Jewish Journal


Is Israel succumbing to Jewish fundamentalism?

by Shmuel Rosner

August 15, 2012 | 1:05 pm

Ultra-Orthodox men pray alongside Israeli soldiers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Photo: Reuters)

The British magazine the Economist is holding a public debate on the question: Is Israel succumbing to Jewish fundamentalism? You can vote (as I’d expect, Economist readers vote Yes), you can read the ongoing debate between Avraham Burg (the “leftist” – voting yes) and Daniel Gordis (the “rightist” – voting no). You can read the background material, including the special report on the state of Judaism and the Jews that was written by my one-time boss, one-time colleague, and current friend David Landau.

You can also read the “featured guest” article I wrote for this debate. I do not debate, and am not engaged in the ongoing dialogue between Burg and Gordis. I’m only addressing this challenging question: Is Israel succumbing to Jewish fundamentalism? Here is my answer:

Judaism is not easy to define. It is a religion and a civilization, a culture and a tradition. Judaism really is what Jews are doing at a given time. And one of its components is a never-ending debate over what Jews should be doing instead of what they are actually doing.

Fundamentalism is also not easy to define. Too often, it is merely what people with whom one does not agree are doing. Example: Jewish Orthodox groups that support separation of the sexes on public transport are deemed “fundamentalists” by Orthodox groups that are also supportive of separation of the sexes, but only in synagogues and schools. What is it that makes Orthodox “A” worthy of the “fundamentalist” tag and Orthodox “B” unworthy of it? One might say: buses are for everybody; synagogues are voluntary. You don’t have to go into a synagogue if you don’t like separation of the sexes. But what about public schools separating children? True, you can send your children to a secular school where there’s no separation. So should we accept separation of buses if there are also mixed buses for the less strictly observant public?

These are all tricky questions without which one cannot answer the question this debate poses: “Is Israel succumbing to Jewish fundamentalism?”

Judaism is a living entity. Thus Jewish Israel is constantly changing, and is constantly influenced by new and contradictory trends. Thirty years ago it was fashionable to dismissively compare the one-dimensional second and third generation of know-nothing seculars with the founding fathers who were Jewish-educated seculars. But that was then. Nowadays, it is trendier to complain about too much Jewish content in schools’ curriculums, and about Israelis’ “worrisome” percentage of belief in God, and about the tendency of the more traditional Israelis to be less concerned with democratic values.

Israeli Jews often defy expectations and rebel against predictions of impending doom. They are pragmatic to the core. A case in point: in Israel, the rabbinate is the only body entitled to officiate over the marriage of Jews. It is a lousy arrangement that originated under Ottoman rule and was never altered — one of the often-used prime examples of the Israel-is-a-fundamentalist-country camp. But how valid is the example? Just a few days ago, Israel’s dependable Bureau of Statistics released its report on Israelis’ habits of pairing and marriage. Apparently, 20% of Jewish Israeli couples marry abroad. That is, one out of every five couples is shunning the rabbinate and tying the knot elsewhere. True, the lousy arrangement is still unchanged, but Israeli Jews are slowly and gradually voting with the wedding ring to make it irrelevant. Between 1970 and 2012, the percentage of single men aged 25-29 rose from 28% to 65%, and the percentage of single women aged 25-29 jumped from 13% to 46%. In a fundamentalist society, such a percentage of unmarried grown-ups would not be tolerated. So, the law can at times problematic and even coercive, but the state still accepts the many choices that people make.

And speaking of the people, there’s an urgent need to separate real people from those pretending to be speaking for the people — sometimes called “rabbis” (at other times they can be called intellectuals and hold just the opposite views). There are many rabbis in Israel who believe that the masses obey their orders. And there are many fly-by writers, or ideological hacks, or manipulative politicians, or hysterical citizens who are buying this empty propaganda and reselling it for their own purposes — to prove that Israel is becoming undemocratic, or is controlled by the settlers or by ultra-Orthodox parties, or is going down the drain for other internal reasons.

There is one problem with the selling of rabbinical outrageous rhetoric as proof that Israel is becoming more fundamentalist: most Israelis — even the ultra-Orthodox — only listen to the rabbis when their message resonates with them. Rabbis say: Marry! They don’t. Rabbis say: Marry at the rabbinate! They don’t. Rabbis — just before the 2005 “disengagement” from Gaza — said: Disobey military orders! Only a negligible number of soldiers followed through. Rabbis — the more radical — say: Don’t use mobile phones! And they do use them. Ultra-Orthodox rabbis want their community to resist any change, but young haredis are rebelling against the status quo. David Zolden, an ultra-Orthodox columnist whom I met earlier this week, is reporting that “the change that haredi society is going through is fundamental and deep”.

Israel is in an ongoing state of transition. Nothing stands still; nothing is fixed. And the flow of ideas and trends may be in several directions simultaneously. Shopping malls and restaurants and cinemas are open on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, but official conversion to Judaism is governed by stricter rules. Homosexuals are treated equally by the state, but racist rabbinical writings are becoming more vocal. Mixed-seating synagogues are becoming more common, but soldiers defying orders because of newly observed religious sensitivities are becoming less rare.

There is more: in the 1990s, a wave of former Soviet immigrants brought with it a laissez-faire approach to eating pork and a much higher tolerance for erecting a Christmas tree in a Jewish or half-Jewish home. At about the same time, an amazing rise of Sephardic ultra-Orthodox power became a fixed Israeli reality. Russian Jews seemed to make Israel more secular, Moroccan Jews seemed to make it more religious.

These are not “fundamentalists”; these are groups in transition and in search of political and societal power. These are groups that make life in Israel more challenging and more interesting, and — at times — also more worrying. A lot more worrying. These are the groups that are shaping the real Israel, not the imaginary country preferred by those who are unable or unwilling to win and lose and grudgingly compromise in this constant fight for Israel’s soul. I fear those it-has-to-be-the-Israel-we-want fundamentalists more than I fear all others.

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