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Spare a Thought for Bibi’s Medievalists

Let’s face it: September 27th, 2012, was not a good day for the Israeli Prime Minister’s office props and graphics department. Bibi is a showman and there is nothing new in him using visual aides, but going from Holocaust documents to cartoon bombs in just 6 months leaves a little wanting in the tastefulness stakes. Part of his strategy is to convince the world that he is crazy enough to go it alone militarily against Iran, lest he be dismissed as the boy who keeps crying wolf. The Bugs Bunny bomb graphic was part of the “I’m crazy enough to do it” shtick.And Bibi has his red line. No really, he even has his own red marker pen.

Sure Bibi wants to continue to drive the Iran debate, to undermine negotiations and to push the U.S. ever closer to a military confrontation. And to keep that “will he—won’t he” guessing game going well into 2013. I still don’t think Netanyahu will do it, for reasons I have outlined in the past, but one part of his UN speech in particular struck me as suited to a man who is awfully detached from reality.

Netanyahu spent a long time outlining his version of the clash of civilizations meme—describing a struggle between Islamist medievalism and Israeli hi-tech modernity. But in so doing he appeared to be either forgetful of or intemperate towards a sizeable chunk of his own governing coalition.

Netanyahu described the “forces of medievalism” (something he ascribes as being exclusive to “radical Islam”) as seeking “a world in which women and minorities are subjugated, in which knowledge is suppressed… They want to drag humanity back to an age of unquestioning dogma.” (Full transcript not yet on UN site—see here for now.) One would be hard-pressed to more accurately describe the outlooks held by the ultra-orthodox parties (United Torah Judaism and Shas), on whom Netanyahu relies for his coalition and with whom he shares a Cabinet table.

And this is how Netanyahu describes the flip-side to these evil cave-dwelling types:

Israel stands proudly with the forces of modernity… in which an ever-expanding digital library is available in the palm of every child... We protect the rights of all our citizens, men and women, Jews and Arabs.

Ignore for a moment the lies entailed in Netanyahu thusly describing Israel’s treatment of the 20 percent of its citizenry who are structurally discriminated against by virtue of being Palestinian-Arabs, and the legislative initiatives that his coalition has promoted to further exacerbate the formal inequality rife in the Israeli system; let’s just stick with the haredim.

Digital palm in every child’s hand? Not exactly. Try instead calls to burn the new iPhone 5 on the front pages of the haredi press. Or check out the curriculum in the state-funded haredi school sector. And women’s equality? From segregation on buses and even on streets to bans on women’s singing voices being heard or women being seen in advertisements, it’s not a pretty picture. And of course the haredi parties, which have won seats for dozens of members throughout the 18 Knessets, have never allowed a single woman to represent them in parliament. And that’s without looking at what rabbinical leaders have said in comparing Palestinian leaders to snakes, calling for a "plague" on the Palestinians and issuing edicts to prevent apartment rentals to Arab citizens.

By Netanyahu’s own standards his coalition colleagues (and the folks on whom his tenure depends) are medievalists—the enemy.

And yet that is not how the Prime Minister treats the haredi sector at home. Every day is an exercise in seeking a modus vivendi, a compromise, endless negotiations and engagement—more often than not with the haredim claiming the upper hand (think draft exemptions, not to mention budget allocations).

Sure, a big piece of that is politics, but it is not the whole story. For on this point, on working with the haredim, not hating on the haredim, Netanyahu essentially has it right. The haredim are a large and rapidly growing part of Israeli society. They will not be forcibly converted to secularism. There should be limits on how far haredi political power can assert itself in enforcing haredi norms on the non-haredi population but that is also a two-way street. The haredi lifestyle too needs to be better understood and respected, including that of haredi women activists.

To exclusively view the haredim through a "medievalist" lens cannot get one very far. It is also dumb politics for Israeli progressives. The haredi community is often disadvantaged and highly dependent on the state, they can share socio-economic concerns with the left and are late-comers to not only settler-Zionism but also to Zionism itself and if pushed can find halakhic reasons to oppose war and expansionism.

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But don’t hold your breath if you’re expecting a haredi outcry against Bibi’s insulting speech. Bibi knew to whom he was referring, exclusively, in that speech. And the haredim instinctively understood. Muslims can be medievalists. Ultra-orthodox Jews are ours, carriers of tradition, part of the family. Medievalists? Us?!?Netanyahu’s enthusiastic embrace of the clash of civilizations and insistence on placing Israel in its front-line is in part just a reflection of his own bigotry. He applies one standard to the Jewish collective and a totally different one to the Muslim collective. But Bibi’s “medievalists” speech was also part and parcel of an ongoing political machination: part permanent scaremongering, part the multi-pronged campaign he is waging against President Obama and his worldview (Bibi’s UN speech invited contrast with Obama’s address to the same venue), and part distraction from the policies Israel pursues against the Palestinians every day in violation of international law—medieval policies, you might say.