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 number 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 Moslem 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 Nazis.
Israel’s religious extremists have never been shy about using violence but that problem is growing, although nothing so far on the scale of Arab extremists.
The latest outrage was a demonstration last weekend in Jerusalem that sent young boys into the streets wearing yellow stars labeled “Jude” on their coats with arms raised in surrender to invoke images of a famous Holocaust-era photograph of a young Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Organizers said they were protesting incitement by critics of and media attention to their community’s gender segregation and other practices.
Recent incidents of violence and abuse by these extremists have drawn attention far beyond Israel’s borders.
A haredi man arrested on charges of sexual assault for calling a female soldier “slut” and harassing her because she would not move to the back of a public bus unapologetically defended his action.
“A woman should not stand amidst 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.”
He was arrested and quickly released on a small bail so he could return to his yeshiva.
An attack on eight-year-old Naama Margolese, the American born daughter of Modern Orthodox immigrants, on her way home from school sparked a national protest movement, several days of demonstrations and international outrage.
Enraged zealots had called the child “whore” because they disapproved of her clothing.
Demonstrators who turned out in support of the girl were met by hundreds of ultra-Orthodox rioters who threw rocks and feces at them, spewed obscene epithets, blocked traffic, set trashcans afire and stoned police.
A few were arrested 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 harsh?
The growing public outrage has prompted some tough talk by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in defense of women’s rights but so far little in the way of substantive action.
The ultra-Orthodox establishment, 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 did.
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.
When 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.
This growing assault on civil liberties and democratic principles directly threatens to undermine Israel’s most important ally, the American Jewish community.
Agudath Israel of America “unconditionally” condemned as “reprehensible” the actions in Beit Shemesh by “self-appointed ‘guardians’ of modesty.”
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. They begin 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 just 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 US Congress.
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 politicians.
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 democratic values
And it is about successive government 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 in America.
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.