The current phase of Israel''s religious conflict is well along in its ritualized pattern.


The details may differ each time the conflict heats up, but the basic story is similar.


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  • A specific incident excites the faithful and the not-so-faithful
  • Events escalate from name calling, pushing, spitting, blocking traffic, the throwing of trash, and the burning of trash dumpsters
  • The police seek to limit the commotion, and arrest a few demonstrators for a limited period of time (cooling off)
  • Rabbis and secular politicians eventually urge calm, cite the rights of each community, and emphasize the overriding concern of Jewish comity in the presence of enemies along the borders
  • Things eventually return to the same old stuff of lowered tension, until the next issue ignites a similar process
I wrote about this in The Rituals of Conflict, published in 1996. Some may think this note is the work of a doddering academic anxious to keep alive an idea he had long ago. I''ll claim that the idea still has merit, and that it is too early to take away my computer.


Prominent disturbances in the past came mainly from the Haredi communities, and focused on perceived violation of the Sabbath, post-mortems in cases of suspicious deaths, or the threat of disturbing old graves said to be Jewish at construction sites.


What is different this time is that disturbances escalated initially with secular protests against the ultra-Orthodox on the issue of segregating women.


Most prominent was a demonstration of perhaps ten thousand secular, Orthodox, and some ultra-Orthodox men and women in Beit Shemesh against ultra-Orthodox extremists.


Now we are at the stage where ultra-Orthodox are demonstrating against what they call efforts of secular Israelis to segregate and eliminate them. They are dressing in the uniforms of Nazi concentration camps, putting yellow stars of David on their clothing, and pushing their children to the front lines of demonstrations where some are mimicking the iconic picture of the young boy raising his hands in the face of Nazi enforcers.


Reports are that only a thousand Haredim turned out for the most recent demonstration near Mea She''arim. If organizers cannot do more than that, they are showing their isolation in the small corner of the Haredi communities reserved for the extremists.


Distinguished rabbis and prominent politicians are calling for calm, urging both the more radical of the ultra-Orthodox and the more excitable of the secular to cool it in the name of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you," and/or the priority of Jewish comity.


Some details prominent in this round.


The Holocaust is showing itself once again as an element in Jewish conflict. The expression from a secular activist that the ultra-Orthodox are reproducing themselves with the speed of vermin was too close to Nazi propaganda, and brought forth a condemnation from a secular politician. Ultra-Orthodox dressing in the uniforms of concentration camp prisoners and pinning yellow stars of their children has produce cries of foul from the secular media.


Reports are that buses meant for separation have a sign on them indicating that women are expected to sit in the rear, and another sign indicating that anyone can sit where he or she desires. There might not be a commotion if a Haredi objecting to a woman sitting next to him simply moved to another seat. The problem comes when he calls her a shiksa or whore.


The lack of moderation may reflect the Israeli practice of granting every Haredi man, intelligent or otherwise, the right to avoid work, live off his wife''s earnings and modest allotments from the state and his academy. He is exposed full time to the preachings of rabbis and fellow students, in a neighborhood likely to be entirely Haredi. He does not encounter the wider social contacts that a job may provide to him.


Not too far from the streets where the demonstrations occur is a looming political issue. The late journalist turned politician Tomi Lapid created an anti-clerical political party that at its height in 2003 won 15 seats in the Knesset and several places as government ministers. That party folded when one of its holier than thou anti-religious Members of Knesset and ministers was found to have engaged in some especially dirty intra-party monkey business.


Now Lapid''s son, Yair, has built himself an impressive following as a journalist, and has mulled an entry into politics. Polls show him leading a party that would gain more seats than Kadima (currently the Knesset''s largest party, but undergoing hard times). Today''s Ha''aretz cartoon depicts Benyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman trying to shovel Yair Lapid into a freezer, reflecting a demand to legislate a "cooling off period" to keep jounalists from jumping directly into politics. There is such a period of six months before a retiring senior official in one of the security services can be a candidate for election. One can argue if the idea is to keep well known personalities from exploiting a reputation earned outside of politics for political advantage, or simply the effort of established politicians to limit competition. If Lapid entered politics and followed the anti-clerical path of his father, he would take votes from Lieberman. Part of Lieberman''s appeal to secular Russian-speakers is his posture with respect to individuals whose claims of Jewish roots do not pass muster with the Rabbinate.


To date, the occasional bursts of ritualized conflict over issues of religion have not threatened the integrity of Israel. They are the price paid for living in a population that is 75-80 percent Jewish (depending on one''s conception of "Jewish").


Just as the notion of "final solution" is anathema to Jews after the Holocaust, there can be no thought of a thorough resolution of our religious tensions. Secular, Orthodox, and Haredi Israelis emerge from the same protoplasm of Jewish cultures. Our task is to cope with tensions, competition for resources, and a lack of understanding rather than to do away with one or another, If the size of the Haredi community has grown too large, with too great demands on the national economy, the reasonable response is to reduce the incentives provided the younger generation to avoid productive schooling and work. There are signs of progress in that direction, but the effort comes up against the theology/ideology of religious communities. Involved, too, is the self-interest of established religious academies, and the rabbis who lead the academies and the ultra-Orthodox political parties.


Alongside this note is the story of Orthodox extremists who resist the removal of settlements from the West Bank, or promote the entry of Jewish families into neighborhoods of Jerusalem heavily populated by hostile Arabs. There is also an insistence on segregation expressed by Orthodox Jews in the military and elsewhere who refuse to listen to women singers or speakers, or to work alongside of women. The line-up of supporters and opponents, and the prominent behaviors differ from those involving Heredim and women. Such nuances are among the critical differences in the Israeli mosaic that affect those of us who must tolerate one another on a daily basis.

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