Washington Watch: Whose Israel is this?

It is one thing for the ultra-religious to practice their belief system as they wish among themselves, and something wholly different when they try to impose it on the majority of the society.

Women of the Wall protest (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Women of the Wall protest
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
I was in high school when I went to Indianapolis for my first regional AZA Conference. I almost didn’t make it back alive because of what happened that Shabbat. I couldn’t believe it when the rabbi called a woman to open the ark. A woman! But that wasn’t all. I was shocked when she pulled back a corner of the curtain, pushed a button, a motor began to whir, the curtain parted, lights went on, a choir began to sing; I knew right then and there God would strike me dead for being a part of the revival of the golden calf.
I survived my first encounter with Jewish observance different from what I’d been brought up to believe was the one true form.
My home shul, the one where I was bar mitzva, Agudas Achim, in Columbus, Ohio, was what some today call “conservadox.” Men sat on one side, women on the other, separate but equal, and in the middle, true integration.
But it was a long way from egalitarian. Years later, when I became a husband and then had a daughter, I wanted an egalitarian congregation and found one where the rabbi believed and taught that all Jews are created equal. Today egalitarianism is widely practiced throughout the United States, where nearly 90 percent of Jews are non-Orthodox.
Egalitarianism, however, is still a revolutionary concept in the only Jewish state and unless that changes it could drive a further wedge between Israel and American Jewry, which feels increasingly alienated by the excessive influence of the ultra-religious establishment over daily life.
The debate in Israel over keeping women in their place – at the back of the bus, off the stage, dressed properly, seen but not heard (especially if they sing) and, above all, obedient – is about much more than religious practices. It reaches into what kind of country Israel is and wants to be, and its relationship with or alienation from the rest of the Jewish world. Does it want to be a 21st-century democracy or a 17th-century theocracy? It is one thing for the ultra-religious to practice their belief system as they wish among themselves, and something wholly different when they try to impose it on the majority of the society, which is also expected to financially support them because so many do not have jobs or pay taxes.
A poll out this week shows 56% of Israelis support (34% oppose) a Supreme Court ruling that women have the right to pray at the Western Wall “as they see fit,” even if some religious groups object.
Women of the Wall holds Rosh Hodesh service the first of every month at the Kotel. And how do the pious religious gentlemen who claim control of the Kotel respond? They spit at the women, throw rocks, curse them, toss chairs, yell and physically assault them. All in the name of God.
Last Friday they bused in hundreds of teenage girls to flood the women’s section of the Kotel so the liberal women were forced far away on the plaza. But something had changed. Instead of arresting the women for such heinous crimes as wearing a tallit, the police protected them from assault by those pious, peace-loving holy men.
It’s not just at the Wall. Little girls walking down the streets have been spit upon by haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men who disapproved of they way they were dressed; a woman soldier was harassed and called a “whore” when she refused to move to the back of the bus. Haredi soldiers walked out of a military ceremony because women soldiers were singing.
Two female researchers were not allowed on stage and forced to sit in the balcony at a Health Ministry ceremony where they were to receive awards for their work, because to do otherwise would offend some rabbis and the ultra-Orthodox deputy minister who was presiding.
Israel boasts to the world that it is the only democracy in its part of the world, that it has freedom of religion and all citizens are treated equally. But it doesn’t practice what it preaches. Jews have more religious freedom in the United States and other western democracies than in Israel when it comes to conversion, marriage, worship, burial, divorce, immigration and deciding who is a Jew.
The ultra-Orthodox establishment’s diktat goes beyond religion to encompass public transit, billboard advertising, daylight savings time, public ceremonies and even – or especially – the army. Few haredi men serve in the military and calls to draft them have been met with protests, threats and calls for violent resistance.
Some who do serve have been told by their rabbis to disobey the orders of their commanders that the rabbis object to, such as removal of illegal West Bank outposts.
A key to haredi power is their readiness barter their votes for government ministries in any coalition, Right or Left. They’ll sell their votes on “minor” issues like defense and foreign policy in exchange for control of ministries important to their agenda, like immigration, housing, education and religious affairs. Not only do they get to dominate policy that affects their institutions, often riddled with corruption, but they also get access to the Treasury to pay for the things they want. Leaders of all major parties have gladly paid the price – in shekels and power – for haredi votes.
The current coalition is one of the few in recent years with no haredi parties; as a result, the attorney-general was recently able to order government ministries to end gender segregation in public transit, cemeteries, health clinics, radio airwaves and even public sidewalks. He also said he would ignore demands by the haredim to block a court ruling permitting women to pray freely and wear religious garb at the Kotel. It remains to be seen whether the Netanyahu government will back him up or try to avoid offending the religious extremists just in case they’re needed some day to replace a secular coalition partner.
Who controls the Wall, or seating on buses, may seem unimportant to Jews thousands of miles away, but it is part of a larger picture of the tyranny of a minority and what that says to American Jews who believe in, want to identify with and work to build political support for Israel.
That alienation can do more damage to American backing for Israel than any Arab enemy can hope to achieve.
And that will be the day they begin asking, “Whose Israel is this?”
©2013 Douglas M. Bloomfield [email protected] www.thejewishweek.com/blogs/douglas_bloomfield