Creeping Fundamentalism in Israel

Israel, like America, is a modern secular democracy with a noisy religious minority that desires the creation of a theocracy. And as in America, religious fundamentalists in Israel exert political influence disproportionate to their numbers. But Israel’s fundamentalist minority, the ultra-Orthodox or haredi Jews, have had some worrying successes lately in imposing their vision on the country.

First, there’s this article, about the construction of a light rail in Jerusalem. Yair Naveh, the CEO of the transit company, is proposing that some cars on every train should be “kosher cars”, reserved for the use of the ultra-Orthodox and segregated by gender as their sexist laws demand. (There are already bus lines serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in which women are forced to sit at the back, but that isn’t enough for haredi men who are too holy to have to come in contact with women.)

The ultra-Orthodox are fighting for segregation not just on public transportation, but everywhere else as well. Witness this story about a religious court which sentenced an Israeli singer, Erez Yechiel, to a symbolic “whipping” for performing before a mixed-gender audience. This quote from the article says it all:

Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, who heads the Shofar organization for the distribution of Judaism, has been waging a war against religious singers who perform to an integrated audience of both men and women…

At least for now, this court had no legal authority; the singer submitted himself to its judgment voluntarily. (Why he did that, I have no idea – probably because of the widespread delusion that members of the clergy have some unique moral wisdom, when their bigoted and sexist actions show that, if anything, the opposite is true.) But history shows that religious groups which have the opportunity to enact their beliefs into law rarely pass up the opportunity – and one could be forgiven for wondering, if these rabbis had the power, whether those floggings would always be symbolic.

And the power of the ultra-Orthodox may soon be much more than symbolic, depending on this bill currently being debated in Israel’s parliament. It would grant authority to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate to recognize or deny conversions to Judaism, effectively invalidating all conversions performed by Reform and Conservative rabbis. Since conversion to Judaism grants Israeli citizenship, this would be a very significant matter in determining who can be a citizen of Israel. It would potentially give the ultra-Orthodox a major advantage in elections, granting them the power to deny citizenship to more liberal Jews who might disagree with their views.

But as hard as they fight to gain control of the Israeli state, the fundamentalists contribute little to its upkeep. As many as two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox men don’t work – they do nothing but study the Torah and get welfare payments from the government to do so. In effect, they expect liberal and moderate Jews to work to support them, even as they lobby to take away the liberals’ rights. And the justification one of them offers for this is laughable:

“Some people drive a taxi, others pray,” said Robert Zwirn, 63, a former doctor from Brooklyn who moved to Israel 20 years ago and gradually gave up his practice to adopt an ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. “But the Messiah won’t come on the merit of you driving a taxi. It will be on the merit of our prayer.”

Because of the delusion that endless prayer and scripture study will bring about the messianic age, these people have convinced themselves that their selfishness is actually a good deed – that they have the right to free-ride off society, taking its resources without giving anything back in return. It’s the same delusion, that they’re the future saviors of the world, that inspires all their other theocratic demands.

The Manhattan Option
Erasing the Past, Denying the Future
Atlas Shrugged: The Jolly Roger
Obamacare's Victory Is a Defeat For Fundamentalism
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Arc of Fire, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.


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