When worlds collide

Can the conflict be resolved by creating one state for two peoples - both Jewish?

haredi protests 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
haredi protests 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Last Thursday night my wife and I had plans to attend an open-air screening of the Jerusalem Film Festival in the garden of Beit Ticho. We set out with some trepidation, uncertain we'd be able to navigate our way safely through the battlefield of Mea She'arim. Earlier that day, riots had erupted in this haredi quarter of Jerusalem, only a few blocks from our destination. Clearly we weren't the only ones who had second thoughts about venturing out; it was only 8 p.m., yet the streets were all but empty. Nevertheless, determined not to allow those who were destroying their neighborhood to destroy our evening as well, and seduced by the all-too-rare traffic-free roads of the city center, we persevered. To our delight, we actually arrived in record time, and wended our way into the stately grounds of this magnificent Jerusalem landmark. Had we not been following the news, we'd have had no idea that anything was amiss. The epicenter of the fierce confrontation taking place was only a few hundred meters from where we sat ourselves down, but also, seemingly, a world apart. The violence raging around the corner from the tranquility of the Ticho estate had been sparked by a judge's decision to hold a pregnant haredi woman in custody after she was arrested on suspicion of systematically starving her three-year old child, now hospitalized in a critical state of malnutrition. Rather than eschewing her for this vile desecration of human life and blasphemy of God's name, the community from whence she came was rallying around her, castigating the outside world for interfering in their own. There was no consideration here of right and wrong, only of us and them. THROUGHOUT THE evening, my mind continuously took measure of the vast distance between us. The mansion in whose proximity we sat had been built in the middle of the 19th century by an Arab dignitary, more or less when the fashion of Polish dignitaries at the time would become the dress code of the haredim. Our world has been spinning through a century and a half of turbulence since then; theirs, for all practical purposes, has stood still. The film we were watching was produced in Austria 25 years ago as a protest against the restraints placed upon women living in a male-dominated society infused with the rigidity of religious conservatism. The protest taking place down the block was a stark reminder that it might just as well have been made here yesterday. The cultural divide separating us was further accentuated by the explicit scenes of female sexuality integral to the film and its objective of championing the feminist cause; a five-minute walk away posters warned the daughters of Israel to dress with a modesty that would literally keep them covered from head to toe. This was not the first time that hundreds of haredim had gathered in recent weeks to give expression to their rage. Tonight's overturning of dumpsters, dismantling of traffic lights, cutting of electrical lines and hurling of stones at the police followed nearly a month of violent protests over the Shabbat opening of a municipal parking lot - free of charge - for visitors to the Old City. This isn't merely a campaign of civil disobedience. When protesters declare they will continue their struggle to the bitter end, when they declare smugly that they do not accept the authority of the state, it is insurgency. Their taking to the streets is not about asserting their right to live the lifestyle of their choice; it is about their demand for insularity, a virtual secession from the Zionist state whose protection, services and funds they continue to enjoy. ADDING INSULT to injury, all of this is happening during the solemn three-week period leading up to Tisha Be'av, one of the most soulful days of the Jewish calendar. It is 2595 years since the Temple was set on fire, and Jerusalem is still burning. The stench for the time being may be that of refuse and not human flesh, but it is the same inflammable material that is feeding the conflagration today as then. The senseless hatred - sinat hinam - rampant in our society should dissuade even our most secular from embracing the suggestion advocated by some that with Jerusalem again in Jewish hands, it no longer makes sense to mourn the loss of Jewish sovereignty. Indeed, the opposite is true. Until we have succeeded in rooting out the root cause of the discord threatening to tear our society asunder, the day that has become synonymous with national calamity should be accepted by the nation as a whole as an opportunity for communal soul searching. I am not arguing Halacha here, nor theology. It doesn't really matter who or what was responsible for our exile; what matters is that through two millennia of dispersion, the tradition that we nurtured, and that in turn nurtured us as a people, the ethos at the core of our collective identity, is that reestablishing ourselves in the Land of Israel is not only about physical return, but a metaphysical one as well, fixing what previously went wrong, repairing the world we were responsible for devastating. We haven't done a very good job of that. Though the current riots have only created rivulets of Jewish blood flowing in the streets of Jerusalem, they are more than enough to conjure up images of the rivers of blood graphically described in the Book of Lamentations. But it is not in our tradition to end on a note of despair. Nor do I wish to fan the flames of animosity, but rather to quench them. Thus a few words of comfort are in order. While I don't expect that there are many among the stone throwers who will be influenced by anything I have to say, there are things happening that others might find encouraging. This past week Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar overturned a ruling handed down several months ago by haredi rabbis that would have invalidated thousands of conversions officiated over by state-sanctioned rabbinic courts. Kolech, a conference convened by Orthodox women committed to enhanced participation of their gender in Jewish life, conducted a poll last week as to which of several titles should be conferred on females receiving rabbinic training. In response to the disturbances promulgated by some in the haredi community, others have written letters, talkbacks and op-ed pieces disassociating themselves from these actions and condemning them. Intermarriage here is on the rise. Not the kind that threatens Jewish continuity, but the sort that promotes it. The evidence is only anecdotal, but it appears that more and more weddings are taking place in the Jewish state between those who have adopted a religious lifestyle and those who are far less traditional, so much so that there are now a variety of seminars and workshops available to assist these couples in overcoming the tensions they will inevitably encounter as they establish families. Perhaps this sort of counseling should be mandatory for us all. No one is permitted to drive before receiving a minimum number of hours of instruction and demonstrating certain competencies. Why should we be allowed to go about building a state without first learning the laws involved and demonstrating that we know how to subscribe to them? This is a question we might ignore as long as we allow ourselves the illusion that we live in worlds apart. It is a different matter altogether when, as happened this week, worlds collide. The writer represents the worldwide Conservative/Masorti Movement on the Executive of the Jewish Agency and World Zionist Organization.