Israel's Brewing Kulturkampf

The ultra-orthodox community and the secular administration are at loggerheads. Israel's future hangs in the balance.

The past few weeks have seen the beginning of a bout of Kulturkampf in Israel. The ultra-orthodox community, steadily growing in numbers and political clout, is flexing its muscles in the public domain, and the secular establishment is fighting back. The struggle at the moment centers on gender issues: The ultra-orthodox community, bent on the subordination of women, is trying to shore up its custom of recent years, to relegate women to the backs of buses—both in their own private bus networks and in the national carrier, Egged, and to keep advertisements depicting women off city streets. Also, the ultra-orthodox, supported by many less devout orthodox Israelis, have forbidden men from attending performances in which women sing. (Women are seen by the devout as temptresses and sexually inciteful.)

Back in 1948, the haredim (literally, the fearful, meaning the ultra-orthodox) constituted about 1 percent of Israel’s Jewish population; today, with haredi families often having eight or ten children, they account for 10 percent, and the proportion is steadily rising. In Jerusalem and Ashdod, two of the country's main cities, haredi children account for over half the Jewish elementary-school population. Ashkenazi (European origin) and Sephardi (Middle East origin) haredi parties hold some twenty seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament), and the two major haredi parties, Degel Hatorah (Ashkenazi) and Shas (Sephardi) are prominent members of Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government.

The haredim by and large reject Zionism. They say Israel was established by men, not God. They reject also the legitimacy of Israeli (secular) law and government, deeming God's truth and word superior. Over the decades there have been repeated clashes between the secular majority (and the state) and the haredim over a variety of issues, such as public transport on the Sabbath (buses don't run in most cities on Saturday) and archaeological digs. The haredim often try, sometimes violently, to halt excavations on the grounds that Jewish graves are being desecrated. (On the other hand, over the decades secular Israelis have also chalked up successes: For example, in my youth one could barely find an open restaurant in Jerusalem to eat in on Friday nights and Saturdays, and all cinemas were shut; today, there are a wealth of eateries and cinemas open on Sabbath.)

In this round of conflict, the secular majority has begun to fight back. Tania Rosenblitt, a female student, a few weeks ago boarded an Egged bus number 451 (Ashdod to Jerusalem) and deliberately sat in the front. Ultra-orthdox passengers cursed and jeered, but she refused to get off or move to the back, despite blandishments by the driver, who stopped the bus, and a policeman who was summoned to the scene. Then, Yocheved Horowitz, an ultra-orthodox lady, boarded a bus on the same route and sat in front, defying her own society's conventions.

In the town of Beit Shemesh, about midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, haredi men have regularly intimidated women and girl passersby whom they regarded as improperly dressed (haredi women fully cover arms and legs and, indeed, once married, shear off their hair and wear wigs—all to void sexual attraction). Haredim have posted signs on Beit Shemesh streets (and in other towns) prohibiting women from walking in the vicinity of synagogues. The municipality has repeatedly removed the signs—but the haredim have put them back up the next day.

Recently the press published the story of eight-year-old Naama Margulis, a Beit Shemesh resident, who has repeatedly been spat on and cursed on her way to school by haredim, who deemed her dress insufficiently modest. Beit Shemesh, founded in the 1950s as a locus for the settlement of Sephardi immigrants, was once a secular town; today, the bulk of its population is haredi. Secular Beit Shemesh residents complain that the haredim now try to "export" their norms into secular neighborhoods and have held mass protests.

The government, dominated by secular ministers, has been fighting back, but hesitantly. Netanyahu has declared the efforts at subordination or exclusion of women illegal and unacceptable. In the army, the IDF chief rabbi has dismissed the air force's chief rabbi, a lieutenant colonel, who is in charge of recruiting haredim—who by and large don't serve in the military—into the army. He supported the right of religious soldiers to boycott events in which troupes that include female soldiers sing; the IDF chief of staff has ruled that such boycotts are unacceptable.

The haredim have protested that they are being "persecuted" by the government and recently held demonstrations in which haredi children donned yellow stars; Jerusalem's police chief was characterized in their wall posters as a "Nazi."

Perhaps the most telling response to the current haredi offensive or encroachments has been the graduation last week of five women from the IDF's most prestigious and strenuous course, the flight course of the Israel Air Force. Two received pilots' certification and three became navigators. This is the largest number of women ever to complete the twenty-month course, which women were first allowed to enter, after a legal battle, in 1995. A woman first completed the course in 1998, and since then a handful have been accepted annually, though few—as with the male cadets—reach graduation. (Generally, only one in ten entrants completes the course.)

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