Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Israel and Pakistan – One Parallel Too Many?

What happens when you custom-make a country specifically for people belonging to a particular religious persuasion? Can such a country accommodate religious minorities? Is such a country destined to be theocracy? Or can it put up at least a modicum of secularism?

Pakistan came into being on 14 August 1947. It was carved out of British India for the express purpose of providing a homeland for the Muslims of the subcontinent. Despite an exodus of Hindus and Sikhs from West Punjab and East Bengal, Pakistan, especially East Pakistan, had a large number of Hindus and Sikhs. Just over a year after Pakistan came into existence, its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah died. Jinnah was a non-practising Muslim who had managed to harness Muslim fears of marginalisation in a Hindu-majority India, to create Pakistan. Jinnah had publicly proclaimed that he wanted Pakistan to be a secular land where minorities would be safe. However, pretty soon after Jinnah’s death, Pakistan commenced its slow descent into the fire pits of Islamic theocracy and fundamentalism. However, it was not until Zia-ul-Haq came to power in 1978 that this descent gathered momentum.

Currently Pakistan is in the throes of a ‘do or die’ battle with the Taliban and other Islamic fundamentalists. After many a hesitant jab at the militants, Pakistani society mobilised itself and launched a full-scale assault at Baitullah Mehsud’s men in Swat and Waziristan. The battle in Swat is almost over, with the militants there in full retreat. The battles in Waziristan don’t seem to be close to a conclusion.

Once the militants are subdued, and I have no doubt that they will be, at least in the short term, the million dollar question facing Pakistan will be the degree of Islamisation it should permit itself. Should Islam continue to be the state religion? Should Islamic signs and symbols be so prominently displayed everywhere? Is it possible to be in a state of equilibrium where Islam plays a predominant role in everything without slipping into a state of fundamentalism? If for some reason Pakistan were to swing to the other extreme, to that of a state which is officially secular, where religion plays no role in public life, the rationale for partition would be lost. I doubt if even liberal Pakistanis want to be in such a state.

Just like Pakistan, Israel was created in order to provide a sanctuary to a specific religious grouping – to Jews. In theory, Jews are of the Semitic race, just like the Arabs. However, in reality the Jewish Diaspora scattered all over the world is composed of so many different races and ethnic groups. Though Hebrew is the official language of Israel and all immigrants to Israel are forced to learn Hebrew, Israelis speak a motley of languages. Many of the founders of Israel were not fervent practitioners of Judaism. Rather they were socialists and Zionists who only wanted to create a homeland for all those where persecuted in Europe and various other parts of the world for being a Jew.

However Israel has moved away from the socialist idealism of its founders. Ben Gurion and Golda Meir were ardent Zionists, but had little in common with the Haredim or other orthodox Jews. Currently the Likud party is in power and has the fundamentalist Yisrael Beiteinu headed by Avigdor Lieberman as its coalition partner.

Just as Pakistan is almost in the throes of a civil war, the battle between secular liberals and fanatics is on in full swing in Israel. When police in Jerusalem arrested a Haredi woman for allegedly having deliberately starved her three-year old son, ultra orthodox Jews protested in large numbers at what they termed as interference in their community. When municipal authorities in Jerusalem announced plans to keep a car park open in Jerusalem on Saturdays (when orthodox Jews observe the Sabbath), ultra-orthodox Jews protested violently, throwing stones at and clashing with the police.

As any visitor to Israel knows, the country comes to an almost complete halt for Sabbath. Any travel on a Saturday is a nightmare, except in Arab towns such as Nazareth. When I travelled to Israel last year, I had to travel from Nazareth to Tel Aviv via Haifa on a Saturday. I managed to do that through a combination on buses run by Arab bus companies, sheruts and taxis. I remember feeling a bit miffed about the inconvenience. I can only imagine how Israeli citizens who are not orthodox Jewish would feel about this state of affairs.

Orthodox rabbis have produced blacklists of music deemed unfit or non-Kosher for orthodox Jewish years.

One of the things that fascinated me when travelling in Israel was the way the same name had two or three different versions in Hebrew, English and Arabic. Kafer Naum and Capernaum are the same. Jerusalem is Yerushalayim in Hebrew and Al Quds in Arabic. Israel has now announced a plan for using the Hebrew version of place names even for signs in English and Arabic.

One of the most unfair rules followed in Israel is the one which says conversions to Judaism are valid only if they are performed by an orthodox rabbi. Therefore anyone who migrates to Israel must get a certificate of Jewishness from an orthodox rabbi. Unlike Pakistan where a victory for the forces of liberalism may be possible, Israel seems to have put itself in an unalterable trajectory towards greater fundamentalism with this rule. Interestingly in the UK, the court of appeal has recently ruled that a very reputed Jewish school (the Jews’ Free School) was guilty of race discrimination when it refused admission to a student whose mother converted to Judaism in a progressive synagogue and not an orthodox one. The court said that deciding whether one was Jewish or not on the basis of descent is contrary to the Race Relations Act.

Will Israel ever become a land where Arabs and Jews have equal rights not just on paper, where orthodox Jews are forced to keep their fundamentalist beliefs under wraps, where Arabic can be spoken freely? Will Pakistan ever become a nation where its Hindu, Christian and Sikh minorities can practice their religion without having to pretend that Islam is superior? To me, in both cases, the answer seems to be a sad shake of the head.

9 comments:

Ayyappadas Puthenmarath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ayyappadas Puthenmarath said...

An interesting difference is, while in Pakistan Urdu(derivative of hindi)is the the official language(not arabic as expected from a theocratic state), in Israel Yiddish(the more accepted and inclusive language)is discouraged and is not even given an official language status along with Hebrew.

An interesting account is there in Thomas Friedman's 'from beirut to jerusalem'- "back in 1930 in Tel Aviv's Mughrabi square there used to be a big clock with no glass covering its face. Legend has it that one day the mayor Meir Dizengoff ordered that the clock be removed. When residents of the area asked him why, Mayor explained that every jew who walked by the clock reset it according to his own watch".

This story captures clearly the essence of Israel. They really don't know how to practice Judaism and thus every Israeli is gullible to all kinds of ultra conservative sects mushrooming sometimes with state patronage (for promoting illegal settlements).
Israel's existence is not under the flag of a particular religion but under the perpetual consternation of being annihilated by their enemies(defined as those who oppose the actions of israeli govt). The same applies to Pakistan whose existence is based on vilification of India. As long as this is the mindset it is very unlikely that they would be magnanimous enough to accommodate their 'rivals'

oskeladden said...

AP: There was actually a fairly strong element of anti-orthodoxy in choosing Hebrew over Arabic. To the proponents of Hebrew, Yiddish was the language of the ghetto, dominated by religion, orthodox practise and rabbinical discourse - and, above all, it was the language of the exilic period, of the Jews as a subject people without a nation. Hebrew was the antithesis of Yiddish. Revived Hebrew stood for secularism, the social utopianism of the pioneering Zionists, and - most importantly - for the re-emergence of the Jews as a free nation, no longer in exile and subjugation, but with a country of their own.

And, as might be expected, hareidi Jews bitterly opposed the Hebrew revival. To speak the Holy language of the Torah on the streets and - worse - to use it for profane purposes was nothing short of blasphemy.

So choosing Hebrew over Yiddish has nothing to do with theocracy, as you seem to suggest.

It's probably also worth adding that Yiddish was the tongue of the Ashkenazim, and only the Ashkenazim. Most Israeli jews are Sefardim or Mizrahim, and their traditional languages are, respectively, Ladino and Judaeo-Arabic.

They really don't know how to practice Judaism: Now you're sounding like one of those Rambamist Yemeni Jews, which I don't think you are. What do you mean by this?

oskeladden said...

Vinod: Yisrael Beiteinu isn't fundamentalist by any standard definition of the term. They're secular and ultra-nationalist. They take almost as hard a line on Hareidi domination of State institutions as they do on Arabs. For example, he wants to institutionalise civil marriage and ease conversion laws - both of which are anathema to the Orthodox. This is not surprising, since his supporters tend to be Russian Jews, who are more secular than orthodox.

Correspondingly, many of the hareidim who've been protesting aren't Zionist (and I suspect many are probably anti-Zionist). The hardal-leaning sections of the hareidim do not tend to riot.

Secondly, regarding conversions - the state not only recognises non-Orthodox conversions within Israel, it even funds them.

The problem arises mainly where a person has a conversion outside Israel. A number of special rules apply to conversions outside Israel. And this problem is in some ways even worse for Orthodox converts, as the Israeli Rabbinate regularly deems even Orthodox conversions not orthodox enough. This is really part of the fallout from an ongoing power struggle within orthodoxy.

Ayyappadas Puthenmarath said...

oskeladden: First of all big thanks for that informative account on Yiddish. I had really come to believe that jews in general are nostalgic about yiddish which I presume is on the verge of extinction.
Secondly in saying Jews dont know how to practice judaism, I was not at all being judgmental. What I meant was that being a highly heterogeneous sect(with people from all over the world), are mislead by every form of conservative Judaism including Haredim and religious Zionists (spearheading Gush Emunim Jewish Settler movement).For them acquiring every inch of holy land is a form of service to God even if it is against the rights of innocent people living in a particular place for centuries.

Winnowed said...

Oskeladden, your points are valid and very well made.

JI said...

This is a very good analysis. I was in Israel only last month. I loved Jerusalem, largely for its historical sites and buildings, but other cities in Israel did disappoint me. They were like American suburbs implanted in the Middle East - quite artificial in many ways. I wouldn’t like to live there, because there's no doubt about it: it is meant to be an exclusive state for the Jews. If you're not Jewish, you don't fit in.

Basically Israel and Pakistan are ideological cousins. They actually have a lot in common. One is meant to be a homeland for the Jews (of the world), and the other a homeland for the Muslims of the Indian sub-continent. Both were created by secular politicians, largely for political expediency, yet religion became critically important as a way of defining themselves. I can understand why religion was given priority in Pakistan - because it is a country made of disparate provinces that don't have a lot in common except religion. In Israel's case, being Jewish or having a Jewish ancestor is the common denominator between people who have emigrated there from many different parts of world. In Israel's case the majority of the population are secular and non-religious, although there is a significant minority who are very religious and have a disproportionate influence over the rest.

There’s a fair amount of bickering between various factions within Israeli Jews, but what unites them all is their persecution complex. The constant fear of being surrounded by enemies is enough for the general population to support an atavistic nationalism. The same could apply to Pakistan but in Pakistan's case the militancy it has always nurtured, as a way of attacking its enemy India, is threatening to tear the country apart. Israel won't descend to such chaos but it will every now and then use disproportionate force to intimidate its neighbours, just to show who is boss.

harini calamur said...

i did read somewhere, that a sect of very orthodox Jews believe that the State of Israel shouldn't exist - because the Lord didn't deliver them to the Promised Land.

But, i would think that, like in most countries that are religious - there is diversity in terms of orthodox, observant and 'by birth & spiritual'' those of us who are the last - hopefully are in a majority :) . same would be the case for Israel.what is refreshing, is that after decades the Religious Right & indoctrination - the Pakistani's are beginning to push back.

Here's an interesting view I came across. i ignored the blantantly anti Indian bits :)

http://snipurl.com/nq07r

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