Yes, there is a limit to the secular public's credulity
by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 8, 2002
Given the unending stream of depressing news coming out of Israel, even the slightest ray of good news deserves to be noted. So here is one such ray: Atom, a play by Motti Golan, closed after a brief run of only 35 performances at one of Israel’s most prestigious theaters.
For those who do not already know, the plot of Atom, such as it is, concerns a ``chareidi" sect that seizes control of the Israeli government in the year 2025, assasinates the prime minister and his wife, and then drops atom bombs on various Arab capitals, with the intention of ridding Israel of infidels and thereby hastening the arrival of Mashiach.
Predictably, chareidi politicians protested the production of such blatantly anti-Semitic slanders. But those protests had little to do with Atom’s closure. Far more decisive was the play’s lack of box office appeal.
Dan Margalit, one of Israel’s most prominent journalists and a close friend of Golan’s, described in Maariv, how for the first time in his life he walked out a theater before the final curtain dropped seething with ``quiet rage." He concluded that Atom shared something in common with the traditional blood libel and even The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: a complete lack of plausibility.
(Margalit predicted, however, that Atom would find an eager foreign audience. That prediction is based on solid precedents. Just two years ago, The Murder of Isaac, by Israeli playwright Motti Lerner, opened in Heilbronn, Germany. That play featured a chorus, composed of chareidi members of the Chevra Kadisha, celebrating ongoing warfare and bloodletting with the Palestinians as good for business.)
That Atom closed for want of an adequate audience is indeed good news. At the same time, we should not lose sight of fact that the play ever saw the light of day at all.
Matti Golan is not a fringe figure, but rather one of Israel’s most respected media commentators. His program Documedia, heard twice a week on radio and once on TV, is one of the few attempts in Israel to examine issues of journalistic ethics in depth and to subject the media to some rare criticism. On the air, at least, he conveys the image of a balanced and reflective person.
That Golan could harbor such dark views of chareidim and give ``artistic" expression to them is frightening. So is the fact that he did not consider his almost absolute ignorance of the chareidi community a barrier to writing about that community. That ignorance comes through in every detail. When the villain discovers that his nefarious plot has succeeded, for instance, he takes out his tzitzis and kisses them as a gesture of thanksgiving.
Golan proved totally unable to defend the basic premise of his play: chareidim live in a fever pitch of Messianic expectation and believe his arrival can be hastened by the removal of non-religious Jews. To support this absurd thesis, he could do no better that cite Seffi Rachlevsky’s book The Messiah’s Donkey, a publishing sensation of a few years back, in which the author described the three cardinal principles of Orthodox Judaism as: non-Jews are subhumans; women are quasi-people; and the blood of secular Jews may be shed with impunity.
Rachlevsky proceeded to lump all Orthodox Jews together under the rubric ``ultra-Orthodox messianists," whose standard-bearer he identified as none other than Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook. Rachlevsky either did not know, or willfully ignored, the fact that Rabbi Kook’s writings are little read or known in chareidi yeshivos.
Worse, Rachlevsky chose to ignore the chareidi world’s rejection of messianic activism. The chareidi world has, at least since the time of the false messiah Shabbetai Tzvi, generally been deeply suspicious of Messianic activisim and of claims that history has entered a new era. Such proclamations have too often been accompanied by claims that the mesorah has been superseded by new halacha for the Messianic era, as happened during the Sabbatean ferment. That is one of the reasons that chareidim never accepted the claim that the state of Israel is reishit tzmichut geulateinu.
Golan seized upon Rachlevsky’s concept of ``ultra-Orthodox messianists" not because it had any validity but because it allowed him to play upon the widespread animus towards chareidim by dressing his villains up as chareidim.
The intellectual failings of Seffi Rachlevsky and Matti Golan are only part of the issue. After every showing of Atom, the audience was invited to remain to discuss the credibility of play’s treatment of chareidi messianism, and many did. Leading Israeli newspapers also treated the Rachlevsky/Golan thesis as a credible proposition capable of being debated. That is like debating the historical accuracy of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The most frightening aspect of Atom, then, is that it came to be produced at all. As Chanoch Domb wrote in Maariv, ``Junk of this caliber could never have been staged unless it were anti-chareidi junk." And Dan Margalit was surely right that the Cameri Theater would never have produced a play in which a single Arab character was portrayed as all chareidim are portrayed in Atom.
The producers of Atom cannot be faulted for having assumed that there is an inexhaustible audience for rabid portrayals of chareidim, just as the Rachlevsky’s publishers were right to assume that his rantings would appeal to a wide audience. (Yediot Aharanot, Rachlevsky’s publisher, did not even require him to document his charges, even though its own preliminary readers were astonished by his claims.) At least two other anti-chareidi plays have been produced by prestigious theater companies in recent years, and yet a third is due to open soon at one of the country’s leading theaters.
At least for now, however, we have learned that there are limits on the secular public’s credulity when it comes to wild charges about chareidim.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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