No, Israel Isn’t Turning into an Iran-Style Theocracy

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, The New Republic, 2-2-12

The demonizing of Israel, dismissing the democratic Jewish state as a right-wing, religious, racist project, continues. The latest storyline describes ultra-Orthodox Israelis—known in Hebrew as haredim—as medieval Neanderthals rapidly converting Israel into an Iran-style theocracy. This popular caricature encourages those liberals seeking excuses to stop supporting Israel. The appalling images of bearded, black-hatted zealots spitting on eight-year-olds, forcing women to the back of public buses, and parading their children with yellow stars in protest, are all being read as tea leaves predicting Israel’s imminent degeneration into Haredistan. But what if the opposite is true? Haredi rampages seem more like impotent attempts to build a firewall against modernity than harbingers of conquest.

Change is coming to a community defined by its rejection of change. Haredim are joining Israeli society. Haredi vocational programs are proliferating, as government generosity wanes. Over 3000 haredi soldiers have now served in Israel’s army, including a combat-ready unit. Many haredi women, who increasingly are highly educated and working, are demanding more respect while continuing to maintain gender distinctions. The debate about television and internet usage is intensifying, as modern popular culture seeps into the society, which is not hermetically sealed.

While haredi triumphalists emphasize their high birthrate, the outflow of the last two centuries since the Enlightenment continues. Though statistics are elusive, communal anxiety abounds about the apostates. Most haredim, while denying the hemorrhaging, have close relatives who are no longer haredi. The deserters are numerous enough to have inspired a television drama series: Simanei She’eilah (question marks), which tracks the stories of haredi runaways living in a Tel Aviv halfway house, debuted last year.

The Zaka organization provides the most dramatic—and inspiring—example of haredi engagement with Israeli society. Zaka became famous during the second intifada, dispatching ultra-Orthodox crews who cleaned up the spilled blood and pieces of flesh strewn about after bombings. Their reverence and thoroughness impressed normally hostile secular Israelis. Zaka’s heroism, along with the suicide bombings in haredi neighborhoods, reminded all Israelis of their shared destiny. Today, more than 1500 Zaka volunteers nationwide serve in ambulances and participate in search and rescue operations. A Zaka team in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake worked through the Sabbath, saving lives.

One haredi friend, with two sons who served in the army, warns that articles praising Zaka volunteers and haredi soldiers often tout them as the “good” haredim for doing what haredim usually don’t do. “Note the many good deeds done by haredim doing what they normally do, too,” he urges, emphasizing the community’s charitable spirit and elaborate self-help networks. These spawned two leading social service organizations that serve all Israelis: Yad Eliezer established soup kitchens and distributed relief supplies during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, while Yad Sarah’s nationwide network assists the disabled, the elderly, and the housebound.

In the popular media, in both Israel and abroad, images of rock-throwing, gender-segregating, yellow-star-wearing extremists obscure these good works—and a more accurate picture. Noah Efron, a Bar Ilan University philosopher and historian, has explored the ingrained prejudice and popular revulsion against haredim. “The Jewish fight against ultra-Orthodoxy is part of a long-running struggle about what legitimately counts as Jewish,” Professor Efron says. “The modern forms of Judaism have so won the day that this need to continue fighting the battle seems neurotic.” Nevertheless, emphasizing the bad behavior of haredi Jews—who epitomize the stereotypical Jew—makes modern Jews and non-Jews feel better, less judged, suggesting that “these ostensibly superior Jews are actually inferior,” Efron says. “We continually prove our own probity to ourselves by proving the depravity of those people.”

More broadly, these stories provoke secular Westerners’ condescension toward religious people. Reading many of the American and European blogs about the haredi tensions this winter, Efron has been “stunned” by “the depths of the hatred and the crassness of the arguments. The attacks reflect a toxic mix of old style anti-Semitism and contemporary anti-Zionism, with a new style modern anti-anything-that-is-not-secular-liberal-and-Western added.”

Haredim—and their leaders—are, of course, partly responsible for the broad anger against them. Many lack civic spirit. Few serve in the army. The separation of women often entails inequality. Their politicians exploit Israel’s fragmented coalition-governing system. A culture of lawlessness has grown in many communities, and their holier-than-thou attitude toward fellow citizens rankles.

Nevertheless, even in Bet Shemesh, the town where the haredi men spat on the eight-year-old schoolgirl, the true story is more complex than headlines suggest. “Haredi residents are furious at the recent developments and resent that they are being blamed for the acts of a tiny minority,” the haredi paper, HaModia reported. This doesn’t excuse haredi leaders: In a hierarchical community that grants rabbis so much power, the rabbis must do a better job of restraining the bullies. But as Rabbi Yeshaya Ehrenreich, a member of the Beit Shemesh City Council, told the newspaper, “The haredim who live in the same neighborhoods as these [fringe elements] suffer more than anyone else.”

In Bet Shemesh and elsewhere, the fight often pits ultra-Orthodox against modern Orthodox, not necessarily religious versus secular. Rachel Azaria is a young activist who surprised everyone by winning a seat on Jerusalem’s City Council in the last election. She has fought gender segregation on buses and the banning of female images from bus ads, while working to make the Western Wall welcoming to all visitors and not the world’s largest outdoor haredi synagogue. A religious woman, the mother of three young children, Azaria insists she is not anti-haredi, and that many haredim have encouraged her. “I am the address for haredim,” she explains, “because I am willing to get my hands dirty.” She adds: “I want to affirm to the haredim that they are a part of us—we are all here to stay.”

Statistical projections warning of haredi hordes overwhelming “normal” Israel stoke the media hysteria. But statistical trends are not historical facts. In researching his 2003 book Real Jews: Secular Versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, Professor Efron traced these Chicken Little statistical warnings to the 1960s. “It has become a staple media trope,” Efron says, “with some predicting the tipping point in 10 years time, others seven, sometimes 15. It should have happened in 1970, then again, and again, but never did.” And while demographers insist that now the threat is real, the steady, underpublicized exit from the community may provide the counter that the million-person Russian immigration provided a decade ago. This attrition accounts for the mirror-image standoff. Haredi and non-haredi Israelis both feel embattled, threatened by the other, and abused by the other’s advantages.

This political dynamic, rooted in the 1990s, persists. Most histories of the haredim in Israel emphasize Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s initial deal to exempt a few Torah scholars from military duty. Two other moments were also critical. The counter-revolution of 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud broke the Labor Party’s 29-year political monopoly, fragmented the Israeli political market, boosting the haredim. During the 1990s, demagogues in the ultra-Orthodox party Shas and the anti-ultra-Orthodox party Shinui both discovered the political benefits of battling each other. The result has been growing polarization—and a feeling among the haredim that they are a despised minority, whose standing is resented and imperiled.

The recent spate of spats may be a good sign. Constructive reform sometimes begins with seemingly destructive clashes. Rachel Azaria and other activists no longer feel alone. They believe Israelis are now addressing this issue, which requires visionary leadership. The experience of the 1990s suggest that demagoguery and demonization will not help. What’s needed is statesmanship with a soft touch, a rarity in Israel’s dyspeptic political culture. The right accommodation with the haredim will balance values that are frequently in tension for Americans too. It is difficult reconciling majority rule with minority rights, freedom of religion with equality for women, group prerogatives with individual autonomy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could secure a second term with a more solid majority if he produced a new civic covenant between haredim and Israeli society. But Netanyahu will have to stop acting like a Chicago alderman and start acting like a national leader. Rather than tending his coalition above all else, he must take risks. He should leverage the generous subsidies the haredim currently enjoy to force the rabbis to control the bullies and accept more responsibilities as Israeli citizens. Needed reforms include teaching a core curriculum of general subjects in schools that receive state funding, limiting the number of army exemptions, and increasing vocational training. In return, Netanyahu should pass legislation guaranteeing haredim a separate school system and particular exemptions, so their every benefit is not perennially in doubt. And Netanyahu must move all Israelis beyond classical Zionism’s monolithic, tanned, bronzed secular “New Jews” finding unity in uniformity; today’s multicultural Israelis should celebrate diversity while sharing common civic commitments.

Just as particular historical forces shaped this haredi moment, a new covenant can foster a healthier relationship. Israelis await such wise governance, in this realm and many others.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Institute Engaging Israel Fellow.

 

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iEngage: Who is Afraid of the Big Bad Haredi Wolf?

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, iEngage — Shalom Hartman Institute, 2-1-12

 
The reddening of Israel, dismissing the Jewish state as a right-wing, religious, Republican project, increasingly foreign to cultured, blue-state Democrats, continues. The latest storyline describes ultra-Orthodox Israelis – haredim – as medieval Neanderthals rapidly converting Israel into an Iran-style theocracy. This popular caricature encourages those liberals seeking excuses to stop supporting Israel. The appalling images of bearded, black-hatted zealots spitting on eight-year-olds, forcing women to the back of public buses, and parading their children with yellow stars in protest, are all being read as tea leaves predicting Israel’s imminent degeneration into Haredistan. But what if the opposite is true?  Haredi rampages seem more like impotent attempts to build a firewall against modernity than harbingers of conquest.
 
Change is coming to a community defined by its rejection of change. Haredim are joining Israeli society. Haredi vocational programs are proliferating, as government generosity wanes. Over 3000 haredi soldiers have now served in Israel’s army, including a combat-ready unit. Many haredi women, who increasingly are highly educated and working, are demanding more respect while maintaining gender distinctions. The debate about TV and internet usage is intensifying, as modern popular culture continues infiltrating into the society, which is not hermetically sealed.
 
While haredi triumphalists emphasize their high birthrate, the outflow of the last two centuries since the Enlightenment continues. Statistics are elusive. But communal anxiety abounds about the apostates. Most haredim, while denying the hemorrhaging, have close relatives who are no longer haredi. The deserters are numerous enough to have inspired a television drama series. Simani Sheilah – question marks – evoking the modern epidemic of doubt, debuted last year. It tracks the stories of haredi runaways living in a Tel Aviv halfway house, abruptly confronting modernity. 
 
The Zaka organization provides the most dramatic – and inspiring – example of haredi engagement with Israeli society. Zaka became famous during the Palestinian terror campaign, dispatching the ultra-Orthodox crews who cleaned up the spilled blood and pieces of flesh strewn about after bombings. Their reverence and thoroughness impressed normally hostile secular Israelis. Zaka’s heroism, along with the suicide bombings in haredi neighborhoods, reminded all Israelis of their shared destiny. Today, more than 1500 Zaka volunteers nationwide serve in ambulances and participate in search and rescue operations. A Zaka team in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake worked through the Sabbath, saving lives.
 
One haredi friend, with two sons who served in the army, warns that articles praising Zaka volunteers and haredi soldiers often tout them as the “good” haredim for doing what haredim usually don’t do. “Note the many good deeds done by haredim doing what they normally do, too,” he urges, emphasizing the community’s charitable spirit and elaborate self-help networks, which spawned two leading social service organizations. Yad Eliezer established soup kitchens and distributed relief supplies during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, while Yad Sarah’s nationwide network assists the disabled, the elderly, and the housebound.
 
In the popular media, in both Israel and abroad, images of rock-throwing, gender-segregating, yellow-star-wearing extremists obscure these good works – and a more accurate picture. Noah Efron, a Bar Ilan University philosopher and historian, has explored the ingrained prejudice and popular revulsion against haredim. “The Jewish fight against ultra-Orthodoxy is part of a long-running struggle about what legitimately counts as Jewish,” Professor Efron says. “The modern forms of Judaism have so won the day that this need to continue fighting the battle seems neurotic.” Nevertheless, emphasizing the bad behavior of haredi Jews – who epitomize the stereotypical Jew — makes modern Jews and non-Jews feel better, less judged, suggesting that “these ostensibly superior Jews are actually inferior,” Efron says. “We continually prove our own probity to ourselves by proving the depravity of those people.”
 
More broadly, liberal, secular, Westerners’ condescension toward religious people kicks in. Reading many of the American and European blogs about the haredi tensions this winter, Efron has been “stunned” by “the depths of the hatred and the crassness of the arguments. The attacks reflect a toxic mix of old style anti-Semitism and contemporary anti-Zionism, with a new style modern anti-anything-that-is-not-secular-liberal-and-Western added.”
 
Haredim – and their leaders — are, of course, partly responsible for the broad anger against them. Many lack civic spirit. Few serve in the army. The separation of women often entails inequality. Their politicians exploit Israel’s fragmented coalition-governing system. A culture of lawlessness has grown in many communities, and their holier-than-thou attitude toward fellow citizens rankles.
 
Nevertheless, even in Bet Shemesh, the town where the haredi men spat on the eight-year-old schoolgirl, the true story is more complex than headlines suggest. “Haredi residents are furious at the recent developments and resent that they are being blamed for the acts of a tiny minority,” the haredi paper, HaModia reported. Rabbi Yeshaya Ehrenreich, a member of the Beit Shemesh City Council, told the newspaper: “The haredim who live in the same neighborhoods as these [fringe elements] suffer more than anyone else.” Still, in such a hierarchical community, which grants rabbis so much power, the rabbis must do a better job of restraining the bullies. 
 
In Bet Shemesh and elsewhere, the fight often pits ultra-Orthodox against modern Orthodox, not necessarily religious versus secular. Rachel Azaria is a young activist who surprised everyone by winning a seat on Jerusalem’s City Council in the last election. She has fought gender segregation on buses and the banning of female images from bus ads, while working to make the Western Wall welcoming to all visitors and not the world’s largest outdoor haredi synagogue. A religious woman, the mother of three young children, Azaria insists she is not anti-haredi, and that many haredim have encouraged her. “I am the address for haredim,” she explains, “because I am willing to get my hands dirty.” She adds: “I want to affirm to the haredim that they are a part of us – we are all here to stay.”
 
Statistical projections warning of haredi hordes overwhelming “normal” Israel stoke the media hysteria. But statistical trends are not historical facts. In researching his 2003 book Real Jews: Secular Versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, Professor Efron traced these Chicken Little statistical warnings to the 1960s. “It has become a stable media trope,” Efron says, “with some predicting the tipping point in 10 years time, others seven, sometimes 15. It should have happened in 1970, then again, and again, but never did.” And while demographers insist that now the threat is real, the steady, underpublicized exit from the community may provide the counter that the million-person Russian immigration provided a decade ago. This attrition accounts for the mirror-image standoff. Haredi and non-haredi Israelis both feel embattled, threatened by the other, and abused by the other’s advantages.
 
This political dynamic, rooted in the 1990s, persists. Most histories of the haredim in Israel emphasize Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s initial deal to exempt a few Torah scholars from military duty. Two other moments were also critical. The counter-revolution of 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud broke the Labor Party’s 29-year political monopoly, fragmented the Israeli political market, boosting the haredim. During the 1990s, demagogues in the ultra-Orthodox party Shas and the anti-ultra-Orthodox party Shinui both discovered the political benefits of battling each other. The result has been growing polarization – and a feeling among the haredim that they are a despised minority, whose standing is resented and imperiled.
 
The recent spate of spats may be a good sign. Constructive reform sometimes begins with seemingly destructive clashes. Rachel Azaria and other activists no longer feel alone. They believe Israelis are now addressing this issue, which requires visionary leadership.
 
The pathologies of the 1990s suggest that demagoguery and demonization will not help. Needed is statesmanship with a soft touch, a rarity in Israel’s dyspeptic political culture. The right accommodation with the haredim will balance values that are frequently in tension for Americans too. It is difficult reconciling majority rule with minority rights, freedom of religion with equality for women, group prerogatives with individual autonomy.
 
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could secure a second term with a more solid majority if he produced a new civic covenant between haredim and Israeli society. But Netanyahu will have to stop acting like a Chicago alderman and start acting like a national leader. Rather than tending his coalition above all else, he must take risks. He should leverage the generous subsidies the haredim currently enjoy to force the rabbis to control the bullies and accept more responsibilities as Israeli citizens. Needed reforms include teaching a core curriculum of general subjects in schools that receive state funding, limiting the number of army exemptions, and increasing vocational training. In return, Netanyahu should pass legislation guaranteeing haredim a separate school system and particular exemptions, so every benefit is not perennially in doubt. And Netanyahu must move all Israelis beyond classical Zionism’s monolithic, tanned, bronzed secular “New Jews” finding unity in uniformity; today’s multicultural Israelis should celebrate diversity while sharing common civic commitments. 
 
Just as particular historical forces shaped this haredi moment, a new covenant can foster a healthier relationship. Israelis await such wise governance, in this realm and many others.

When Dads Are Barred from their Daughters’ Basketball Games – Improvise Reasonable Accommodations

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-3-12

On Sunday night, the Efrata national religious elementary school hosted two other national religious schools – Yehudah HaLevi and Evelina — at a girls’ basketball tournament. Although the hometown heroines from grades three and four got shellacked in the first round 34 to 6, it was a delightful scene. Five brothers, with silly hats, a tom-tom drum, and much exuberance, cheered their sisters. This being Jerusalem, encouraging calls from the Moms and Dads to “get that rebound” or “take that shot,” rang out in Hebrew and English. Yet, alas, this being Israel, the very presence of the cheerleading brothers and fathers was controversial. This was an improvised, alternative tournament.  The original official Hanukkah tournament limited entry to “Nashim BeLvad,” women only.
This story lacks the drama of other headline-generating events. There are no spitting-bullies or offensively-inappropriate yellow stars, no rocks thrown, not even voices raised. But this incident is instructive. Like the Bet Shemesh neighborhood conflict, this struggle is dividing the religious world. Like more and more episodes, it started with a subtle shift, a creeping assertion of the most expansive religious interpretation into the most innocent of realms. Yet, unlike so many occurrences, its happy ending reflects the kind of civic engagement and problem-solving we need to make this diverse, chaotic, old-new, Jewish-democratic, disputatious, audacious, hi-tech shtetl called Israel work.
“Why are they sexualizing our daughters so young,” asked Naomi Wurtman when she received the flyer advertising the original tournament. Naomi is the friend and fellow Efrata parent who invited me and my daughter to Sunday night’s game. She circulated an email saying “I have no need for my nine-year-old to be turned into a sex object and every need for her father to be able to proudly watch his daughter play a sport.” The broader issue, of course, is “the censoring of girls and women out of every sphere of life in Jerusalem.”  Other offended parents mobilized.  Although the tournament was not organized by the school, such gender segregation violates the unspoken covenant, the basic ground rules, for parents sending their children to national religious schools.
Ultimately, the solution, with the principal’s blessing, reflected what Quebec calls “reasonable accommodation.” Two tournaments took place, accommodating two parallel populations. This solution was better than letting the more extreme minority impose its demands, because competing values are at stake. Living together does not mean the most maximalist religious interpretation always wins. Members of the national religious community should not always feel trumped – the most rigorous reading of Jewish law is not necessarily the right or righteous one. (A lesson many religious people should remember when they look left).  At the same time, Jews in particular should make sure the majority respects minority needs.
The current tensions around the ultra-Orthodox can be resolved with vision, leadership, and civic action. For starters, all Israeli Jews should affirm two mutually reinforcing principles – the Jewish value of Klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, and the democratic value of every citizen, in fact, every human being, having basic rights and essential dignity. Anyone who appreciates those values could not spit, curse or throw rocks at fellow human beings, no matter their age, gender, lifestyle or dress code. Anyone who appreciates those values would work hard to respect their fellow citizens’ and fellow Jews’ freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. A country committed to those values would make some of the concessions Israel has made to the ultra-Orthodox, while also setting some limits.
This generous vision requires bold leadership.  Benjamin Netanyahu should stop acting like a ward heeler and act like a national leader, stop tending the coalition and shape a communal response. Here, the virtuous move is the shrewd move. He could marginalize Kadima and Labor if he could start defusing the growing tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society. But to do that, our risk-averse prime minister must take risks.
Using the power of the purse, and exploiting the hierarchical nature of ultra-Orthodox society, Netanyahu should call a summit of leading Haredi rabbis. He should threaten their precious Yeshiva subsidies and other government goodies if they don’t start policing their hooligan extremists. He should also demand a new social contract between Haredim and the Jewish state, detailing responsibilities not just rights, and imposing some core courses in basic skills into their educational curriculum.  If Netanyahu plays this right, even if this coalition falls, he could settle in for a long spell as prime minister.
Finally, Israelis should follow the examples of the Efrata parents and of civic activists like Jerusalem City Councillor Rachel Azaria – even as she remains in herem¸ excommunicated from Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition for courageously confronting gender segregation on Jerusalem’s streets.  Israeli citizens from all sectors should protect their rights, their prerogatives, as the Efrata parents did – as the Bet Shemesh parents are doing. They may occasionally have to work harder to come up with the right solution, the reasonable accommodation, the creative improvisation.
And we all should start building bridges too. In particular, national religious Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews have much that unites them not just issues dividing them. They should seek out points of contact, at Shabbat tables and in other settings, to share pleasant experiences not just talk through points of tension.  I, for one, would relish the opportunity to spend a Shabbat meal with a Haredi family, to aid my campaign to stop my children – and too many friends – from viewing all of “them” as unpatriotic parasites feeding off the state who exploit the Holocaust and young kids to score cheap political points.
Basketball can wait. Let’s be good Jews and start by eating together, talking together, learning together, accommodating each other.
Odelia Wurtman and Dolev Gorlin.  Photo provided by Naomi Wurtman
Photo provided by Naomi Wurtman.
The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and an Engaging Israel Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is the “History of American Presidential Elections.”