Maccabi Games- black and white 311.
(photo credit: (Courtesy of Channel One))
A compelling threat to the survival of a democratic Jewish state does not come
from the Arabs or the Iranians but from within. Its repercussions threaten to
reach far beyond the gender segregated sidewalks and buses of some Israeli
cities to the heart of the Diaspora.
Ultra-religious zealots, many of who
do not even recognize the state that feeds, supports and protects them, declare
themselves above the law of the state and use their growing numbers and power to
assert their will on the rest of the population.
Their contempt for the
State of Israel rivals that of the most extreme in the Muslim world, who share
their penchant for likening the Jewish state to the perpetrators of the
Holocaust and themselves as the victims of those they brand the Zionist
Israel’s religious extremists have never been shy about using
violence but that problem is growing, although nothing so far on the scale of
Last weekend display in Jerusalem of young boys wearing
yellow stars with arms raised in as-if surrender was only that community’s
Organizers said they were protesting incitement by
critics of and media attention to their community’s gender segregation and other
A haredi man arrested on charges of sexual assault for calling
a female soldier a “slut” and harassing her because she would not move to the
back of a public bus unapologetically defended his action.
should not stand amid men,” said Shlomo Fuchs, adding that it is he, not the
soldier, who is defending the country. “I sit at shul from eight in the morning
till midnight and study and she’s protecting me? I protect her.”
arrested and quickly released on a small bail so he could return to his
RECENT INCIDENTS of violence and abuse by these extremists have
drawn attention far beyond Israel’s borders.A few arrests were made but
typically the reaction of authorities has been meek. Had Arabs engaged in the
same behavior is there any doubt the police response would have been far more
The growing public outrage has prompted some tough talk by Prime Minister
Netanyahu in defense of women’s rights but so far has produced little in the way
of substantive action.
The ultra-Orthodox establishment, both Zionist and
non-Zionist, is an important part of his political base and he’s less than
anxious to incur their wrath. He knows what happened when Yitzhak Rabin
On Netanyahu’s watch, Israel has grown increasingly isolated;
relations with longtime allies are strained and this assault on democratic
values only tarnishes the reputation of a country that calls itself the only
democracy in the Middle East.
Netanyahu’s political allies are pushing
legislation to politicize the supreme court, muzzle the media, remove Arabic as
an official language, ban foreign funding to dovish (but not right-wing)
advocacy groups, criminalize calls to boycott Israel or any of its West Bank
settlements and silence Muslim calls to prayer over loudspeakers.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the limitations on human rights
groups and gender segregation, she was slammed by some Israeli ministers, who
defended the regressive legislation.
THE GROWING assault on civil
liberties and democratic principles directly threatens to undermine Israel’s
most important ally, the American Jewish community.
Agudat Israel of
America “unconditionally” condemned as “reprehensible” the actions in Beit
Shemesh by “self-appointed ‘guardians’ of modesty,” but many American Jews watch
the spreading influence of an increasingly powerful and demanding religious
establishment that doesn’t consider tens or even hundreds of thousands of them
to be Jewish enough.
These Jews have begun to ask: is the Israel we
believe in, care about and want to help? Is this the kind of country we’d want
to live in or even visit? Will we be spat upon, called names or worse if some
religious zealot passes us by on a Jerusalem street and takes offense? If those
Jews lose their motivation so will their most important partner and ally – the
The Congress is Israel’s real lobby and its client is not
the State of Israel but each lawmaker’s own constituents, and if those voters
and supporters begin to lose their motivation, so will the
It won’t happen today or tomorrow, but the erosion has begun
and I see nothing being done to reverse it.
This is not about a group of
zealots being allowed to practice their beliefs but about their efforts to
impose those on the wider society. It goes to the root of Israel’s commitment to
And it is about successive governments of both the
Right and Left that have tolerated – and thus enabled – religious and
nationalist extremists whose vision of the Jewish state is anathema to most Jews
Israeli voters, not we Americans, have to decide for
themselves what kind of country they want, but indifference or even contempt for
the feelings of its best friends, critical supporters and valued allies can be a
very costly mistake.The writer is a syndicated columnist, Washington
lobbyist and consultant. He writes regularly for Anglo-Jewish newspapers and is
the former legislative director of AIPAC and Washington representative of the
World Jewish Congress.