TAG | Israel
The Daily Telegraph reports on another dismal chapter in the rise of Israel’s ultra orthodox:
An Israeli activist who defied orthodox Jewish custom by leading a group of women in open prayer at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall has been told to expect years in prison for breaching the peace. Anat Hoffman has been awaiting her fate since being arrested in August amid a worsening debate about her campaign to allow women to pray at Judaism’s holiest site in the same way as men. The police have now chosen to ask prosecutors to charge her with “disrupting a policeman performing his duties under dire circumstances”, a crime that carries a mandatory prison sentence of up to three years. Many in the country’s rapidly growing ultra-orthodox community believe that a woman’s role at the wall should be limited to silent worship. Women should not be allowed, they believe, to read aloud, sing or read from the Torah…
…There are now over 100 state bus routes, many of them in Jerusalem, that offer segregated services requiring women to sit in the back. Israel’s High Court yesterday ruled that the practice could continue. Many offices in the city also keep the sexes apart while a growing number of clinics require men and women to book appointments on different days.
“The religious world in Israel has become more and more extreme,” Mrs Hoffman said. “Much like in Islam, religiosity is now measured by the distances at which women are kept from society.”
Despite the threat of jail, Mrs Hoffman and her supporters are continuing their monthly services at the Wailing Wall. Mrs Hoffman and her fellow members of the Women of the Wall group test the boundaries of religious strictures by singing and praying out loud but they refrain from reading the Torah. As they broke into song at a recent gathering, the men’s section grew more restive as resentment started to stir. A bearded man, his black cloak marking him as ultra-orthodox, shook a fist at the women and yelled: “Burn in hell, you dogs.”
This unpleasant story is yet another reminder of the growing threat to the liberties of secular Israelis from the religious zealotry spreading within their midst, a zealotry that they have subsidized for far too long. That fact is bad enough, but it’s hard not to think that this development also represents a threat to Israel’s external security. Much of America’s willingness to support Israel stems from the fact that the country is at least an approximation of a western-style democracy in a region dominated by authoritarian rule. The more theocratic the country becomes, the less true that will be…
Via the Daily Telegraph, here’s just another story that gives some clues of the unfortunate direction in which the rise of the Ultra-Orthodox may be taking Israel:
Over the past week, fierce forest fires have devastated large swathes of Israel, killing 42 people – including the country’s most senior female police officer. So you could be forgiven for thinking that the emergency services needed all the help they could lay their hands on.
It is not hard to imagine the firefighters’ anger – and disbelief – on discovering that the country’s interior minister, Eli Yishai, had rejected an offer by a Christian charity in North America to donate some fire engines. Given that the country often struggles to provide adequate cover during such emergencies, the proposal by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews could have made a vital contribution to the attempts to bring the fires under control.
But Mr Yishai, who represents the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in the ruling coalition, had other ideas. Shas, which speaks for Israel’s burgeoning ultra-Orthodox community, is deeply suspicious of non-Jewish organisations, even those that are committed to Israel’s well-being. Many of its supporters fear any help offered by Christian groups is part of some sinister plot to convert the Jews.
So Mr Yishai vetoed the American charity’s offer – and in doing so, further inflamed tensions between more secular-minded Israelis, who form the majority of the population, and the religious hardliners whose growing influence over government policy is a source of mounting friction between the communities. The anger only grew when Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, publicly declared that the fires were divine retribution for the failure of secular Israelis to observe the Sabbath…
it’s worth keeping in mind that, while Mr. Yishai may come across as just another paranoiac religious cultist in a Middle East full of such folk, he is also the interior minister of what is meant to be America’s main security partner in the region.
It continues to be difficult to be optimistic about what the future may have in store for that part of the world.
The problem that the Ultra-Orthodox pose for Israel is not a new topic, either here or elsewhere, but this WSJ piece by Evan Goldstein is worth reading, not least for the insight into the way that welfare handouts have (for all practical purposes) distorted an ancient religious tradition:
At the root of the disaster is the revolutionary idea that the study of Torah is a vocation. There is no precedent in pre-1948 Jewish history for an entire community devoting itself to Torah scholarship—and certainly no precedent for getting paid to do so.
“Torah study has always been for spiritual, not material, sustenance,” Zvi Zohar, a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University, tells me. Moreover, the notion that a man’s primary obligation is studying, and not providing for his family, is “diametrically opposed” to Jewish tradition, Mr. Zohar says. The Shulchan Aruch, for instance, an influential 16th-century legal code written by Rabbi Joseph Caro, states: “A respected and impoverished scholar should have a trade, even a lowly trade, rather than being in need of his fellow man.”
State-supported Torah study has also harmed the quality of Jewish thought, argues Mr. Naeh. Ultra-Orthodox self-segregation has cut “learning off from life,” he wrote in a recent essay. As a result, the current generation of Torah scholars “is far from being one of the greatest . . . despite the existence of tens of thousands of learners.”
Is there nothing that government cannot mess up?
Just 42% of adult Israeli Jews define themselves as secular, according to recent official figures. The rest range from mildly to devoutly religious. And because the most religious seem to have the most children, the secular figure is likely to keep shrinking.
In this demographic and cultural scene, politics is more than ever a matter of finely calibrating a religious-secular balance. The latest effort to tip things the religious way comes from Eli Yishai, leader of the largest Orthodox party, Shas, who is minister of the interior. He wants his ministry’s computers to rest on the Sabbath. Specifically, he wants to prevent people paying their bills online on a Saturday. Predictably, the strongly secular and left-wing Meretz party has tabled a bill requiring all government computers, as opposed to human civil servants, to keep humming 24/7.
The minister in charge of government efficiency, Michael Eitan of the Likud party, which has both religious and secular supporters, suggests that the computers be programmed to receive online requests from citizens on the Sabbath but to respond to them only afterthe Sabbath. What about requests from Muslim or Christian citizens? Mr Eitan has yet to offer an answer.
Via the Daily Telegraph, a story that is fascinating on quite a number of levels. Here’s the key extract:
Israeli rabbis are to clamp down on the growing number of devout Jewish women wearing the burka by declaring the garment an item of sexual deviancy. At the insistence of the husbands of some burka-wearing women, a leading rabbinical authority is to issue an edict declaring burka wearing a sexual fetish that is as promiscuous as wearing too little.
A small group of ultra-orthodox Jews in the town of Beit Shemesh chose to don the burka, usually associated with women in repressive Islamist regimes, three years ago in a bid to protect their modesty.
Since then, the habit has spread to five other Israeli towns causing alarm among ultra-orthodox religious leaders who once saw it as a relatively harmless eccentricity – even though the number of Jewish burka wearers is not thought to be more than a few hundred.
“There is a real danger that by exaggerating, you are doing the opposite of what is intended [resulting in] severe transgressions in sexual matters,” Shlomo Pappenheim, a member of the rabbinical authority preparing to make the edict, was quoted as saying.
Ultra-Orthodox women are required to dress conservatively and keep their heads covered with a scarf, hat or wig when in public.
But even that was not enough for some, who insisted that only by covering their faces and wearing multiple layers of clothes to hide the shape of their bodies can they really be chaste.
“At first, I just wore a wig,” one burka-wearing woman told the Haaretz newspaper. “Now when I see a woman with a wig, I pray to God to forgive her for wearing that thing on her head.”
Hundreds of haredim were involved in violent riots in Jaffa on Wednesday, in Rehov Louis Pasteur around the site of an archeological dig. Fifteen haredim were arrested.
The haredim maintain that the work desecrates the sanctity of ancient bones at the site. Rabbi Tuvia Weiss, the senior rabbinic leader of the Eda Haredit Badatz (rabbinical court), was on the scene to encourage the protesters and lead a curse against those working at the site.
Police said the demonstration was illegal. Demonstrators attacked police officers with bricks and rocks and also set fire to trash cans. There were attempts to knock policemen from their horses and five policemen were reported injured.
Two photographers were also injured and an Israel Radio reporter was forced to seek protection inside a police van.
The demonstrators broke into the old Jewish cemetery, which is close to the site of the dig.
Louis Pasteur and Yefet Street were closed to traffic.
A couple of days ago, two hundred haredim protested near the site and three demonstrators were arrested. Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) reported that vandals had ransacked an archaeological excavation of buildings from the late-Ottoman period in Jaffa on Sunday night.
“The damage done to these impressive buildings from the late Ottoman era is irreversible,” said Dr. Yoav Arbel, director of the excavation. The archaeological dig is taking place before the construction of a high-rise building.
Haredim have demonstrated against archaeological digs in the area several times because of their opposition to disturbing Jewish graves on the site.
“Lead a curse”. Good grief…
There was an interesting piece in Saturday’s Financial Times on how the rise in Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox population is a source of increasing tension within the country. Here’s a key extract
Once a tiny minority, the community today accounts for at least 8 per cent of the Israeli adult population. It is forecast to double every 16 years. In Jerusalem more than half the Jewish children attending primary school hail from ultra-orthodox families. A survey by Israel’s Taub Centre for Social Policy Studies highlighted the economic consequences: almost two-thirds of ultra-orthodox men do not work, meaning that a rapidly increasing share of the population depends on state welfare. Many ultra-orthodox schools refuse to teach the core curriculum, so thousands of pupils grow up with only a rudimentary knowledge of maths and none of other sciences, foreign languages or non-religious history.
“The great majority of ultra-orthodox men are not able to work in most vocations in the modern world. They are very much dependent on government support – and that has aggravated a lot of people,” says Menachem Friedman, a professor at Bar Ilan -university. The ultra-orthodox are coming to be seen as a heavy burden. Calls for reform of their schools are growing, as are demands to draft yeshiva students into the army. Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv, declared earlier this month that the state must act against “insulated and ignorant sectors which are increasing at a frightening speed and are jeopardising our political and financial strength”. According to Mr Ilan, the tensions will increase. The next Israeli election, he argues, “will be fought on the subject of religion and the state”.
Food for thought, as, I suspect, is the question of what the increase in the numbers of the Ultra-Orthodox could ultimately mean for the perception of Israel in the West. Yes, there are some evangelical Americans whose enthusiasm for Israel is fueled by their own odd and rather unseemly anticipation of the End Times, but, for the most part, Israel derives its support from the fact that it is seen as a ‘secular’ pro-Western democracy in a part of the world not generally known for such phenomena. For that reputation to be eroded by a growing fundamentalist minority could be very damaging indeed.
At The American Scene there’s a post about WASPs and their relationship to Israel. Of course, that begs the question, what do you mean by WASP? WASP = White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, but that is a plain and broad-church definition which many self-described WASPs might bristle at, as they self-identify as the scions of the Northeastern gentry. This highlights the reality that there are secret ethnic groups in the United States, ethnic groups which are discussed explicitly only in scholarship, for example Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America, but understood implicitly. George H. W. Bush is a WASP. Bill Clinton is a Southerner. Both are white and Protestant and of British ancestry. The type of “white people” which black comedians such as Dave Chappelle mock as without color are WASPs. George H. W. Bush. Not Bill Clinton.
In any case, I wanted to look at possible differences in attitudes toward Israel among American whites separated by region in the GSS. I limited the years to between 1988-1994 (this is the tail end of the survey question). The variable itself is “ISRAEL,” which asks:
You will notice that the boxes on this card go from the highest position of “plus 5” for a country which you like very much, to the lowest position of “minus 5” for a country you dislike very much. How far up the scale or how far down the scale would you rate the following countries? g. Israel
In the GSS I decided to look at “mean” score of each class. I recoded the regions so that I combined “Pacific” and “Mountain” into “West,” and simply aggregated the three Southern regions and the two Midwestern ones (you can see the Census regions here) The means are also generated from recoded variables, so that lower scores are pro-Israel, and higher scores are anti-Israel. The most pro-Israel score would be 0, and the most anti-Israel score would be 9. The bold are the means, while below them are the sample sizes. Finally, I limited the “Bible” variable to Protestants alone.