As if Israel were not facing enough problems in the region and on the world stage, there appears to be an internal kulturkampf that threatens its very viability. Unlike the namesake clash between secularists and the Catholic Church in Bismarck’s Germany, this kulturkampf is not only between religious and secular Jews and between haredi Jews and religious Zionists, but also between Orthodox Jews and the fledgling Reform and Masorti communities.
It is not only a religious confrontation or a display of gross intolerance, but a challenge to democracy in Israel. It represents a potential threat to the effectiveness of the military, a challenge to the education system, and an obstacle to the delivery of public services by the state.
The most recent episodes occurred in Beit Shemesh, originally a mixed secular-religious community that has become an increasingly haredi bedroom community outside of Jerusalem. Over the past week there have been demands that women not walk on the same side of the streets as men in some areas, attacks against police seeking to protect the open streets, and physical attacks and intimidation even against non-haredi — albeit religious — children trying to attend a Modern Orthodox girls school. The Netanyahu government has insisted that there must not be any gender restrictions in the public domain and that all Supreme Court rulings opposing such segregation be enforced, but the police appear to be enforcing the laws with a light touch.
In various protests organized by the haredi community, there have been reports of haredim calling the police “Nazis” for seeking to enforce the law. Girls from religious Zionist schools have been called “prostitutes” and members of the media have been attacked while attempting to cover demonstrations (after which the haredim have blamed the media for distorted reporting of the events).
While all of this is developing, religious leaders for most of these groups have been largely silent in demanding tolerance and cessation of confrontations. There appears even to be only a limited engagement by Modern Orthodox authorities on these ethical/religious issues.
While the demonstrators represent only a segment of the haredi community, their protests have been met with creeping capitulation by government authorities. On certain bus lines in Jerusalem that travel through haredi neighborhoods, women are forced to ride in the back despite court rulings that have outlawed such segregation.
The tension over conversion re-emerged when an American woman who had received an Orthodox conversion in the United States suddenly was not recognized as a Jew by the Chief Rabbinate, leading the Interior Ministry to block her bid for aliya under the Law of Return.
In the West Bank, rabbinical authorities have again asserted which military orders religious soldiers ought to obey and which to defy and ignore. Some of these same authorities also have sought to limit dramatically the place and assignments for women in the military, including suggesting that they should not be placed in roles where they are teaching males.
If this trend continues, Israeli democracy may well fail even before a two-state solution with the Palestinians is resolved. To date, the Netanyahu government, like most prior governments, declares that Israel’s robust democracy leaves no room for religious coercion, and then blinks or permits many of the concessions demanded by the haredim. The government needs support from the haredi parties to sustain their governing coalition. As with peace negotiations, principled goals are dismissed in the name of political expediency.
There are various Israeli NGOs, feminist groups, and religious movements who are fighting this trend. They include leaders of the Reform and Masorti movements, as well as Modern Orthodox religious thinkers like Rabbis David Hartman and Shlomo Riskin. The Kadima party launched a campaign called “Women in Front: Saying No to the Exclusion of Women.” President Shimon Peres urged the public to attend a demonstration in support of the Beit Shemesh girl persecuted by local haredim for attending a Modern Orthodox school.
“All of us,” said Peres, “must defend the image of the state of Israel from a minority that is destroying national solidarity and expressing itself in an infuriating way.”
At one time, as Israel struggled to make peace with her neighbors, people would say, “Just wait until there is peace, if you want to see Israel’s real problems.” Well, Israel is not yet living with real peace with her neighbors, but the internal bickering and hostility among the Jews is in full swing.