A Dose of Nuance — Wanted: A vision for a Jewish and Israeli society

"Israel's receding from the freedoms associated with the Western world is not only the province of religious law or haredi authorities.

December 15, 2016 15:05
kippa berlin jewish

A man wearing a kippa listens to speakers during an anti-Semitism demo at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate September 14, 2014. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Earlier this week, The New York Times reported on the tyranny of dress code and punishment for women living under Islamic State. Women in Islamic State-controlled areas must wear loosely fitting robes, cover their entire face, and now, even hide their eyes. Failure to comply is dangerous.

Wafa, who told her story in the report, lifted her veil just enough to get a spoon into her mouth when she was having a picnic with her family. After the religious police caught her, a court sentenced her to 21 lashes with a cable that had metal spikes attached to it. With her back flayed, she ended up spending two nights in the hospital and took months to recover.

Stories like those sound as if they hail from a different planet, an alternative universe – until we read the Israeli press. Just as the Times was reporting on women living under Islamic State, Haaretz ran a story on the proposed law that would govern women’s dress at the Western Wall. If passed, the law would mandate jail sentences or a NIS 10,000 fine to anyone who engages in religious practices that “offend worshipers at the place.” People will be fined, of course, for offending haredi worshipers at the place, for the Chief Rabbinate (an unabashedly haredi institution at this point) and the rabbinical court (haredi and often medieval) will have exclusive jurisdiction over the Western Wall and its surrounding plazas.

The intent is to prohibit women from wearing prayer shawls or phylacteries at the Western Wall, even though lower courts have ruled that they should be permitted to. If the law passes, a woman who wears a tallit could be sent to jail.

But what if she simply wears a kippa? What if her sleeves are deemed too short and the haredi community finds that offensive? Will she go to jail? How different will the Western Wall be from areas under Islamic State control? Israel’s receding from the freedoms associated with the Western world is not only the province of religious law or haredi authorities. Earlier this week, Likud Party MK and coalition chairman David Bitan made reference to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s infamous comment last election day that Jews had better hurry to vote because Arabs were going “in droves” to the polls.

Bitan, apparently, feels that Netanyahu did not go far enough. “I’d rather the Arabs won’t go to the polls in droves, and won’t come to the polls at all,” he said.

Unlike Netanyahu, though, Bitan refused to apologize, saying he saw nothing wrong with what he had said. What party wants to see its opponents going to the polls? he asked.

Bitan’s racism, coupled with his obvious lack of understanding of how democratic systems function, is bad enough. What makes matters worse, however, is that citizens have no way of knowing, at least as of this writing, what their prime minister thinks about Bitan’s views. Netanyahu, the consummate political survivor, has chosen to let Bitan do his dirty work, and has remained silent during this most recent brouhaha.

So, too, with the Kotel. The prime minister had come out, months ago, in favor of some compromise at the Western Wall that would afford non-Orthodox Jews a place where they, too, could pray (a compromise openly endorsed by Orthodox rabbis such as Benny Lau and Shlomo Riskin). Now, though, the prime minister has chosen to remain silent in the face of the proposed Kotel legislation as well.

In about two years, Netanyahu will become Israel’s longest serving prime minister. On the eve of that milestone, however, how many of us know what he believes Israeli society should look like? Does he have a vision for how the Jewish state should be Jewish? Does he have a vision, beyond platitudes, for the place that Israeli Arabs should have in a democratic Israel? The fact that few of us can answer those questions is Netanyahu’s greatest failure.

On these issues, the prime minister cannot hide behind Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas or the tortured peace process. He cannot blame US Secretary of State John Kerry or President Barack Obama. These are entirely domestic matters; on these issues, we can shape our society without any regard for what our enemies think or do. Even here, though, our leadership appears stymied; here, too, we are at the whim of political currents no one seems to have the gumption, or principle, to want to confront.

Israel’s greatest prime ministers afforded Netanyahu a model of what he might try to bequeath to his nation.

David Ben-Gurion penned thousands of pages, filled with his vision for the society he was seeking to shape. Many of us may bristle today at the excesses to which Ben-Gurion’s mamlachtiyut (responsible state power) led, but he had a vision – and he had the courage to share it. Menachem Begin, too, left an enormous corpus of writing about the society he thought Israel ought to become.

His vision was infinitely more democratic than Bitan’s, far more explicit than anything Netanyahu has ever said.

No matter how long he may serve, this prime minister is not going to bring about a resolution to Israel’s conflict; our enemies are nowhere near ready for that. Yet Israeli citizens are, indeed, very ready to discuss what the society we are still shaping should look like.

Do Arabs in Israel count? Do non-Orthodox Jews have any rights? Do we aspire to be leaders of the freedoms of the Western world? Will we be content to become a Levantine backwater? It would be nice to know what our prime minister thinks about all this, to what he aspires. Whether or not he chooses to share his vision with his country – and to engender a conversation about it – will determine what legacy, if any, he will ultimately leave to the country whose future he claims to wish to ensure.

The writer is Koret distinguished fellow and chairman of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College. His book Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn was published by Ecco/HarperCollins.

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