The 15-year-old daughter of an Israeli friend announced to her parents that when she gets older she will leave Israel. “The religious are taking over,” she said. “I don’t want to be treated like a second-class citizen, and anyway I want to live in a democracy, not a religious state.”
“I didn’t have an answer,” my friend said.
While Jews in the United States worry incessantly about Iran’s threat to Israel or the moribund peace process, many Israelis place one major concern above all: the internal culture wars between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of society — secular and non-Orthodox Jews and, in many cases, the moderate Orthodox. Like my friend’s daughter, these people wonder what has happened to their country and what place they will have in it.
The degrading treatment of women by the ultra-Orthodox haredim has been the most visible sign of the increasing strength of religious extremism in Israel. The Beit Shemesh violence and gender segregation on the streets and buses in haredi neighborhoods have received much media attention and angry public reaction. Many have objected also to the absence of women’s faces from posters in Jerusalem and women’s voices from various public events, all at the insistence of the haredim and rigorously Orthodox Religious Zionists who call themselves hardalim (a combination of “haredi” and “dati leumi,” religious nationalists).
But the long arm of religious influence extends also to other, less conspicuous areas in the public domain. An elementary school teacher in a national secular school found this year that a world literature textbook she had always used, with its collection of stories by Tolstoy or Dickens in Hebrew translation, was replaced by a book with only Jewish stories and sources. The substitution came as a result of pressure from stringently Orthodox segments, many of which do not even send their children to such schools.
On a larger scale, as reported in Haaretz, the Israeli Defense Force rabbinate has assumed educational responsibilities in the military that had long been the purview of the army’s Education Corps. Instead of confining themselves to ritual matters for religious soldiers, the military rabbis hold classes for all soldiers and promote Jewish identity from a strictly Orthodox viewpoint. In spite of complaints to the Education Corps for a more pluralistic form of military education, little has been done. And with ever-growing numbers of Religious Zionists in the IDF, the military rabbinate is unlikely to rein in its activities.
“Little by little the extreme Orthodox are encroaching on our lives,” says a secular historian. “With their high birth rate they have the demographics and are determined to shape every aspect of society.” It is a “great tragedy,” this man says, that the Conservative and Reform movements have not been more successful in reaching the Israeli public. “They fill a need here by showing that there is more than one way to be Jewish.”
Actually the liberal movements have made inroads into Israeli society, with more students than ever attending their schools and study groups. But with the Orthodox grip on personal-status issues of marriage, divorce, and conversion, they constantly fight an uphill battle. A few years ago, for example, Israel’s High Court ruled that conversions by liberal rabbis are valid and binding on the state. Immediately, the Orthodox rabbinate announced its refusal to accept those conversions, and although a compromise was reached, and conversion schools established with teachers from the various streams, the system has faced many pitfalls.
The conversion situation has become even worse today, when Israel’s chief rabbinic conversion court rejects not only the liberal movements’ conversions, but even those performed by other Orthodox rabbis who don’t fit its criteria. Such zealotry adds only confusion and pain to questions of who may marry whom and, ultimately, who may be considered a Jew according to Jewish law.
The narrowing positions of the extreme Orthodox in regard to women in public spaces, to education in government-sponsored schools, to conversions and the recognition of rabbinic authorities all chip away at the pluralistic and democratic values at the nation’s core. To be sure, Israel still has a vibrant democracy with a strong judiciary that prevents it from becoming anything like neighboring Islamist countries. But many Israelis, who for years ceded religious matters to the Orthodox, now feel threatened by their growing power, especially that of the ultra-Orthodox. That may not be altogether bad, for perhaps now the nation is ready to open a serious discussion about the role of religion in a Jewish and democratic state.
Israel is a unique country, in which even the most secular citizens order their lives around the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, the weekly Sabbath and the festivals that punctuate the year. Whether they go to the synagogue or the beach on those holy days, Israelis need to make sure that the rights of all religious groups are protected — the rights of minorities, but also of the non-Orthodox majority. They can no longer remain disinterested.
Francine Klagsbrun, whose most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day,” writes the monthly “Thinking Aloud” column for the paper. She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.