On Sunday night, the Efrata national religious elementary school hosted two other national religious schools – Yehudah HaLevi and Evelina -- at a girls’ basketball tournament. Although the hometown heroines from grades three and four got shellacked in the first round 34 to 6, it was a delightful scene. Five brothers, with silly hats, a tom-tom drum, and much exuberance, cheered their sisters. This being Jerusalem, encouraging calls from the Moms and Dads to “get that rebound” or “take that shot,” rang out in Hebrew and English. Yet, alas, this being Israel, the very presence of the cheerleading brothers and fathers was controversial. This was an improvised, alternative tournament. The original official Hanukkah tournament limited entry to “Nashim BeLvad,” women only.
This story lacks the drama of other headline-generating events. There are no spitting-bullies or offensively-inappropriate yellow stars, no rocks thrown, not even voices raised. But this incident is instructive. Like the Bet Shemesh neighborhood conflict, this struggle is dividing the religious world. Like more and more episodes, it started with a subtle shift, a creeping assertion of the most expansive religious interpretation into the most innocent of realms. Yet, unlike so many occurrences, its happy ending reflects the kind of civic engagement and problem-solving we need to make this diverse, chaotic, old-new, Jewish-democratic, disputatious, audacious, hi-tech shtetl called Israel work.
“Why are they sexualizing our daughters so young,” asked Naomi Wurtman when she received the flyer advertising the original tournament. Naomi is the friend and fellow Efrata parent who invited me and my daughter to Sunday night’s game. She circulated an email saying “I have no need for my nine-year-old to be turned into a sex object and every need for her father to be able to proudly watch his daughter play a sport.” The broader issue, of course, is “the censoring of girls and women out of every sphere of life in Jerusalem.” Other offended parents mobilized. Although the tournament was not organized by the school, such gender segregation violates the unspoken covenant, the basic ground rules, for parents sending their children to national religious schools.
Ultimately, the solution, with the principal’s blessing, reflected what Quebec calls “reasonable accommodation.” Two tournaments took place, accommodating two parallel populations. This solution was better than letting the more extreme minority impose its demands, because competing values are at stake. Living together does not mean the most maximalist religious interpretation always wins. Members of the national religious community should not always feel trumped – the most rigorous reading of Jewish law is not necessarily the right or righteous one. (A lesson many religious people should remember when they look left). At the same time, Jews in particular should make sure the majority respects minority needs.
The current tensions around the ultra-Orthodox can be resolved with vision, leadership, and civic action. For starters, all Israeli Jews should affirm two mutually reinforcing principles – the Jewish value of Klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, and the democratic value of every citizen, in fact, every human being, having basic rights and essential dignity. Anyone who appreciates those values could not spit, curse or throw rocks at fellow human beings, no matter their age, gender, lifestyle or dress code. Anyone who appreciates those values would work hard to respect their fellow citizens’ and fellow Jews’ freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. A country committed to those values would make some of the concessions Israel has made to the ultra-Orthodox, while also setting some limits.
This generous vision requires bold leadership. Benjamin Netanyahu should stop acting like a ward heeler and act like a national leader, stop tending the coalition and shape a communal response. Here, the virtuous move is the shrewd move. He could marginalize Kadima and Labor if he could start defusing the growing tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society. But to do that, our risk-averse prime minister must take risks.
Using the power of the purse, and exploiting the hierarchical nature of ultra-Orthodox society, Netanyahu should call a summit of leading Haredi rabbis. He should threaten their precious Yeshiva subsidies and other government goodies if they don’t start policing their hooligan extremists. He should also demand a new social contract between Haredim and the Jewish state, detailing responsibilities not just rights, and imposing some core courses in basic skills into their educational curriculum. If Netanyahu plays this right, even if this coalition falls, he could settle in for a long spell as prime minister.
Finally, Israelis should follow the examples of the Efrata parents and of civic activists like Jerusalem City Councillor Rachel Azaria – even as she remains in herem¸ excommunicated from Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition for courageously confronting gender segregation on Jerusalem’s streets. Israeli citizens from all sectors should protect their rights, their prerogatives, as the Efrata parents did – as the Bet Shemesh parents are doing. They may occasionally have to work harder to come up with the right solution, the reasonable accommodation, the creative improvisation.
And we all should start building bridges too. In particular, national religious Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews have much that unites them not just issues dividing them. They should seek out points of contact, at Shabbat tables and in other settings, to share pleasant experiences not just talk through points of tension. I, for one, would relish the opportunity to spend a Shabbat meal with a Haredi family, to aid my campaign to stop my children – and too many friends – from viewing all of “them” as unpatriotic parasites feeding off the state who exploit the Holocaust and young kids to score cheap political points.
Basketball can wait. Let’s be good Jews and start by eating together, talking together, learning together, accommodating each other.
Odelia Wurtman and Dolev Gorlin. Photo provided by Naomi Wurtman
Photo provided by Naomi Wurtman.
The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and an Engaging Israel Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is the “History of American Presidential Elections.”