Sometimes religious pluralism is complicated. And sometimes it’s not.
On January 1st, 19-year-old female soldier Doron Matalon was asked to sit in the back of a public bus by a Haredi (sometimes known as ultra-Orthodox) man named Shlomo Fuchs (who was later arrested). When she refused, he called her a slut and a shiksa until the driver called the police. (This type of incident has happened before, by the way).
In September, a new religious national school known as Orot Banot opened on a street which forms the border between a modern Orthodox neighborhood, and a neighborhood dominated by a fundamentalist group known as Sikirikim. On the first day of school, a group of Sikrikim taunted, harassed, and yelled at the elementary girls going to class with their mothers, calling them whores and prostitutes. They also threw feces and vegetables and spit on these girls. Why? Because, they claim, the girls were insufficiently modest. One second grade girl, Na’ama Margolese, has told the story of being spat on, becoming a central focus of the debate broiling over these events. In response to criticisms of the harassment of these girls, on December 27th, some Haredim dressed up in Holocaust costumes evoking concentration camp victims in protest.
These incidents have taken place over the last month in Bnei Brak, a majority far-right religious city, and Beit Shemesh, an Israeli city in the Jerusalem district with a large concentration of extremely religious Jews (40,000 out of 90,000). While Bnei Brak is almost completely religious, Beit Shemesh has a large population of secular and more liberal Jews, many of whom are American immigrants and no strangers to these kinds of conflicts. The events have sparked a national debate on the role of religion in Israeli life, and in particular, the relationship between Haredi groups and the broader, more secular society. Because Israel is a secular democracy that maintains its commitment to being a Jewish state, it is facing many of the same issues that arise in American politics, perhaps even more acutely.
It’s almost hard to know how to respond to something so blatantly vile, so fundamentally disgusting. There’s no argument to be made on behalf of eight-year-old girls trying to go to school and being stopped by men whose sole goal is to shame them for their insufficient modesty or inadequate religiosity and to exert power through intimidation. The facts really speak for themselves.
Thankfully, that has been the overwhelming response. From American writers. Israeli writers. Secular writers. Religious writers. From Israel’s Chief Rabbi. From Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. From Orthodox Jews such as Rabbi Dov Lipman, who has launched a movement to keep Beit Shemesh safe for non-Ultra-Orthodox citizens. They sustain a patrol around the school and keep media attention on the extremists. And, most delightfully, from other Haredi communities, who decided to organize a protest, demonstrating their support of the girls, the school, and their objection to the repulsive actions taken in their name.
This is being framed as a manifestation of an inevitable conflict simmering between Israel’s far-right religious and secular communities, and there’s definitely something to that. The vast majority of Israel’s Jews are largely secular (depending on definition), and yet the Orthodox Rabbinate controls marriage and divorce. Every Jewish Israeli is required to serve in the army, except for Haredi men, who receive a stipend from the government to study in Jewish religious scholarly institutions. Two right-wing religious parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, are in a coalition with the currently ruling Likud party, giving them political power incommensurate with their popularity.
On the other hand, there has been a clear message from almost all sources, including the Israeli government, that the happenings in Beit Shemesh are unacceptable and incompatible with a pluralistic society, so maybe it’s not such a simple conflict. To begin with, the Haredi community is expanding rapidly and now makes up 10% of the Israeli population. This growth brings them into highly increased contact with the secular world. Also, the Haredi community has in recent months expanded the imposition of their interpretation of religious law in their neighborhoods by, for example, putting up signs on sidewalks asking women to step aside for men when they happen to cross. Also, the stipend program for religious learning mentioned earlier has become incredibly expensive, both in direct costs to the government and indirect costs to the Haredi community, whose male population lacks job skills and puts off earning an income for several years. During these years, they are generally married and starting families, and so in order to care from their larger-than-average families, married Haredi women have become the primary breadwinners in many families, often by receiving excellent secular educations and then going into the workplace. That kind of thing leads to modernization, to secularization. Nothing drastic, yet, of course, but it seems to me that what the events on the buses and at the schools show is a community that is out of touch with the society that they depend on. They’re feeling under attack. They’re foreseeing a future that does not necessarily include their current way of life.
There is a burgeoning conflict going on, but it’s not between the religious and the nonreligious, either in Israel or in America. It’s between illiberal groups who impose objectionable standards on those outside their community while simultaneously demanding taxpayer support, and those who recognize the danger of such a position and understand what it means to live in a free and open society, where differences of opinion are solved through open debate and a political process instead of intimidation and insularity. There is room for religion in democratic societies — religion that is respectful, religion that is applied only to its members, religion that wants to play fair. There is no room for bullying, oppressive, wannabe standard-bearers of morality who think they they don’t have to follow the rules. It’s telling, for example that Na’ama’s mother, who by most standards is a very observant Jew, said, “It shouldn’t matter what I look like. Someone should be allowed to walk around in sleeveless shirts and pants and not be harassed.”
Mayor Moshe Abutbol, are you listening?