by Israel Rafalovich
Israel is facing a rise in the influence of ultra-orthodox Jews. Their effort to impose their strictly conservative worldview has led to growing tensions with the country’s secular society. Radical rabbis are expanding their influence particularly when it comes to women. Jewish religious extremists are trying to impose gender separation in public, in elections, on buses, and in the street, all in the name of a morality that is supposedly agreeable to God.
The gender segregation began on buses a few years ago. At first only one bus line was “Kosher,” but soon the men were sitting in the front and the women in the back on more than 60 routes. In summer 2013, for instance, on bus number 497 from Beit Shemesh to Bnei Brak, a women was asked to move to the back of the bus in accordance with ultra-orthodox customs. The government did nothing.
Women have disappeared from advertising posters in Jerusalem. Swimming pools at the university have separate hours for men and women. Burial societies forbid women from giving eulogies. Until now this trend has been most noticeable in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh, and Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, which are Israel’s ultra-orthodox strongholds.
But the impact of the ultra-orthodox is also becoming apparent in places where secular Israelis live. For instance, as part of road-safety lessons, the children of Israel are learning the Traveler’s prayer.
Israel is a country with no civil marriage, where rabbis decide on weddings and divorces. Under a law passed in 2013, Jewish couples that hold a ceremony in Israel not approved by the rabbinate risk a two-year jail term as do those officiating.
Israel is the only country in the world that puts people in jail for putting up a wedding canopy and conducting a marriage ceremony. It is also a country where ultra-orthodox schoolchildren learn neither mathematics nor English, where every kindergarten and every military battalion has a rabbi and where an infrastructure minister wants to place power plants under the supervision of rabbis so that even electricity will be in compliance with religious purity laws.
The settlers are increasingly exhibiting a Messianic nationalism while the ultra-orthodox pursue fundamentalism hostile to the state. As minister of education, Naftali Bennet is building the foundations of a new Messianic order upon the ruins of democracy, and so far, nobody’s even peeped in protest.
Until today the state of Israel has not decided whether it is a theocracy for Jews or a democratic sovereign state. The ultra-orthodox appear to be on the road to winning this fundamental battle of principles. Ultra-orthodox radicals are increasingly occupying key positions, thereby imposing their stamp on the secular majority. Israeli’s secular democrats are growing increasingly worried that Israel’s future may resemble Saudi Arabia and Iran more than Europe.
Israeli Jews increasingly interpret the identity of the state in religious terms, asserting the priority of Jewish over democratic values. Israel’s shift toward orthodoxy is not merely a religious one. Since the vast majority of Orthodox Jews are also against any agreement with the Palestinians, the chances of reaching a peace deal diminish with each passing day. Nor is time on the side of those who want a democratic Israel.
Israel defines itself as a “Jewish and democratic state.” However, because Israel has never created a system of checks and balances between these two sources of authority, they are closer than ever to a terrible clash.
The attack on secularism is by necessity an attack on democracy. The ultimate source of authority is no longer the state and its institutions. The sources of inspiration are not liberal humanism, human rights, the enlightenment movement, or science. Rather, the ultra-orthodox want to substitute holy men, holy scriptures, rituals, and prayer.
This assault on secularism has a clear political context. The goal is to ensure a Great Land Israel and the perpetuation of ignorance—on the road to a theocracy.
Israel is no democracy, and it never has been with regard to the Arabs in the West Bank and Gaza. It has always been a decidedly imperfect democracy concerning its own Arab citizens. Rude and arrogant powerbrokers, some of whom hold senior positions in government, exclude non-Jews from Israel public spaces. In the absence of a binding constitution, Israel has no real protections for its minorities and their freedom of worship and expression.
If this trend continues Israel will become just another Middle Eastern theocracy. It will not be possible to define Israel as a democracy when a Jewish minority rules over a Palestinian majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, controlling millions of people without political rights or basic legal standing.
This Israel would be much more Jewish in the narrowest sense of the word. But such a non-democratic state, hostile to its neighbors and isolated from the free world, would not be able to survive for long.