The storm over Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) acts of “women’s exclusion” highlights
another angry battle of values between religious and secular elements of Israeli
Gender-relations is the current focus following several
incidents: religious soldiers walking out of ID F ceremonies with women singing,
the “Rosa Parks” incident when a woman refused to move to the back of an
unofficial, but de facto segregated bus, and the appalling verbal abuse by
Haredim of an eight-year-old girl in Beit Shemesh. These have added to the high
tensions already flaring around signs in some Haredi areas calling for separate
sidewalks and the refusal to allow advertisements with pictures of women to be
posted in their neighborhood.
What is the public’s response? In
mid-December, a passionate demonstration with an impressive turnout of roughly
4,000 was held in Beit Shemesh, organized by civil society groups and attended
largely by local residents, both secular and religious.
But what next?
Will the public demand systemic change?
The storm of commentary seems to fall
loosely into two or three discernible major streams: There are the outright
condemnations of the Haredi community and alarm bells about growing
fundamentalism; others defend the majority of Haredim and point to “bad weeds” –
imploring citizens to avoid generalizing and employ humanity, tolerance and
respect for the other. Another response has been to highlight hypocrisy by
pointing out either gender inequality in the non-secular world and government
policy, and, as many commentators have done, to link women’s equality with
minority rights in general.
There has been little discussion about a
political system in Israel that inextricably links and even partly conflates
religion and state. Although just 9-10% of the population, Haredi parties sit in
the Knesset and in nearly all governing coalitions. The ultra-Orthodox continue
to control enormous areas of daily life through the Rabbinate and the Interior
Ministry. This forces citizens to use Haredi institutions in order to realize
their basic rights to marriage, divorce and burial, as well as determination of
Jewishness, kosher licenses for businesses and more.
The political system
thus gives powerful and disproportionate legitimization to a minority whose
values largely contradict liberal domestic norms held by the
Another response to the recent events could be that the violent
clashes of worldview will never end until a decisive break between religion and
politics is made.
After all, up until now, Israel has lived from crisis
to crisis. In August 2009, this column addressed another nasty spike of
tensions, sparked by demonstrations against parking lots operating on the
Sabbath in Jerusalem. Riots over allowing traffic on Shabbat on streets that run
through Haredi areas were common in the previous decade. In Israeli cultural
lore, the classic Ephraim Kishon film “The Policeman” has a famous scene that is
tragicomically close to the present: a group of Haredim protest a car driving on
the Sabbath and they are fully prepared to overrun the good policeman. In the
film, Officer Azulai charmingly wins them over. That was back in 1971. In
reality – then as now – no one is winning.
In 2009, The Jerusalem Report
asked a strongly worded question outlining a plan for near-total separation of
religion and state to see if respondents believed that institutional, political
change is the appropriate response. We described a level of separation beyond
even some Western liberal democracies, on the theory that maybe in our heated
society any contact between democracy and the divine is just too explosive to
This time, we decided to engage in a tracking exercise. Asking the
very same question, with almost the same sample design, can lead to results that
may indicate if there has been any change in public thinking. Is the cumulative
effect of outrage increasing the number of people who support separation of
religion and state? Or does the public outrage inevitably settle down like so
many other outrages – corporate, bureaucratic, economic, political,
The question asked: “Imagine a proposal for a total separation
of religion and state in Israel. Israel will remain a Jewish state, but parties
will not be allowed to run on a religious agenda; there will be no funding for
religious institutions, and marriage, divorce, burial will be under state
authority only; religious ceremonies by the Rabbinate will be only by citizens’
choice. Do you support or oppose this proposal?”
In the summer of 2009, 500
adult Jewish respondents were quite split: half (49%) supported the proposal and
41%, eight points less, opposed it. Those who supported it broke down evenly
between those who greatly or somewhat supported it, but among those opposed,
twice as many opposed it intensely as weakly. Three-quarters of secular
respondents supported the proposal, but only 36% of traditional (Masorti) – and
52% were opposed. Just 12% and 5% of religious and ultra-Orthodox, respectively,
supported the proposal. The youngest respondents (18-35) opposed the separation
of religion and state at a higher rate than all others.
What has changed?
Two and a half years and at least one crisis-cycle later – the overall Jewish
population shows little difference. In the current telephone survey of 500
Jewish adults, 51% supported the separation proposal and 42% rejected it. The similar numbers and nine-point gap, compared to 2009, are well within
the margin of error. The intensity levels (those who support or oppose
“strongly” or “somewhat”) are all but identical. As in our previous survey,
higher-educated and higher-income respondents show absolute majorities who
support the separation.
However, looking deeper into the demographics, we
see that some groups expressed shifts. In 2009, only 36% of traditional
respondents supported the proposal. In the current survey, 43% support it (those
who defined themselves as secular and religious remained exactly the same). In
the current survey, 20% of Haredi respondents actually supported the proposal –
but with their scant representation in a sample of 500, this can’t be taken as a
statistical trend. Still, it warrants exploration.
Among young people
from 18-35, who make up a sufficiently large sample to arrive at conclusions,
there is a significant change: from 35% who supported the proposal then to 47%
who support it now.
One further finding that is just a statistical nuance
could be relevant: In 2009, 50% of men and 45% of women supported it, a small
gap that is within the margin of error; 40% of women opposed the separation.
Today, 52% of women supported the proposal, compared to 51% of men, almost the
same. Again, 40% of women opposed. That means the gap between women who support
or oppose the proposal has risen to 12 points compared to eight points in 2009.
It’s a small increase, but it could be some reflection of the gender hostility
expressed of late.
Still, why hasn’t there been a larger shift in support
for separating the two elements? Rafi Barzilay from Kfar Neter, near Netanya,
43, a strategic political adviser who has moved from the left camp rightward
over the years, tells The Report
in a telephone interview: “Although I can get
very angry about these incidents, and the media hype, it doesn’t influence my
basic attitudes.” Barzilay describes himself as secular. “[The incidents] don’t
call into question my own personal definition of religion. I won’t say ‘I don’t
want to be Jewish,’ because of [them]… regarding the basic tenet of religion and
state, which is very fundamental, it doesn’t make me want a change.”
read the question, Barzilay defines himself as moderately opposed – the choice
that won the smallest minority of responses, just 13%.
But when it comes
to religion and state in Israel, it seems that the minority rules.