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 transliteration.

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!

But 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 America.

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 obscene messages.

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 society.

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 concerns.

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.

Or 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.

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