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Shutting down the Start-up Nation

Israelis may think they live in a progressive society, but that's an illusion

Shutting Down the Start-Up NationSixteen years ago in Jerusalem I gave birth to my first son, T. It was a complicated delivery and I had to stay in the hospital longer than expected. On a Friday afternoon, my fourth day in the hospital, my doctor examined me and said if I felt well the following morning, T and I could go home. She wouldn’t be working on the weekend, but the doctor on duty would sign my release form.

On Saturday morning, my husband arrived to pick us up. We packed my things, strapped T into the brand new car seat, and headed over to the nurse’s desk to get the release paper signed. “The doctor is busy now,” a nurse said. “Go back to your room and wait.” We waited and waited. Every hour, we’d ask the nurses where the doctor was, and the answer was always the same. “He’s busy.”

Sometime in the afternoon a new nurse came on duty, “You can stop asking for the doctor,” she said. “He’s religious and he won’t sign you out on the Sabbath.”

“He can’t do that,” I insisted. “If he’s on duty, he has to do his job.”

“You think?” my husband said.

Sure enough, when the Sabbath was over, and nine hours after I’d requested his signature, an Orthodox doctor appeared to sign my release papers.

I was reminded of this story earlier this month while on the way to an appointment with my therapist in Tel Aviv, where I now live. My therapist, who lives in northern Israel, was stuck in a massive traffic jam and wouldn’t be on time for our appointment. “It’s because of the train crisis,” he said, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s sudden decision to halt Israel Railway’s weekend work. The decision was made to appease the government’s ultra-Orthodox parties that were demanding cessation of work on the Sabbath. Shutting down the critical work on the railways left more than a hundred thousand people unable to get to work on Sunday morning or stuck for hours in traffic. Israel, the Start-up nation, it turns out, can be shut down on a whim.

Unlike most liberal democracies, separation of religion and state does not exist here. Religion is state-funded in Israel, and there has never been civil or same-sex marriage. In 2015, a bill that would have instituted both was voted down in the Knesset. (Because my husband and I didn’t want to get married through the rabbinate, we got married in a California county clerk’s office.) Day after day, Israel is becoming more religious and less tolerant. Like global warming, you feel it happening. And each year it becomes a little more oppressive. When the founders of Israel envisioned a state, they wanted a homeland for Jewish people, not a state run according to Jewish religion or a place where Jews can get kosher electricity.

Caving in to the ultra-Orthodox’s desire to shut down the trains is not a one-time event. It’s part of a continuous attack against the secular way of life. The government is currently proposing to force stores to close on the Sabbath. And on Fridays in my youngest son A’s elementary school, the Sabbath eve is celebrated with blessings. This was not part of my older sons’ curriculum. For them, just a few years ago, Friday was simply the beginning of the weekend.

While Israelis may think they live in a progressive society, it’s merely an illusion. Two days ago, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said, “Studying Judaism and excelling in it is more important to me than studying math and sciences.” And until 2014, evolution wasn’t taught in Israeli public “secular” schools’ core curriculum.

Today, public schools do teach the theory of evolution by natural selection, but they’re not allowed to mention mankind’s common origins with primates. I made sure to explain Darwin’s theory to T early on. And he has done the same for A, who, at the age of 4 walked around Tel Aviv telling people, “I used to be a monkey.”

Israeli secular schools do teach the standard subjects of the modern world — like math, science, English, and literature, but most ultra-Orthodox schools teach only the religious studies they choose. In June of this year the Knesset voted to reverse a recent law that would have reduced funding for ultra-Orthodox schools that didn’t devote a minimum number of hours to core subjects such as math, English, and science. Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, lauded the move and said Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion had “pledged to all Jews that they be educated in accordance with their lifestyle; he understood that you can’t force any Jew not to live traditionally” (and you also cannot force any Jew to live traditionally). But Ben Gurion was teaching tolerance, not suggesting that thousands of children shouldn’t get the basic skills required to live in the modern world.

A decade ago, while standing with my mother-in-law in front of her home in Jerusalem, two ultra-Orthodox men began to approach us. “We’re lost,” the taller of the two said. They took tiny steps in our direction, barely lifting their feet off the ground, and huddled close to each other as if they were in danger. It took me a moment to realize their movements were so cautious because they’d shut their eyes in order not to see the females standing in front of them. “Which way is Emek Refaim?” the tall man asked.

“That way,” my mother in law said as she gestured to the right. But the men couldn’t see her pointing. “If you open your eyes,” she continued, “you might find it.”

About the Author
Jessica Apple is a co-founder and editor in chief of the diabetes lifestyle magazine ASweetLife.org. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications including the New York Times Magazine, Financial Times Magazine, Slate, Tablet, and the Forward.
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