On balance, Israeli society is extremely healthy.
Unemployment is at
record lows. At a time of global recession, the Israeli economy is growing
Israeli Jewish women have the highest fertility rate in the
Western world with an average of three children per woman. Education levels have
risen dramatically across the board over the past decade with dozens of private
colleges opening their doors to more and more sectors of the
Israel’s diverse Jewish population is becoming more
integrated. Sephardic and Ashkenazi intermarriage has long been a norm. Secular
Jews are becoming more religious. A new educational trend that received
significant media attention in recent months involves secular parents who send
their children to national religious schools to ensure that they receive strong
educational grounding in Judaism.
And as secular Jews become more
religious, both the national religious and ultra-Orthodox sectors are becoming
increasingly integrated in nonreligious neighborhoods and institutions.
Ultra-Orthodox conscription rates have increased seven-fold in the past four
years. In 2010, 50 percent of ultra-Orthodox male highschool graduates were
The IDF assesses that by 2015, the rate of conscription will
rise to 65%.
While this is still below the general conscription rate of
75% among male 18-year-olds, the rapid rise in ultra- Orthodox military service
is a revolutionary development for the sector.
With military service
comes entrée to the job market. The trend towards employment integration was
blazed by ultra-Orthodox women. Over the past decade, ultra-Orthodox women have
matriculated en masse in vocational schools that have trained them in hi-tech
and other marketable professions and so enabled them to raise their families out
These ultra-Orthodox women, who are now being followed by
their IDF veteran husbands, are part of a general trend that has seen women
fully integrated in almost every sector of society and the economy. The fact
that women make up the senior leadership echelons in both business and
government is not a fluke. Rather it is a product of the largely egalitarian
nature of Israeli society.
True, as is the case everywhere, Israeli women
suffer from male chauvinism.
And like the rest of the world, Israel has
its share of sexual abusers, rapists, and criminal and social misogynists. But
imperfection does not detract from the fact that women in Israel are free,
educated, empowered and advancing on all fronts.
As for the national
religious community, its youth remain committed to serving as pioneers in
strengthening Israel as a Jewish democracy. Not content to limit themselves to
national religious communities in Judea and Samaria, more and more young
national religious families are moving to poor towns and communities from Dimona
to Ramle to Kiryat Shmona to strengthen their educational, economic and social
Modern Orthodox women are taking on expanded roles in
religious councils, synagogues, religious courts and other bodies. Soldiers from
the national religious sector remain overrepresented in all IDF combat units and
in the officer corps.
Israel’s growing social cohesion and prosperity is
all the more notable as we witness neighboring states aflame with rebellion and
revolution, extremist Islamist forces voted to power from Morocco to Egypt and
economic forecasts promising mass privation.
And in the Age of Obama,
with cleavages between liberals and conservatives growing ever wider in America,
and with the future of the European Union hanging in the balance as the euro
zone teeters on the edge of an abyss, the fact that Israeli society is becoming
increasingly fortified is simply extraordinary.
In light of these
integrationist trends, the media circus in recent weeks that has portrayed
Israeli society as frayed through and through has been startling. With women in
Israel presented as underprivileged victims, national religious youth presented
as terrorists and the ultra-Orthodox community presented as a gang of
misogynist, violent crazies set to transform Israel – in the words of US
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – into another Iran, an average news consumer
can be forgiven for wondering how he missed his country’s demise.
explains this sudden flood of gloom and doom stories? Certainly it is true that
in a highly competitive news environment, media coverage tends to over represent
marginal social forces. Sensational stories make for banner headlines. And it is
at the margins of society that a reporter is most likely to find sensational
So it is that when reporters wish to push a socialist agenda,
they descend on urban slums and talk to people hanging out on the street doing
nothing. As a rule, these stories will not feature visits to vocational training
schools that are educating poor people out of poverty.
Just as poor,
uneducated single mothers in Lod can be depended on to blame their troubles on
an insensitive government, so groups of ultra- Orthodox extremists in Beit
Shemesh, whose own communities decry them, can be trusted to treat nonreligious
None of this is to say that we should stand by and allow
poor single moms and their children to go hungry or that we should accept abuse
of women by ultra-Orthodox bullies. The former is an issue for social services.
The latter is an issue for law enforcement bodies. And to the extent that these
institutions are failing in their missions, they should be required to improve
But just the majority of single mothers, who are not
impoverished, don’t deserve to be placed in the victim column, so, too, the
majority of ultra-Orthodox Israelis do not deserve to have their reputation
besmirched because of the bad behavior of a small, vocal and easily provoked
ALL OF this brings us to the issue at hand. Stories
highlighting the deviant behaviors of marginal social forces tend to be
simplistic and misleading, and to serve identifiable political forces. And so,
with our national discourse suddenly dominated by stories describing the demise
of Israeli democracy, women’s rights and the rule of law at the hands of modern
and ultra- Orthodox Jews, we need to consider who benefits from the
It is notable that the seam lines being opened by all of the
stories, which are again, about deviations from the norm of Israel’s social
cohesion, all fall within the governing coalition. Stories of “Jewish
terrorists” set the security hawks against the ideological hawks. They set the
likes of Defense Minister Ehud Barak and his supporters against the Jewish
communities in Judea and Samaria and their representatives in the Likud, Israel
Beiteinu, Habayit Hayehudi and other coalition parties.
ultra-Orthodox misogynists make it politically costly for the Likud and Israel
Beiteinu to sit in the same government as ultra- Orthodox parties such as Shas
and United Torah Judaism. They also serve to weaken Shas among its nonultra-
Orthodox voters. The fact that the ultra-Orthodox bus lines were inaugurated
with the support of the Kadima government in 2007 is beside the point. It is the
Likud that is now being blamed for their existence.
media-supported outcries against the national religious and ultra-Orthodox
sectors follow the pattern of last summer’s social justice protests in Tel Aviv.
The purpose of those protests was to discredit the government in the eyes of
working class voters and young people.
The current protests also follow
in the footsteps of the protests of 1998 and 1999 that brought down Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s first government. Those protests pitted his
Russian immigrant coalition members against Shas. They pitted secular Israelis
against his ultra-Orthodox coalition members. They alienated young voters from
They set his socialist partners against his capitalist
The cleavages wrought in Netanyahu’s coalition made members of
his own party as well as his coalition partners fear the electoral cost of
maintaining their membership in his government. And so one by one, they bolted
his government until it finally fell.
Notably, many of the same forces –
from the New Israel Fund to various political consultants who work for the
Israeli Left to European NGOs – who were active in the protests in 1999 and in
the social justice protests last summer are also playing a role in the current
protests. The New Israel Fund raised NIS 200,000 in “emergency funds” to pay for
buses to transport protesters to Beit Shemesh last week.
It also paid for
two rallies in Jerusalem attacking religious bans on female vocalists earlier
Last summer, Israel’s New Left movement led by leftist
political consultant Eldad Yaniv took credit for organizing the anti-free market
protests. Yaniv and his colleagues were assisted in conceptualizing the protests
by US Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg, who was also the architect of the
social protests in 1998-99.
Indications of how the political Left has
been impacted by the current wave of demonstrations are mixed. A Shvakim
Panorama poll from last week, which posited the existence of a new
anti-religious party led by popular television personality Yair Lapid and a new
anti-capitalist Sephardic party led by former Shas leader Arye Deri, indicated
that the Left as a whole has been strengthened against the Right. While Kadima
would lose most of its Knesset seats to Lapid’s party, it is Deri who would be
the undoing of the Right.
The poll claimed that Deri, who since his
release from prison has strengthened his bonafides as a secular- friendly
political dove, would win seven mandates. Shas would drop from its current 11
seats to five. Deri’s rise would decrease the political Right in all its various
forms from its current 67-seat majority in the 120 seat Knesset to a minority of
The media have trumpeted this poll as the first harbinger of spring
for Israel’s political Left. And certainly it provides some reason for
celebration among leftist political forces. Like the protests in the late 1990s,
and like last summer’s anti-capitalist protests, the current batch of
anti-religious campaigns serves to turn Israeli against Israeli by feeding on
and inflaming sectoral envies and insecurities. And given their success, we can
certainly expect them to continue.
For the benefit of society as a whole,
we must hope that the basic health and cohesion of Israeli society that has
grown so miraculously over the past decade will prevail in the current contest.
We have far more that unites us than separates us. If we focus on this, there is
no force either within or without our society that can defeat us.
we give in to the forces of contention and chaos, we risk endangering everything
we hold dear.