America! In Israel, that’s often more than just the name of a place. I once saw
a commercial which featured it as an adjective, describing a product that was of
superior quality. “What can I tell you?” asked the person in the ad, “It’s
America!” And it’s getting to be difficult to find a store with a real Hebrew
name; they all have English names now, either written in English or in Hebrew
This is somewhat of a tragedy. Israel has so much to be
proud of. We didn’t make it back to our ancestral homeland and revive an ancient
culture just to toss it out in favor of a different and much younger one!
there are some aspects of America that Israel would do well to emulate. And I’m
not talking about the usual new immigrant gripes about poor customer
service. Instead, I’m referring to how the ultra-secular in Israel
sometimes act in ways that would be considered entirely out-of-bounds in
A relative of mine, not especially religious, moved from Israel
to the US for a while.
On her first day, she was very surprised to see so
many religious Jewish women on the bus – and she wasn’t even in New York. She
was even more surprised when she discovered that these women were not, in fact,
religious, or even Jewish. Rather, it is customary in America for women
to dress in a respectable manner for work. When my relative moved back to
Israel, she found it jarring to see women turning up for work wearing attire
that would be more appropriate for the beach, and men wearing T-shirts with
This is not the only manifestation of ultra-secularism.
The New York Times
recently ran an article, titled “Israelis Facing a Seismic
Rift Over Role of Women,” about the disturbing attitudes to women of many in the
haredi world. But there was no mention of an opposing phenomenon: the protest
against the Technion offering separate use of a gym, for men alone, after normal
hours. The ferocious protest against this “unacceptable segregation” resulted in
the gym ceasing to provide this option.
This would be incomprehensible to
Americans. After all, every country in the world, including America, has gyms
that offer hours for one gender only. It’s not as though the gym at the Technion
was imposing on women, or excluding them in any way; it was a matter of giving
an after-hours option which was equally offered to women.
YET WHILE the
opposition to the separate hours at the gym was absurd, when one looks at the
arguments of the protesters, a distinct theme emerges. It wasn’t the separate
hours at the gym per se that offended them. Rather, it was the fear that
this was simply one step towards the more extreme exclusion of women that has
recently been spreading from the haredi community.
Such fears are perhaps
understandable, given the Health Ministry’s haredibased refusal to allow
Dr. Channa Maayan to appear on stage to accept a prize at an awards
ceremony. But allowing such fears to prevent a perfectly reasonable request,
such as men-only gym sessions after hours, is not only wrong but
counter-productive. It simply reinforces the haredi belief – which is not
without basis – that there is a rabid, nation-wide anti-religious campaign
against them, and that they thus need to circle the wagons and resist any
accommodation to the rest of Israeli society.
Haredi society has achieved
astounding accomplishments in building up a society of commitment to Torah study
and religious observance. But it is now undergoing a period of unprecedented
internal and external turmoil. Internally, economic hardship is leading many to
reject the kollel-only approach, and the Internet is opening forms of expression
that were previously unknown to that world. Externally, there are new
stresses with the rest of Israeli society as haredi society grows ever larger;
military exemptions become a more serious national matter and growth into new
cities (such as Beit Shemesh) causes friction.
More than ever, there is
an opportunity, and a need, to integrate haredi society into Israel. But there
are forces in haredi society that are strongly opposed to such integration, and
many haredim maintain a healthy dose of suspicion vis-a-vis the non-haredi
world. Thus, such integration can only work if it is done with tact,
sensitivity, and foresight.
This requires that a certain degree of
concessions be made to haredi values, however much one might disagree with them.
After all, the much-vaunted value of tolerance also requires tolerance of
intolerant people, at least insofar as it does not damage the rest of
Consider the issue of getting haredim to join the IDF. Deep
down, many haredim probably don’t really believe that the country’s security
requires having as many people as possible join the tens of thousands already in
yeshivot and kollels. After all, this can only be theologically justified with
the most tenuous of rabbinic arguments. Furthermore, if haredim really did
believe this, then they wouldn’t have taken their 2006 summer break while the
country was fighting the Second Lebanon War.
Instead, the haredi refusal
to serve in the army is primarily due to their trying to protect a certain
religious lifestyle, which is very difficult to do in the army. So at a time
when steps are being taken to bring haredim into the IDF, it is essential to
help them with this enormous adjustment and show sensitivity to their
Is it really so very important that religious soldiers attend
ceremonies with women singing? To be sure, from a non-haredi point of view, it’s
ridiculous for the soldiers to object to it. But it is an issue of great
importance to them, and it wouldn’t terribly hurt the army to accommodate
it. In the long run, the army would be better off by showing a
willingness to be tolerant of haredim, rather than alienating them.
consider the Tal Law, which was just renewed. True, it has not been as
successful as was hoped, and it probably needs adjustment. But those demanding
nothing less than forced full conscription for all haredim lack good judgment,
even from the perspective of their own values. Yes, ideally speaking, all
sectors would serve the country equally. But it’s just not going to happen, at
least in the short term, without civil war. Meanwhile, the idea behind the Tal
law is to give haredim more options than simply kollel or full military duty,
which inevitably results in them all choosing the former.
At this stage,
the challenge for Israel is to begin to enable haredim to willingly enter the
army and professional workforce. People should be trying to make this
happen more easily and smoothly, rather than making it difficult. We need to
show more tolerance of religious minorities – just like in America.The
writer is the author of a variety of works on the relationship between Judaism
and the natural sciences. His website is www.zootorah.com and he also maintains
a popular blog, www.rationalistjudaism.com.