The recent decision by Israel’s prime minister and cabinet to acquiesce in the demands of the country’s ultra-Orthodox rabbinical establishment and political parties reminds me of the situation in tsarist Russia that my maternal grandfather and others like him sought to escape.
My grandfather came to America in 1909 from David Horodok, a town in White Russia where he worked as a blacksmith. He was Orthodox and remained so all his life.
He arrived in Galveston, Texas, as part of the Galveston Movement, the brainchild of philanthropist Jacob Schiff. Its goal was to have the eastern European Jewish immigrants bypass New York City with its congestion, poverty and problem-filled Jewish ghetto, and come directly from European ports to the western part of the United States.
My grandfather liked Galveston and worked on the railroad. But he left after a few years because the city did not have enough Jews or a Jewish environment. He made his way to New York where he worked as a night watchman and slept at night on a bench in Central Park.
He then came to Detroit because he had a relative in the city who told him that jobs were plentiful, as were Jews, and the city was pleasant and less crowded than New York. He arrived in Detroit in 1913 and started to work as a peddler. After a year, he brought my grandmother and their two children to the city. Eventually, they had seven children, all of whom remained in Detroit all their lives.
My grandfather came to the United States, as did 2 million eastern European Jews like him, to escape from Russian oppression, poverty and pogroms. But he also came for another reason — to escape from the restricted atmosphere of a Jewish community ruled by the well-off together with the rabbis. In the United States, he enjoyed freedom, opportunity and religious autonomy. He could be any kind of Jew he chose to be. He chose to remain Orthodox, but freed from the pressure exerted by any religious establishment.
What is occurring in Israel today reflects the kind of religious oppression that existed in pre-Revolutionary Russia. Israel, which once enjoyed a liberal, moderate Orthodoxy, is becoming a place where ultra-Orthodox rabbis impose their 19th-century attitudes on the entire Jewish population of the state. They are abetted in this by Israel’s feckless prime minister, who is not religious, but who crassly gives in to every whim of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners in order to keep them in his coalition so he can remain in power.
The question is whether the majority of Israelis will remain passive and continue to accept this situation or whether they will rebel. They have two options: Those who are able will vote with their feet and leave the country. Those who choose to remain will unite to dispose of the present government, and by doing so will save Israel from becoming a Jewish community from which my grandfather and millions like him fled.
Robert Rockaway, professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, is a former Detroiter.