It is all too convenient to make the debate about the status of women in Israel’s public arena a debate about Haredi violence and ultra Orthodox intolerance. The protesters gathering in Beit Shemesh were right to denounce any attacks, be it physical or verbal, on school girls because of the way they are dressed or the way they choose to live their lives. But it is a distraction from the much more complicated questions that Israel’s society has to confront. Yes, violence is bad, and violent Haredis should be found – and jailed. End of story. By the way, it would also be nice to find and jail violent Israelis of other religious persuasions. Will this, though, solve the problem of women singing in the military, will it solve the problem of having no women on rabbinical courts?
More than anyone else, some modern Orthodox (Dati) leaders and rabbis have good reason to try and make Haredi zealotry the problem. Haredi overreach is the comfort zone in which the modern Orthodox can make friends with the majority of traditional and secular Israelis. If Israelis are angry with the ultra Orthodox, they tend to see modern Orthodoxy in a favorable light – comparing the “extremists” with those willing to “compromise”. However, the internal struggle within modern Orthodoxy is the one creating many of the dilemmas facing Israel. The Haredis are easy to contain, the Datiyim are much more involved in most Israelis’ lives. They are the ones raising questions about women in the military; they are the ones raising their youngsters to defy government orders in the West Bank; they are the ones demanding changes in the educational curriculum for all Israelis. While many in the Haredi community only want their autonomy – to be left alone to do their thing – most Dati communities have revolutionary ideas. They want to reshape Israel, to make it more in line with their beliefs.
It is also comfortable for other – secular – Israelis to pretend that Haredi aggressiveness is the problem. The Haredis are seen as marginal to most Israelis, and fighting a battle or sorts against them doesn’t meet the frightening criteria of “civil war” (currently, a war as in war of ideas, not real war).
In other words: One can battle Haredi power and still pretend to have a unified Israeli society. A battle between the secular and the traditional or the modern Orthodox would feel more like a real rift in society.
And yes, it is as good a time as any to put an end to instances of Haredi brutality (remembering that the vast majority of Haredis are not violent and utterly disgusted by the scene of grown men spitting at a third-grade school girl). It is time for the state to reassert its jurisdiction over Beit Shemesh.
One wonders, though: If we all think that the state should be competent and decisive in exerting such power in Beit Shemesh – why not also exert the same level of power over illegal outposts that refuse to be evacuated? If this is an issue of law and order, don’t just apply it where it’s easy, when popular support is all but assured, where most Israelis see eye to eye with the government. Do it wherever and whenever law and order had been degraded to mere recommendation, do it in Beit Shamesh, OK, but also do it to prevent nutty Breslovers from sneaking into Joseph’s Tomb.
Balancing tradition and modernity is not easy. Finding ways for religious and secular Israelis to be able to live together respectfully is not easy. Crying wolf about Haredi power, true or imagined, is relatively easy. Don’t be fooled by the tendency of most Israelis to take the easy way out of an important battle of ideas.
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