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A Question of Identity (ctd)

More on this story (from the Guardian):

Proposals to draft ultra-Orthodox men into the Israeli army, ending an exemption that has lasted for 64 years, are bitterly dividing prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition government ahead of a crucial debate on Monday.

A new bill allowing the draft is due to be submitted for its first reading in the Knesset, following a ruling by the country’s supreme court that the Tal Law, exempting Haredi Jews from military service, was unconstitutional. That law is due to expire on 1 August, but what will replace it has become the subject of ferocious argument over one of the most sensitive issues in Israeli society…

Yaakov Uri, who runs a pizza parlour in Geula, an Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem, said the problem was that secular Israelis like Yosam had no understanding of the sacrifices religious Jews make for them. “You think it’s so easy to sit and study all day, bring up seven children on $700 a month? No, it’s very hard,” he said.

These men, in his opinion, are as critical for the defence of Israel as the army. They provide spiritual protection. “The Torah is saving and guarding the Jews,” Uri said. “Take the Iraq war. Saddam Hussein sent 39 Scud missiles into Israel. They didn’t touch anyone. What is this? It wasn’t the army – they sat with their arms folded. It was the Torah,” he said. “There many kinds of soldiers, on planes, on ships, but also in the yeshiva.”

As a compromise, he suggested that yeshiva students who were not truly devoted to Torah studies – around one-third, he thought – should serve in the army. But this was provided, of course, that they were served kosher food, given enough time to pray and segregated from women.

Okey dokey.

There are points when religious freedom becomes religious privilege, and this is one of them.

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A Question of Identity

I’m no fan of conscription, to put it mildly, but, if a state is going to insist on it, it should do so fairly.That does not appear to be the case in Israel, where the ability of the ultra-orthodox to avoid compulsory military service smacks more of religious privilege than religious freedom.

The New York Times reports:

Last year, about 17 percent of 18-year-old Haredim [ultra-orthodox] joined the Army, compared with about 75 percent of other Jewish men; an additional 14 percent of Haredim and 8 percent of Arab citizens signed up for civilian service. Over all, just over half of Israelis now do military duty, a far cry from the generally accepted notion that there is a universal draft.

But Israel’s governing coalition is in trouble over plans to change the rules granting an exemption from the draft to thousands studying in the country’s yeshivas (thanks to a Supreme Court ruling it is obliged to do so by August 1):

The leader of a committee that Mr. Netanyahu appointed — and this week disbanded — to prepare a replacement law released a 100-page report on Wednesday that called for 80 percent of the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the military by 2016, and for fines of about $25,000 for those who do not.

Shaul Mofaz, the Kadima Party leader whose surprise alliance with Mr. Netanyahu two months ago created an unheard-of 94-seat majority in the 120-member Parliament, said Wednesday that he would quit the coalition within days if the committee’s work did not form the basis of the new law. But religious and right-wing factions have also vowed to bolt the coalition if personal sanctions are included or Arabs are not drafted as well.

“It’s a possibility of civil war between sectors,” said Yedidia Stern, who…served on the committee charged with rewriting the draft law.

“What’s at stake is two cultures, two civilizations,” Professor Stern added, referring to the ultra-Orthodox…and other Jews here. “These two civilizations used to live in some kind of peace because each one thought that the other is going to disappear eventually. Nowadays I think everybody realizes that the two camps are here to stay, and we have to decide what will be the identity in the public sphere.”

At issue is not so much the pragmatic needs of the military, where integrating large numbers of Haredim promises to be more hassle than help, but a growing resentment over who serves the state and who reaps its rewards. Last year, about 17 percent of 18-year-old Haredim joined the Army, compared with about 75 percent of other Jewish men; an additional 14 percent of Haredim and 8 percent of Arab citizens signed up for civilian service. Over all, just over half of Israelis now do military duty, a far cry from the generally accepted notion that there is a universal draft.

…Some 56 percent of Haredim live in poverty, and the average annual income in their community is about half that of the national norm, with many of their large families relying on welfare, housing grants and subsidies for yeshiva study.

If demographics are destiny, it makes sense that this long-simmering tension is reaching a rolling boil. While Haredim account for less than 10 percent of Israel’s seven million citizens, and Arabs 20 percent, their high birthrates mean that about 46 percent of today’s kindergartners come from the two groups, growth that is “challenging the basic formula” of Israeli society, according to Aluf Benn, editor of the left-leaning newspaper Haaretz.

“These groups don’t want a larger slice of the pie, they want a different recipe,” Mr. Benn said in an interview. “If Israel defines itself as a Jewish democratic state, the Arabs would do away with the Jewish part, and the ultra-Orthodox at least in their dream would get rid of the democracy. They respect the authority of the rabbis.”

Einat Wilf, one of five lawmakers who served on the committee, said that the solution was not a universal draft, but an acceptance that “the people’s army” is a fiction — and a reworking of benefits accordingly.

“We have to accept the fact that 64 years ago they did not want the state to come about, and they still have no faith in the structures of the state,” Ms. Wilf said, referring to the utra-Orthodox and Arab citizens. “Solidarity is a two-way street. The state will guarantee everyone the absolute minimum, but beyond that the state will reward people who give, not just people who take.”

Starship Troopers here we come?

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Spitting on Children

More grotesque religious fanaticism in the Middle East.

AP reports:

(AP) BEIT SHEMESH, Israel – A shy 8-year-old schoolgirl has unwittingly found herself on the front line of Israel’s latest religious war.

Naama Margolese is a ponytailed, bespectacled second-grader who is afraid of walking to her religious Jewish girls school for fear of ultra-Orthodox extremists who have spat on her and called her a whore for dressing “immodestly.”

Her plight has drawn new attention to the simmering issue of religious coercion in Israel, and the increasing brazenness of extremists in the insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish community….The girls school that Naama attends in the city of Beit Shemesh, to the west of Jerusalem, is on the border between an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood and a community of modern Orthodox Jewish residents, many of them American immigrants.

The ultra-Orthodox consider the school, which moved to its present site at the beginning of the school year, an encroachment on their territory. Dozens of black-hatted men jeer and physically accost the girls almost daily, claiming their very presence is a provocation.

Beit Shemesh has long experienced friction between the ultra-Orthodox, who make up about half the city’s population, and other residents. And residents say the attacks at the girls’ school, attended by about 400 students, have been going on for months. Last week, after a local TV channel reported about the school and interviewed Naama’s family, a national uproar ensued.

Well, at least this sort of behavior can still cause a “national uproar”, but for how long?

The abuse and segregation of women in Israel in ultra-Orthodox areas is nothing new, and critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye.

The ultra-Orthodox are perennial king-makers in Israeli coalition politics — two such parties serve as key members of the ruling coalition. They receive generous government subsidies, and police have traditionally been reluctant to enter their communities.

The ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 10 percent of Israel’s population. In the past, they have generally confined their strict lifestyle to their own neighborhoods. But they have become increasingly aggressive in trying to impose their ways on others, as their population has grown and spread to new areas.

“It is clear that Israeli society is faced with a challenge that I am not sure it can handle,” said Menachem Friedman, a professor emeritus of Bar Ilan University and expert on the ultra-Orthodox, “a challenge that is no less and no more than an existential challenge.”

If Prime Minister Netanyahu truly wants to do something about this sort of behavior he needs to go further than the denunciations he has already made. To start with, he needs to review his choice of coalition partners. This may not be in his interests politically, but it would, I suspect, be the patriotic thing to do.

For Professor Friedman is right: The growing clout of the ultra-Orthodox is indeed an existential threat to Israel, not only because of the danger this rapidly growing element may come to pose to that state’s internal cohesion, but because of what it could eventually mean for what’s left of Israel’s external support. Much of that support rests on the fact that Israel (for all its flaws) is the best the region has to offer in terms of western values, but it’s hard to see how this backing will survive if Israel’s political establishment continues to appease (and fund) the rise of an increasingly assertive theocratic cohort.

There needs to be a change of course. Soon. How about it, Mr. Netanyahu?




Glimpses of Future Disaster

Demographic projections always have to be treated with a great deal of care, but this (from a piece in the National Interest) still makes disturbing reading:

A recent report compiled by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics makes some projections looking out nearly fifty years, to 2059. The report separates out for the first time in any such official public reckoning the growth of the ultra-Orthodox population, which has a significantly higher birth rate than other Israeli Jews. The ultra-Orthodox currently make up about ten percent of Israeli society but by 2059 are projected to constitute over thirty percent.

The disproportionate growth of the Haredim, as the ultra-Orthodox are also called, has severe implications for Israeli society and the Israeli economy. About 60 percent of ultra-Orthodox men do not work for a living. They spend their time in religious study at yeshivas while they and their fast-growing families subsist on government stipends. This already constitutes a major burden on the remainder of Israelis and is a contributor to the economic discomfort that stimulated widespread demonstrations earlier this year. If the projected increase in the ultra-Orthodox proportion of the population involves a proportionate increase in those not contributing to the economy, it is hard to see how the even larger burden on everyone else could be sustained. The ultra-Orthodox also are not subject to the same military service requirements as other Israeli Jews, constituting another area where the burden is all the greater on the others. Then there is the effect on social mores and freedoms. The growing influence of the ultra-Orthodox has already raised issues regarding the status and liberties of Israeli women. A further expansion of that influence will make Israel an ever more illiberal place.

Clearly these trends present Israel with a very serious challenge to its vitality and even to its survival as a society recognizable and acceptable to most of its current citizens. A major question is whether the privileges and influence of the Haredim can be curbed before they become so large a proportion of the population that curbing is no longer politically thinkable. There has been some official recognition of the danger, as reflected in efforts to get more of the ultra-Orthodox into the work force, including the performance by some of auxiliary duties in support of the military. But privileges that go so far and are so firmly entrenched will naturally be stoutly defended. When an ultra-Orthodox rabbi suggested last year that full-time, government-financed religious study should be reserved only for exceptionally promising scholars who are groomed to be rabbis or religious judges and that other ultra-Orthodox men should “go out and earn a living,” he was so vehemently denounced by his own political party, the ultra-Orthodox Shas, that he had to be assigned a bodyguard.

H/t: Andrew Sullivan




Tanya Rosenblit

Via the New Zealand Herald:

She had no intention of emulating Rosa Parks when she set out to find a bus to Jerusalem on Friday but by yesterday Tanya Rosenblit had become a defiant symbol around whom a majority of Israel’s population was rallying, including Cabinet ministers. Rosenblit, who lives in the port city of Ashdod, boarded a bus that serves mainly the black-clad haredi, or ultra-orthodox, Jewish community, which constitutes about 8 per cent of Israel’s population.

The haredim had attempted to impose gender separation on buses connecting their communities in different cities. The Supreme Court termed this illegal but the authorities agreed to let the practice continue as long as it was on a voluntary basis and was confined to selected routes serving an almost exclusively haredi population. The bus driver Rosenblit hailed explained that secular women don’t usually travel on this line. The 28-year-old journalist nevertheless mounted the bus and sat behind the driver.
Haredi men looked at her askance but made no protest. On the second stop a haredi man boarding stopped inside the door and asked if she would move to the back. “No, I won’t,” she said.

After a brief exchange, she put on earphones and listened to music. At one point, when the man shouted at her, she took off the earphones and stated her case.

“There’s no cause for behaving this way to anyone, certainly not women. I made no provocation. I bought a ticket like you did. You won’t tell me where to sit only because I’m a woman. I’ll sit where I please.”

She held her ground despite an angry crowd of haredi men that had formed outside. The man continued to block the door and said he would do so until the woman moved. After half an hour, the driver called the police. The policeman attempted first to persuade the man to desist, then asked Rosenblit if she would mind, out of respect for their ways, moving to the back. She refused.

Good for her.

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Via The Tablet, an interesting story from Israel:

According to the Israeli government, there are roughly 5,800,000 religious Jews in Israel, 1,320,000 Muslims, 150,000 Christians, 130,000 Druze, and exactly one secular Jew. His name is Yoram Kaniuk—and if a new movement that he has inspired continues to grow, he won’t be alone for long.

In Israel, every citizen has a religious classification and an ethnic classification. For the majority of Israeli citizens, “Jewish” is listed as both. It’s not a simple formality: One’s religious classification has profound effects, determining whom and how one can marry, the process of divorce, whether one can get buried in a Jewish cemetery, and whether one must serve in the army. The “state” in this case is embodied in the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate of Israel, a quirk of the Israeli democratic system that stretches back to the country’s founding in 1948. At the time, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion gave representatives of the Orthodox religious community, numbering only in the hundreds, a host of powers dramatically out of proportion to their size on the assumption that these Jews would soon turn away from the religion of the shtetl.

Ben-Gurion, needless to say, got it wrong. The ranks of the Orthodox have swelled to well over a million, yet the rabbinate still retains the sole power over deciding who is a Jew. Because of the strength of their voting bloc and the keystone role that Orthodox parties hold in Israeli coalition governments, there has never been a successful bid to challenge the rabbinate’s control.

But Kaniuk, one of the country’s most celebrated novelists, may have accidentally found a loophole. And if it gets widened by the Supreme Court in an important case now pending, it could grow big enough for a large section of the country to step through.

Read the whole thing.



The Rise of Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox (Again)

Gershom Gorenberg writes in Slate:

Rather than being a diorama of traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, as many Israelis and visitors believe, Israel’s present-day version of ultra-Orthodoxy is a creation of the Jewish state. Policies with unexpected effects fostered this new form of Judaism, at once cloistered and militant. So did successful measures by haredi leaders to revive a community that was shrunken by modernity and then devastated by the Holocaust.

While a similar revival has taken place in haredi communities in the United States and other western countries since World War II, their dependence on government funding is necessarily more limited. In turn, the extent to which adult men can engage in full-time religious study rather than working is also more restricted.

In economic terms, the haredi revival in Israel has been disastrous. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community is ever more dependent on the state and, through it, on other people’s labor. Exploiting political patronage, ultra-Orthodox clerics have largely taken over the state’s religious bureaucracy, imposing extreme interpretations of Jewish law on other Jews. By exempting the ultra-Orthodox from basic general educational requirements, the democratic state fosters a burgeoning sector of society that neither understands nor values democracy.

Gorenberg’s description of the way that “cloistering” has worked is worth pondering:

Remaining a full-time Torah student [with the help of generous taxpayer funding] allowed a man to stay out of uniform. The deferment helped lock young men into the kollel lifestyle. So did the education gap: Though ultra-Orthodox men spent years engaged in study, their schooling did nothing to prepare them for jobs in a modern economy. From their teens on, their curriculum was devoid of mathematics, sciences, foreign languages and other general studies.

Thus “the society of scholars”—as sociologist Friedman named it—took shape. Older haredi men, who’d come of age before the change, worked for a living. A growing number of young men stayed in kollel after marriage, often for a decade or more. The father was a carpenter, shopkeeper or tailor; the son was a full-time student. In a universe of arranged marriages, Torah scholars were the most sought-after grooms.

Between 1952 and 1981, the average marriage age of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel fell from 27.5 to 21.5. At the beginning of that period, the typical haredi groom was slightly older than the average for Israeli Jewish society. By 1981, he was four years younger than the Israeli Jewish average. Among haredi women, marriage before age 20 became the standard. Ultra-Orthodox couples started having children early and continued to have them often. This, too, made leaving haredi society much more difficult, for women as well as men.

In the 1940s, it had seemed to ultra-Orthodox educators and parents that nothing could stop young people from giving up religion. Now the exodus stopped. The gulf between the society of scholars and the secular world grew too wide to cross. Rabbis wrote with satisfaction that children were outdoing their parents at piety.

And that’s bad news for Israel.

H/t: Andrew Sullivan




Perry & Israel (2)

Here’s Slate’s Will Saletan on Rick Perry’s curious comment that “as a Christian” he had a “clear directive to support Israel”.

Whoa. That’s something George W. Bush never did. Bush never said he had a Christian duty to stand with Israel, because to say such a thing would have been stupid and dangerous. By framing U.S. foreign policy in terms of a religious alliance between Christians and Jews, Perry is validating the propaganda of Islamic extremists. He’s jeopardizing peace, Israel, and the United States.

Bush understood that the terrorists who struck us on 9/11 wanted a religious war. The key to defeating them wasn’t to wage that war, but to refuse it. That’s why Bush constantly praised Islam, emphasized American freedom of religion, and dismissed Osama Bin Laden as a renegade killer of Muslims.

Israel was part of that rhetorical struggle. Bin Laden routinely invoked the plight of Palestinians to rally Muslims to his side. He accused the West of waging a “Zionist-Crusader war” against Islam. He warned Muslims: “Take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors. They are but friends and protectors to each other.”

Go back and look at Bush’s comments about Israel. In eight years, he never mentioned his Christianity as a basis for his policies there. He defended Israel as a democracy and an ally. When he mentioned Judaism and Christianity in this context, he always included Islam. “The Middle East is the birthplace of three great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” Bush said in a speech to the American Jewish Committee a few months before 9/11. “Lasting peace in the region must respect the rights of believers in all these faiths.” In 2007, Bush told Al Arabiya: “I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God. … I believe that Islam is a great religion that preaches peace.” Again and again, Bush affirmed: “If you’re a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim, you’re equally American.”

Perry has trashed this legacy. By declaring that “as a Christian, I am going to stand with Israel,” he has vindicated Bin Laden’s narrative. Across the Muslim world, Perry’s policies—starting with his declaration that “it was a mistake to call for an Israeli construction freeze” as a precondition for talks with the Palestinians—would be seen as a Christian-Jewish alliance against Islam…

“Vindicated”, of course, goes too far. Nevertheless those few words by Perry look like a rhetorical gift to America’s enemies. Coming from a man who wants to be president, they show a startling naivety and a dismaying irresponsibility. And if he actually believes what he said, well…

As a reminder, Governor, regardless of your own religious beliefs, however sincerely held, under a Perry presidency—or any presidency—America’s foreign policy must be shaped by one thing and one thing only: the national interest of the United States. In this context, “directives” from God ought to be an irrelevance.

And there’s another thing, Governor. Allies, however close, will occasionally disagree. It happens. Resolving those disagreements will be a matter of negotiation. When it comes to negotiating with the Israelis, however, you have already shown your hand. We now know that, thanks to your God, you will be a pushover.

Not smart, not smart at all.




Perry & Israel

These comments by Rick Perry are attracting a certain amount of attention:

QUESTION: To what extent do you view America protecting Israeli as a theological priority?

PERRY: Well obviously Israel is our oldest and most stable democratic ally in the region. That is what this is about. I also as a Christian have a clear directive to support Israel. So from my perspective both as an American and as a Christian, I am going to stand with Israel.

Think Progress somehow managed to omit the crucial first two sentences of Perry’s reply. Nevertheless, that third sentence is, to say the least, striking.




Against a Bookshop

To say that there are huge differences between the three great middle-eastern monotheisms is, of course, an understatement, but it’s interesting to see how their extremists, at least, can sometimes resemble each other.

The Guardian reports:

A bookshop in a strict ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood of Jerusalem has come under attack from religious zealots whose “mafia-like” intimidation tactics have created a climate of fear and resentment among members of the area’s business community. The shop, known as Or Hachaim/Manny’s, has had its windows broken twice, its locks glued shut and has been pelted with fish oil by members of the fringe Sikrikim group, an extremist breakaway faction from the ultra-Orthodox Neturei Karta movement, which opposes the modern state of Israel because it was established by man and not God. Since the shop opened in the neighbourhood of Mea She’arim in March 2010, the Sikrikim have been calling for a boycott in an effort to force its managers to remove all English-language and Zionist books, said Marlene Samuels, one of the shop’s managers. They have also demanded the shop shut down its English-language website and erect a sign requesting that customers dress modestly.

“They’re not happy with the large number of tourists that come in here because they feel they’re not dressed modestly enough,” she explained, pointing out that Israel’s English-speaking community and visitors from the US, the UK and other European countries constitute a large proportion of the shop’s clientele.

David Rotenberg, head of Or Hachaim’s English department, said the Sikrikim had also dumped bags of human excrement beside the religious books on display inside the store – “the bottom line on how disgustingly crazy these people are”.

Established in the 1870s by ultra-Orthodox Jews of eastern European origin, Mea She’arim’s residents have retained the conservative customs and dress of the old eastern European ghettos. Life in the insular, densely populated neighbourhood is strictly governed by Jewish law and its patchwork of religious sub-groupings and factions generally resent state interference in their affairs. According to Samuels, while the Sikrikim have no religious legitimacy in the eyes of Mea She’arim’s ultra-Orthodox community – and reportedly comprise just 60 to 100 members – their reach and impact are widespread.

“Everybody suffers from them; this has been going on with other stores for years,” she said. “If people do not toe the line according to their very extreme, anti-Zionist philosophy, they become very aggressive.”

Several shop owners in the neighbourhood told the Guardian they had been harassed by the Sikrikim, but requested anonymity and would not allow their businesses to be named. An employee at a CD and DVD store that opened in Mea She’arim three years ago told how the Sikrikim had held protests outside the shop, blocked customers from coming in, thrown rocks at him and broken the store owner’s car windows because they consider the CD and DVD formats too modern.


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