A Zany Israeli Television Drama Explores the World of Hip, Mizraḥi Yeshiva Students

Jan. 29 2018

The Israeli television series Shababnikim follows three students of Mizraḥi (i.e., Middle Eastern or North African) origin at an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva. Shai Secunda writes in his review:

Shababnikim gets its name from the modern Hebrew slang term for yeshiva boys on the margins. The word’s etymology—from the Arabic shabab (“youth”) capped by the Yiddish suffix -nik—hints at the charged hybridity of Mizraḥi yeshiva students in Ashkenazi institutions, and the show mines this tension for dramatic effect. For example, despite his best efforts to adopt the dress and diction of Ashkenazi ḥaredi culture, [one of the students], Meir, is demeaned by yeshiva officials and matchmakers for his North African roots. When his hardscrabble Mizraḥi neighborhood welcomes him home as a rock star—drinking in his Torah lessons and eagerly accepting his fertility blessings—Meir is awakened to his own Sephardi sexiness. As one neighbor observes, he looks like a cross between Marlon Brando and the equally stylish former chief rabbi Ovadiah Yosef.

To its credit, Shababnikim explores the fault lines between secular and ḥaredi [Israelis] with a successful combination of seriousness and silliness. Avinoam wants nothing more than to be part of broader, secular Israeli society. He buys his dark suits at Zara and takes pride in winning a football match—without realizing that though they may shop at Zara, secular Israelis dress casually and know nothing about American football. . . .

Contrary to popular conception, top ḥaredi institutions, like the Jerusalem-based Hebron yeshiva (“the Harvard of yeshivas,” as the show puts it), house stylish, relatively worldly yeshiva students who, alongside a steady diet of Lithuanian [talmudic erudition], enjoy short espressos, long secular novels, and Van Damme action movies. Perhaps most shocking to viewers are the scenes of our shababnikim casually studying late at night in their underwear, to the strains of Israeli soft rock and the sweet drag of a cigarette. . . . [T]heir remarkable comfort in their own skins and willingness to flirt with hedonism and heresy is a legacy of East European yeshiva life, . . . where some students imagined themselves philosopher princes who should dress smartly and not fret about excessive pieties.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Haredim, Israeli society, Mizrahi Jewry, Television, Yeshiva

Iran’s Defeat May Not Be Immediate, but Effective Containment Is at Hand

Aug. 20 2018

In the 1980s, the U.S. pursued a policy of economic, military, and political pressure on the Soviet Union that led to—or at least hastened—its collapse while avoiding a head-on military confrontation. Some see reasons to hope that a similar strategy might bring about the collapse of the Islamic Republic. Frederick Kagan, however, argues against excessive optimism. Carefully comparing the current situation of Iran to that of the Gorbachev-era USSR, he suggests instead that victory over Tehran can be effectively achieved even if the regime persists, at least for the time being:

What must [an Iran] strategy accomplish in order to advance American national security and vital national interests? Regime change was the only outcome during the cold war that could accomplish those goals, given the conventional and nuclear military power of the Soviet Union. Iran is much weaker by every measure and much more vulnerable to isolation than the Soviets were. . . . Isolating Iran from external resources and forcing the regime to concentrate on controlling its own population would be major accomplishments that would transform the Middle East. . . .

It is vital to note that the strategy toward the Soviet Union included securing Western Europe against the Soviet threat and foreclosing Soviet efforts to pare America’s allies, especially West Germany, away from it while simultaneously supporting (in an appropriately limited fashion) the Solidarity uprising in Poland and the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan. It is not meaningful to speak of a victory strategy against Iran that does not include contesting Iranian control and influence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq while strengthening and hardening the Arab frontline states (including Oman and Qatar) against Iranian influence.

Syria is Iran’s Afghanistan—it is the theater in which Iranian forces are most vulnerable, where Iranian popular support for the war is wearing thin, and where the U.S. can compel [Iran] to expend its limited resources on a defensive battle. Iraq is Iran’s Poland—the area Iran has come to dominate, but with limitations, and a country Iran’s leaders believe they cannot afford to lose. The U.S. is infinitely better positioned to contest Iran’s control over Iraq than it ever was in Poland (and similarly better positioned in Syria than it was in Afghanistan).

A long-term approach would focus on building a consensus among America’s allies about the need to implement a victory strategy. It would deter the Russians and Chinese from stepping in to keep Iran alive. It would disrupt the supply chain of strategic materials Iran needs to advance its nuclear and conventional military capabilities. And it would force Iran to fight hard for its positions in Iraq and Syria while simultaneously pressing the Iranian economy in every possible way. Such a strategy would almost certainly force the Islamic Republic back in on itself, halt and reverse its movement toward regional hegemony, exacerbate schisms within the Iranian leadership and between the regime and the people, and possibly, over time, and in a uniquely Iranian way, lead to a change in the nature of the regime.

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More about: Cold War, Iran, Politics & Current Affairs, Soviet Union, U.S. Foreign policy