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Jewish "Wahhabis"?

Is there a Jewish equivalent to the Wahhabi school of Islam?

February 24, 2003

Is there a Jewish equivalent to the Wahhabi school of Islam?

The basic features of Wahhabism on a global scale are defined as a relentless intolerance of "others," a fierce opposition to difference and pluralism, an anti-civil rights agenda — and an extreme opposition to "secular" society. Those strains can certainly be found — with some differences — in the modern Jewish community.

The main differences to the global wave of Wahhabism stem from Judaism's minority psychology. Considering that Judaism is one of the world's smaller religions, the belief that one is always vulnerable and stands alone in the world helps to define the Jewish form of this problem.

The Wahhabi tendency in Judaism is split between two different groups. Both are very orthodox — but they have somewhat different political agendas.

Israel's settlement movement is the main player when it comes to taking radical political steps against the "other."

Just as some Islamic Wahhabis dream of the reconstruction of the Islamic Caliphate, and the restoration of Islamic rule to areas like Spain, a hard core of settlers dreams of the restoration of the Biblical borders of Israel.

And there are even those who would restore the ancient Temple in Jerusalem — despite the fact that its location is now the site of an important Muslim mosque. (Here are amazing echoes of the India's Hindu nationalist movement, Hindutva, which destroyed an important mosque in India).

On the other hand, when it comes to battling against secular society and the fascination with what is permissible (and what is not), there is no denying that Israel's ultra-orthodox community — and, increasingly, even its official Rabbinate — increasingly resembles the ultra-extreme Saudi clerics.

The same impulse that leads Saudi Imams to choose the strictest interpretation possible, leads Israeli Rabbis to do the same — even when the ancient sources in both cases clearly argue for lenience.

To be sure, contempt for the modern world — and a refusal to educate people to earn a living — is as evident in the ultra-orthodox academies of Jerusalem as in the Madrassahs of Pakistan.

The Jewish Wahhabis may seem less dangerous to the world than their Muslim counterparts. After all, there are just 13 million Jews among the world's 6 billion people. Most do not even follow orthodox practice — much less subscribe to either of the Jewish "Wahhabi" points of view.

One might therefore assume that such Jewish debates would largely be internal affairs. But that does not reckon with Israel's political system, which has given the Jewish "Wahhabis" much room for maneuver.

And that is where the U.S. involvement in the Middle East enters into the equation. It essentially means that the antics of the Jewish Wahhabis in the West Bank and Gaza endanger more than just the Jewish state itself. They help to poison the entire atmosphere of the Middle East. That gives great aid and comfort to Wahhabis and other extremists on the other side, in the Muslim world.