There are at least three ways to look at Israel’s burgeoning religious crisis — two that are harmful and one that is useful.
The first and perhaps least productive approach is denial. Some observers here consider the news out of Israel in recent weeks — of rabbis counseling soldiers to resist orders, of fervently Orthodox Jews abusing female students at a Modern Orthodox school, of public buses that continue to practice gender segregation despite a court order — and try to wish the problem away. Tensions between Israel’s secular majority and religious minority are not, however, the invention of Israel’s critics. They are a result of a clash of social and religious views made worse by political realities.
Israel’s critics, meanwhile, are guilty of the second harmful approach: ridicule. Anti-Zionist bloggers and pro-Palestinian commentators — and even some well-meaning friends — suggest that the clash among Israelis is symptomatic of Israel’s “failed” democratic experiment; indeed, they say, it is indicative of the “folly” of the Zionist enterprise itself. In fact, the controversies are an example of democracy at work, in the messiest and most public forums and institutions.
Appreciating that democratic impulse is the root of the third and only useful approach to Israel’s kulturkampf. Yes, there are troubling signs of public intolerance, religious coercion, and a government that lacks the will to rein in the worst abuses. But there are also a host of individuals and institutions who are fighting for the kind of Israel promised in its declaration of independence. These include Israeli NGOs, feminist groups, and religious moderates who take seriously the declaration’s promise of a country that “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race, or sex.” These are the kinds of activists inspired by the words of Israeli President Shimon Peres, who this week condemned religious zealots and called on Israel’s majority to fight “for the soul of the nation and the essence of the state.”
These activists reject denial, believe in the dream of a democratic Jewish state, and share our commitment to tolerance and the rule of law. These are the kind of activists who deserve support from American Jews.