Published in The Jewish Press, The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle
On a recent visit to my homeland of Israel, I was appalled and surprised at the mutual exhibition of intense hatred between the haredim (fervently Orthodox) and many nonobservant and traditional secular Israelis.
I saw secular Israelis point to dark clothed haredim and call them parasites, insects, gangsters, criminals, thieves, pogromists and other terms reminiscent of anti-Semitic rhetoric.
I heard haredim make vicious personal attacks on Supreme Court President Aaron Barak, calling him a Jew-hater and persecutor and stating that they do not recognize the authority of the court. I grew up in a society that was divided ethnically between Ashkanazi Jews (descendants of eastern European Jews) and Sephardic Jews (descendants of Jews from Arab countries) and politically between those on the right and the left. However, after 50 years it seems that Israel was emerging as a “melting pot.” Unfortunately, I was wrong.
The intense hatred, mistrust and name-calling between the two groups shocked me. And it appears to have scared the general public, persuading it to reject Prime Minister Netanyahu, who, even his supporters would admit, used hatred, fear and divisiveness in his election campaign.
Six months after the Yitzhak Rabin assassination, many Israelis voted for Netanyahu in order to heal the wounds of division created in the society. After he was elected, he said he would be “prime mister for all Israelis.” But many Israelis, even on the right, perceived him as choosing hatred and division by habitually provoking and besmirching the half of the country that didn’t vote for him and by lashing out at the media, the legal establishment and other parts of society he portrayed as elitist and out to get him. In addition, he seemed to provoke quarrels, rivalries and animosities among his supporters and was blamed for capitulating to exaggerated and divisive demands by the haredim at the expense of the rest of society.
It seems that the majority of Israelis made the decision that they are more afraid of a civil war and final breakdown between the Jewish groups in Israel than the danger from outside enemies. They wish to be united again and to first have peace among themselves.
Therefore, I believe that the new Israeli government has the responsibility to establish a national unity government which would include the Likud and Center parties in order to avoid pressures by extremist religious parties as well as the anti-religious parties.
Extremist, ultra-Orthodox Israelis see their ultimate goal as transforming the country into a theocracy in which daily behavior is governed by religious law. On the other hand, many extreme secular Israelis see the ultimate objective of Zionism as creating a secular nation without a Jewish identity and with separation of religion and state.
Recognizing the desperate need for tolerance and dialogue, I agree with most Israelis that a compromise is needed. I believe that Israeli society needs to keep the Jewish character of the country while respecting the values and the freedom of the individual.
Changing the ‘status quo’
I grew up as a traditional secular Jew. I spent much of my time with very observant relatives. I was raised to see the beauty in religious observance, but I always believed that the survival of Israel and the unity of the Jewish people as a whole should be the most important consideration.
I now believe that Israel needs to change some aspects of the “religious status quo” that was decided 50 years ago by the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion.
According to that agreement with the ultra-religious parties, the Shabbat and kashrut laws were to be officially observed in the state. Issues of marriage, divorce and conversion would be left in Orthodox religious hands. And the haredi circles would be allowed to maintain an independent educational system. In addition, Ben-Gurion agreed that students of yeshivot would be exempt from military service. When the promise was first made there were about 400 such students.
Now, many secular Israelis say their chief resent toward haredim is that there are now over 30,000 yeshiva students who are exempt from military service and who pay virtually no taxes or other dues to society because they are not working. If they were to work, they would lose this exemption. Instead, many live below the poverty line and burden the welfare system. At the same time, the political power of their parties and national funding for their institutions continue to grow.
This problem will only get worse because the haredi community, which now constitutes about 10 percent of the Jewish population, will double in size in another generation.
To solve the problem, I don’t believe haredi students should be forced to serve in the army because the army would unduly burden their strict life style. But I do believe that the haredi leaders should take the initiative and agree that their 18-year-olds should participate in Israeli national service by helping society in schools, hospitals, emigration centers in border towns and other poor areas. Such an undertaking would help the haredi community economically and increase the broader society’s respect for their lifestyle.
Second, it seems that nonobservant Jews, who constitute 20 percent of the Jewish population, wish to abolish the unique character of Shabbat by allowing most businesses and shopping centers to operate. There have been many confrontations during the last year over kibbutzim operating shopping centers on Shabbat. However, the majority of Israelis, constituting 60 percent of the population, are traditional and wish to give Shabbat a different character from weekdays.
While most Israelis light candles, bless the challah and wine on Friday evening and keep kosher in their homes, they prefer to spend Shabbat at the beach rather than in the synagogue.
Therefore, I agree with those who suggest that all productive, industrial, agriculture and commercial activities should be stopped on Saturday, while allowing private and public recreational and cultural centers such as museums, theaters and sports venues to operate. For many years, the religious parties have fought strongly against opening government cultural institutions, while overlooking the opening of private places of entertainment.
Third, many haredim resent the Israeli Supreme Court rulings regarding religion and state. They argue that many judges who are experts on Anglo-Saxon legal practice and foreign values, know next to nothing about Jewish laws, culture and traditions. Yet these members of the “secular elite” are the same people who are making the decisions on conversion, membership in religious councils, and military service for yeshiva students.
While I don’t believe that the haredim should undermine the court system, I do believe that the court shouldn’t be the body to change the Jewish character of the society.
Representative bodies of society such as the Knesset should be making these policies. As an attorney, I believe in a strong supreme court and legal system, but I also believe that the time has arrived for Israel to have a constitution in order to check the power of the courts and protect minority groups and individual rights.
In order to avoid a potential secular-religious war, Ehud Barak should establish a national unity government, keeping religious and non-religious extremists out of power. It is important that he pay attention to the voters’ message of one united Israel and start the healing process.