared to the ‘Jewish Taliban’ giving how they ‘terrorize’ communities, the so-called ‘Haredi Taliban sect’ has faced hostility and rejection. Taking modesty to an extreme level, such practices are viewed as deviant and demeaning by other Haredi sects, even those considered to be ‘extreme’ such as Eda Haredit. Divisions and responses reflect sectarian features where modesty and extremism are politicised and ‘owned’, and sectarianism is marked by power-relations and battles over authenticity: ‘They talked about returning to our modest roots, dressing like our mothers from past generations’. ‘It’s unacceptable that the newly-religious will tell us that our women aren’t modest and good enough’, contrasted a Haredi businessman (Novick 2011).
‘Extremist groups in the haredi world seem conflicted between the ideal world and the actual world and they are expressing their confusion in an overt and extreme manner by trying to manipulate others to conform to their radical ideals’ (Kasnett 2011). We have seen how this goes for Haredi, non-Haredi and secular societies. Rather than employing sectarian force/violence as an ‘expression of confusion’, I argue that such practices lie within an authoritarian sectarian system and agenda. Whilst confrontation with the actual world (i.e. a given societal or political reality) is an ongoing feature within sectarianism, so is a commitment to actualise and secure reality, not to be categorised as an ideal, but a reality which is seen as the authentic reality which needs to be realised/secured/advanced, even through violent means. These cases are significant in showing how sectarianism contains different levels and where extremism is closely entangled with sectarianism. If Israeli society is marked by increased extremism, a feature which was made clear to myself by different actors in interviews and discussions I had in Israel during the Summer of 2016, sectarian extremism will have further impacts on Israeli society and politics.
Sectarianism and Conflicts with the State of Israel
Our final case within our assessment of Jewish sectarianism and the State of Israel will be centred upon confrontation with the practices and politics of the State of Israel itself. The anti-Zionist Haredi sect Eda Haredit may have rejected the Sikrikim’s practices but reportedly came out in support of a Sikrikim member who was arrested by the State, describing it as:
another chapter in our golus, with evil Jews who are in a position of authority persecuting righteous individuals because of a deep seated jealousy of those who fear G-d and worship Him in truth and sincerity … It is incumbent upon us to guard ourselves in all matters of tznius and holiness … to check the foundations of our houses to ensure that no strange influences, even those that claim to be from the chareidi community, penetrate our homes. (VIN News Staff 2012)
The language is sectarian in nature. Centred around an ‘us’ verses ‘them’ dichotomy, Being and sectarian subjectivity are defined against a dangerous and inauthentic ‘other’: ‘evil Jews … persecuting righteous individuals’. This has significant characteristics which are ontological, political and sectarian in nature, and implications for inter-/intra-sectarian tensions with Haredi sects/individuals who do associate with the ‘Zionist State’/State of Israel. At protests in Jerusalem, Haredi men held signs, reading ‘he who takes part in the elections betrays God’; ‘Zionists are not Jews!’ Speaking Hebrew—‘the language of the Zionist heretics’ is ‘strictly forbidden’. Yoelish Kraus from Eda Haredit declared: ‘we are not Israelis. We’re Jews. We don’t have any connection to the state of Israel, we are Israelites’ (VICE News 2014). Groups of Haredim, such as from the anti-Zionist sect of Neteuri Karta—‘Guardians of the City’—publicly burn the Israeli flag (Times of Israel Staff 2014). Also, Haredim have physically clashed with State forces when they have entered into ‘sectarian spaces’ (Weiss 2006). In 2015, an Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) officer was attacked in the Haredi neighbourhood Mea She’arim by ‘ultra-orthodox individuals’ which was denounced ‘an act of terror’ by ‘Jewish extremists’.
Whilst at the Beit Shemesh protest Livni declared ‘this is a political struggle for the character of the State of Israel’, a few days later, approximately 1500 Haredim in Jerusalem ‘protest(ed) what they called the “oppression” and “incitement” of the “secular community” against them’ (Sharon and Lidman 2011). Haredi protests reflect a sectarian/religious/political/existential struggle. The protest’s symbolism made headlines where ‘young children were brought onto a stage … wearing black-and-white striped clothes and bearing the yellow Stars of David on their lapels’ (Sharon and Lidman 2011). The protest was widely condemned for using Holocaust symbolism and analogy. Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans of Lev Tahor accused the State of Israel—‘the Zionist State’ as being ‘a thousand times worse than the Holocaust in Europe. The Nazis committed a terrible holocaust physically; Zionists committed a terrible holocaust to the souls, to the real existence of the Jewish nation, to the real existence of the Jew’. Haredi individuals openly denounce State forces as ‘Nazis’ (Haaretz Service 2009).
The most charged conflict is over the issue of Haredi enlistment into the IDF. This is not only a religious and political issue, but the sectarian conflict is framed existentially. Yoelish Kraus stated that ‘they want to draft the Haredi in order to extinct them’ (VICE News 2014). Haredi individuals have been arrested or ‘hunted’ by the State for refusing to enlist, attracting violent reactions from Haredi communities (Tzuri 2016). In 2012, Eda Haredit published a letter, appearing on posters in Haredi neighbourhoods, ‘condemning the government and police for waging a war against “those who fear God”, and against “modesty and holiness”’ (Sharon 2012). The letter described the tensions as ‘another chapter in the worst of all the exiles, the one imposed by the evil people of Israel, having taken authority and government from themselves’ against ‘those who fear God … who serve God in truth and purity’ (Sharon 2012). Again the language and struggle is sectarian, ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Judaism, holiness and truth/purity are contrasted with the State and ‘the evil people’.
But what happens when the political regime and sovereignty of the State enters into ‘sectarian walls’ and intra-sectarian frameworks, subjectivities and expectations?
A concerted campaign is currently being conducted by radical elements in the ultra-Orthodox community to delegitimize and stigmatize haredi men who choose to serve in the IDF as having betrayed the haredi community … about the ‘danger’ these soldiers pose to the community. (Sharon and Eisenbud 2013)
Whilst the issue of enlistment has brought Haredim and Haredi sects into conflict with the State of Israel and its sovereignty, the issue has triggered intra-sect divisions and violence. Coined the ‘Hardak’ campaign, pictures appeared in Haredi neighbourhoods and media depicting Haredim entering ‘the national trash can of the IDF and the civil service’, and Haredi soldiers going up in flames. Another shows yeshiva students leaving ‘shaved, in uniform and red berets’.
Whilst having distinct units for Haredi soldiers, and one Haredi sergeant declaring that an Orthodox soldiers’ position in the IDF is ‘extremely different’ where they have ‘a different head … coming to serve God, coming for a Higher purpose, coming with many more obligations, many more restrictions, limitations’ and where ‘you represent God, you keep being a God-fearing Jew’, there are also admissions that ‘compromises’ and ‘sacrifices’ must be made (VICE News 2014). Some sectarian ideologies and frameworks do not permit this. They have drafted out of the yeshiva—a central space for the primacy of Torah-study and a pivotal dedication for sectarian identity/existence—into the secular world and breaking boundarisations. For the majority of Haredim, this and the compromises are unacceptable, not only a distraction but an existential corruption and religious/sectarian and existential danger.
The Hardak campaign is a violent embodiment of de-Judaisation and de-humanisation, a feature within sectarianism. Advertisements by ‘the radical Haredi campaign’ warn against the ‘poison of the hardak bacteria’ (Nachshoni 2014). Haredi soldiers have also been depicted as pigs and called ‘Satan’, ‘Nazis’ and ‘the police of Amalek’ (Sharon 2015). One Haredi soldier described how ‘one yeshiva head … asked me to put the tallit (prayer shawl) under my uniform, because he said I was “giving authorization” for haredim to enlist, and once I enlisted, to him I was no longer haredi’ (Farkash 2013). ‘Radical Haredi circles’ declare the Hardak campaign is ‘a very precious weapon. It has the power to prevent a Jewish soul from falling into the impurity and filth of the army and civil-national service … and cut down the evil’ (Nachshoni 2014).
Once again, this religious-ontological-political violence exists alongside physical violence perpetrated on sectarian subjects. Returning to their religious communities, Haredi soldiers have described the harassment and violence they receive off fellow Haredim, described by one as ‘true terror’ (Farkash 2013). Haredi soldiers have been physically attacked and threatened by other Haredim when they return to their communities. In Mea She’arim, a Haredi soldier had to be ‘“safely extracted” by police’ (Sharon and Eisenbud 2013). Prime Minister Netanyahu vowed to ‘take a hard stand against those who attempt to strike fear in citizens fulfilling their duty to the state’. Rabbis from the Netza Yehuda IDF unit declared that the incident was an ‘embarrassment and a disgrace’. ‘This is an attack which is not Jewish and not haredi but simply a disgrace of God’s name … it is forbidden for us to take out our anger against haredi soldiers who are our flesh and blood’. Nevertheless, the fact that one Haredi solider was denounced as a ‘hardak’, told ‘Get out of here now, take off your kippa, what are you praying here for?’ and physically assaulted while both men were attending an evening prayer service in the Haredi neighbourhood Ezrat Torah (Sharon 2015) speaks significance to us. The claim to be God-fearing, Haredi Jew, a certain sectarian subject, is within boundaries underwritten by power and expectation. The campaign not only diminished/denied the claim-of-religious-observance of Haredi soldiers, but sought to present the ‘hardak’ as a threat to Ultra-Orthodoxy and sectarian communities themselves. In the issue of enlistment, Haredi communities/individuals have been accused of ‘turning against their own’. However, within sectarianism, Haredi soldiers in their relations with the State, ‘the other’, and deviating from sectarian boundaries, are not only unattached from ‘their own’ but perceived as a dangerous ‘other’. They have now become part of ‘the other’, ‘poisonous bacteria’, which sectarian communities need to protect against opening up another front in sectarian struggle.
Within these struggles, the question of the practices of the State of Israel, its sovereignty and how sectarian subjects relate to it are central. ‘Following duties to the State’ clashes with and undermines sectarian identity, existences and relations. Within many Haredi sects, ‘following duties’ to the State—‘the Zionist establishment’—is digressing from the ‘true’ and ‘righteous path’ and brings corrupting and dangerous influences into ‘walls of rejection’, ‘purity’ and Ultra-Orthodoxy. Conscription is seen as one aspect of a ‘war against religion’ which Haredi communities and sects are enduring in a wider battle for ‘Israel’s soul’, a religious and existential struggle and battle, defending Jewish authenticity and Haredim, which is platformed upon sectarianism. Refusing to recognise the authority of the State, anti-Zionist sects such as Neteuri Karta ‘forbid any participation with the so-called State of Israel or any of its subsidiaries’ and openly call for the State’s destruction. ‘The true Jews remain faithful to Jewish belief and are not contaminated with Zionism’ writes Neteuri Karta.
This article began by questioning what is meant by ‘sectarianism’ by identifying and assessing key components. It then moved to observe the prevalence of Jewish sectarianism on an historical level before critically assessing cases within the contemporary State of Israel where I argued that inter-/intra-Jewish tensions and conflicts, and also conflicts with the State of Israel, must be thought of as sectarianism. These cases have served to offer powerful concrete insights into the dynamics of sectarianism, particularly how it is closely connected with acts and politics of extremism, serving to deepen our understanding. Conceptualising of divisions, struggles conflicts and violences this way serves to offer a significant means of thinking-through such tensions, their nature, and what is driving them. It provides us with a new language and framework for assessment and understanding, which is particularly important in political and conflict analysis. What the cases embodied and revealed, and where they contribute to understandings and discussions of sectarianism, is the broader and deeper aspects within sectarianism, in particular the metaphysical, religious, ontological, existential and (in)security aspects, as well as societal and political. The article’s focus on case studies provided space for language to ‘speak’ and the significance of this language spoke back to us in highlighting the different and deeper aspects at play within sectarianism, therefore deepening our understanding and alerting to aspects which may be overlooked in discussions.
Sects are situated and operate within regimes of prohibition and permissibility, a framework of control over sectarian subjectivity and existence. As well as the boundarisation caused through prohibitions, sectarian-subjects also have customs, standards and obligations to follow, therefore placing demands on subjectivity and existence even if this brings division and conflicts with the ‘other’. Sectarianism therefore makes demands of sectarian subjects. The cases we have analysed reveal how sects and sectarian subjects assert themselves as being pure embodiments of authenticity, religious observance and fulfilling the commandments and the will of God to the highest, purest or true standard. In beliefs and claims to be defending and advancing truth, sectarian subjects authorise their actions in the name of a higher purpose and legitimisation. Whilst sects may operate within ‘closed worlds’, we have explored how cases of Jewish sectarianism in Israel today contend with modern Israeli society, with the operationality and sovereignty of ‘the Jewish State of Israel’, and how sectarian existence and agendas may be challenged, threatened and conflict with this.
We have also observed instances where religious/ontological violence against ‘the other’—including intra-sect members—is accompanied with physical violence/conflict. Today, there are various conflicts within Judaism. Central to Jewish sectarianism is the question ‘who represents Judaism’. Sectarianism is increasingly taking forms of ‘extremism’ where acts of extremism and violence are legitimised and enacted in the name of religious authenticity. We therefore see not only different Jewish identities/expressions of ‘Jewishness’ but also different hierarchies and the politicisation of the question of who is on ‘the righteous path’. Sectarianism is engulfed in dynamics of power, (in)security and wills-to-(em)power for defending and advancing sectarian ideologies, existences and agendas against ‘the other’. Ongoing and emerging sectarian tensions and the existence of ‘extremists’ or ‘radicals’ pose challenging implications for Israeli society.
The significance of the sectarianisms we have assessed also demands that we consider what this means for the stability and security of the State of Israel itself. ‘Israel has never been able to define the term “Jewish State”’ (Beinart 2014). The cases revealed that sectarianism is particularly violent when there is a perceived threat to sectarian existence and interests, or when there is a willingness to advance sectarian agendas. Such awareness is significant for the State of Israel to consider when it engages in actions which move beyond the status quo. Contemporary struggles around the Western Wall between Reform and Ultra-Orthodox Jews, which I argue is reflective of sectarian struggles, is further reflective of this, a further concern for stability and security within Jerusalem (Nachshoni 2016). Whilst for some the struggles are an act of ‘provocation’ and an ‘invasion’ (Shafran 2016) and for others it is an act of ‘liberation’, the ‘internal denominational turf wars’ (Borschel-Dan 2016) have been brought to the centre of Israeli politics and ‘a place of peace’ has been turned ‘into a center of conflict’ (Shafran 2016). Once again, the force of language deployed within Jewish sectarianism offers powerful insights into sectarian politics and conflicts and the different significant aspects this contains.
Rabbi David Yosef, stated that Reform Jews are ‘not Jewish’ and are ‘literally idolaters’ (Haaretz 2016), denouncing not only the ‘anti-Jewish’ practices of Reform Judaism but also the very Jewish-Being of ‘Reform Jews’ themselves. ‘Yosef claimed that Reform Jews wanted to embed their “impure prayers” in the Western Wall’, where the practices of the ‘non-Jewish’ ‘other’ were asserted as defiling the sacred itself, warning, ‘The Kotel is a holy place, it is ours’ (Haaretz 2016), therefore claiming rightful and pure belonging and therefore a license and requirement to ‘fight’ against the defilement, impurity, unauthenticity and danger of ‘the other’. Meanwhile Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, a reform Jew, viewed ‘the anti-Reform attacks’ by ‘desperate and fanatic’ Ultra-Orthodox leaders as a sign that ‘they fear our growing influence’ and were an attempt to maintain the monopoly of religious power in Israel: ‘it knows that the Haredi ghetto is crumbling … They are a desperate attempt to maintain the radical, unchanging rigid traditionalism of today’s ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Haredi rabbis say that this is historical Judaism, but it is not’ (Yoffie 2016).
Meir Porush from the ‘United Torah Judaism’ party reportedly declared that Israel’s Prime Minister meeting with Reform and Jewish Conservative leaders was ‘like a stab in the heart of true Judaism’ (JTA and Times of Israel Staff 2016, emphasis added). The rhetoric is powerfully sectarian in nature where a particular strand/sect of Judaism claims to be the followers, representatives and protectors of ‘true Judaism’, whilst the other are ‘idolaters’, ‘mentally ill’, ‘impure’ and ‘non-Jewish’. A claim-to-faith and denial of Jewishness serves to politicise faith and religious practice, promulgating divisions and is focussed on a battle over religious power and access. MK Moshe Gafni ‘recalled a directive of Rabbi Elyashiv, saying, “What wasn’t in the past will not be today”’ (Ettinger 2016b), weaponising tradition and heritage to enforce and (dis)empower sectarian struggles of the present and to control the future. Profoundly, the sectarian struggle is seen as a war: ‘We are at war with the Reform … We will never recognize them’ (Ettinger 2016b).
Again such sectarian divisions and conflicts are not merely confined to the realm of rhetoric and polemics. In 2013, when a group of Reform Jews came to pray at the Kotel they were harassed and attacked by a group of Haredi men (Sharon 2013). Engaging in religious practice viewed as deviant, blasphemous and non-Jewish by Haredi individuals, one Ultra-Orthodox woman voiced that the worshippers—dressed in Jewish religious attire-were ‘desecrating the site of our holy temple’ (Huffington Post 2013). At the centre of the Jewish religion, the struggle over rights, freedoms and access to pray at the sacred site is a signal and outcome of Jewish sectarianism. This struggle is itself lodged in competing claims of authenticity, faith and possession of ‘true Judaism’, and within the politics, metaphysics and (in)security of sectarianism, such claims cannot be compromised and must be defended and advanced, even through violence. Attempts to pursue/defend sectarian agendas have brought new sectarian struggles.
With Israeli political leaders constantly requesting that Palestinians recognise Israel as ‘a Jewish State’, one commentator wrote ‘the Israeli cabinet must first agree on what “Jewish state” means’ (Beinart 2014). Provoking such a question will have ramifications upon Israeli politics and Jewish sectarian tensions, potentially igniting deeper fissures and counters by Israel’s diverse populations if this definition does not correspond with their notion of what the Jewish State is or should be and if it is deemed to threaten different existences, interests and agendas. Not only will this fundamentally impact on state-society and society-society relations (Berman 2016) and exacerbate existing sectarian tensions, but may also create new sectarianisms.