This is one of the days when the cartoon is the best part of Ha''aretz.


The image of animals walking two-by-two to Noah''s ark, while men and women are separated in the IDF reflects one of the issues in the headlines.


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There is a wave of extremism in Judaism parallel to those in Islam and Christianity. With us, it does not take the form of an upturn in hatred and violence toward others, or an increase in struggles about God''s presence in school curriculum or the clinics that treat pregnant women. Here the emphasis is on the separation of the sexes, and forbidding women singers or other performers to appear before mixed audiences.


Historians note that for less than half of Judaism''s history--since the early Middle Ages--has the separation of sexes at prayer been a matter of firm rule. A friend who specializes in the period admits that it is unknown whether the influence came from within Judaism, or was absorbed from surroundings. At the time, the majority of Jews lived alongside Muslims.


Senior military officers are coping with rabbis preaching to the young men who become soldiers (and officers) that it is forbidden to listen to female singers, or to serve alongside of women. The Municipality of Jerusalem looked the other way during Succot when ultra-Orthodox extremists of Mea Shearim created separations between men and women on the sidewalks of a main shopping street in their neighborhood. Women labeled "Taliban" cover themselves even more completely than burkha-wearing Afghans. They make no concession to a see-through screen before their eyes, and appear only in black, unlike Afghans who cover themselves in more attractive colors. Religious commentators ridicule the practice, saying that it has no root in Judaism. They have sought to explain it by noting that the few families doing it are newcomers to religion, who show the ignorance and extremism that such people may display.


A traveling circus sought to fit into the mood by offering only male performers, but the city fathers of Givat Shmuel (only a short distant from the ultra-Orthodox Bnei Brak) said not in our town.


Just last week, an American who likes to poke at Israel''s imperfections used the term "separate but equal" as how he perceived Jews'' relations with Arabs. I think he was ridiculing Israel''s treatment of Arabs, and comparing it to the archaic principle of the American Supreme Court, which legitimatized both the separation and the lack of equality.


The Israeli reality is several varieties of separation. Several of the subtleties defy description. Issues of equality are more complex.


Separations between religious and non-religious students in schools with distinct curricula is a matter of policy, as is a further separation between the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. There are also separate schools with distinct curricula for Arabs and Jews. None of this is imposed on students in the way that segregation was imposed in much of the United States until the 1960s. A good deal may be imposed on children by parents, but that is another matter. Most of it is "natural," derived from the language (Hebrew or Arabic) or the kind of religious experience practiced in families.


Among secular Jews, ethnic separation is breaking down with Ashenazi-Sephardi inter-marriage. The numbers seem to be considerable, but decent data have evaded my search.


The phenomenon is less prominent among religious Jews. There family influence remains important on the choice of mates, as wall as a concern for background. Having a rabbi in the not-to-distant past is a greater asset than a professor.


There are prayer books that accommodate mixed families with Ashkenazi and Sephardi texts on facing pages.


My own experience has shown the pleasures and the problems of different backgrounds, even those as close as coming out of Dusseldorf and Berlin on one side, and Bialystok and Lithuania on the other, filtered through Jerusalem and Fall River. Varda sees feet on furniture as a sure sign of barbarism. Her Germanic demands for self-discipline can be extreme.


A sense of Ashkenazi superiority is most pronounced among the ultra-Orthodox, where a number of communities are resisting demands from the Education Ministry to accept Sephardi pupils who apply to their schools.


Ethiopians are the newest of the ethnic groups to have arrived in Israel, as well as being distinctive in language, culture, religious practice, and color. Ethiopian activists are pressing local authorities and the Ministries of Immigrant Absorption and Education to cease the practices of settling new arrivals in a few cities, or keeping Ethiopian students together in schools. We hear officials defending the practices on the grounds of serving the needs of the Ethiopians, while activists demand an end of segregation. Among the less pleasant features have been data showing high levels of AIDS and family violence among Ethiopians, and revelations that blood banks were accepting donations from Ethiopians, then destroying the blood on account of the risks associated with it. Ethiopians are appearing in professional roles, and one can see couples that cross the lines of color.


Ethnic or religious separations between neighborhoods or towns can be sensitive. Jews selling pork products or opening their businesses on the Sabbath should avoid ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods if they do not want to deal with a fire or trashing.


Some residents of French Hill describe an "invasion" of Arabs, while others use the term for an increase in ultra-Orthodox families. Some small communities in rural areas exist in a legal framework that allows a committee of residents to approve or deny applications of newcomers to join them. Arabs and elderly Jews have claimed discrimination under the heading of "unsuitable." In some cases they have won concessions via campaigns supported by the media.


Along with the problems that erupt in the case of unhappy individuals, the general pattern of residential segregation has wide acceptance. The cultures and taboos of ultra-Orthodox, Arabs, and secular Jews lead many to seek places without the tensions that come along with mixture, even while individuals are free to find heterogeneity if that is more attractive to them. Several municipalities support dual-language schools, with Jewish and Arab teachers as well as pupils.


Equality is the knottiest of issues. Arabs do not have opportunities equal to those of Jews. In this they resemble minorities elsewhere, with no obvious measures of how Arabs of Israel fare with respect to Jews in income, education, professional opportunities, living standards, or health compared to  minority-majority differences in other western democracies. There is no shortage of assertions about the severity of conditions in Israel, but the loudness is more prominent than data supporting them.


Likewise in the case of secular, religious, and ultra-Orthodox Jews. Activists in each camp claim deprivation in financial support, and pollitical domination by the other. Results of detailed research are mixed and inconclusive.

 

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