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Friday, December 19, 2014

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Societal rifts threaten Israeli democracy

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Deep divisions inherent in the civil society of Israel have finally come into the public eye. With the repulsive attack on an eight-year-old girl in Beit Shemesh, haredim made a statement about their intent. This most recent event has been accompanied by a public display of choleric fundamentalism demonstrated by repeated haredi attempts to segregate women in public areas.

The outrage in Beit Shemesh would have gone unnoticed had it not been so egregious: a religious child on her way to a dati school was verbally abused by the self-named sicarii (more about that later) for not being modestly dressed. Who knew that there was a salafist sect within Judaism? The frightening skirmish over a child made headlines, revealing what we should have known a long time ago: Israeli society has dangerous rifts that, unaddressed, will be more dangerous than 10 Arab armies.

The destruction of the Second Temple was accompanied by vicious internal bloodshed, with Jew fighting Jew. Hence the rabbis’ dictum that hatred between Jew and Jew caused its downfall. The sicarii were the anti-Roman uprising’s most infamous fighters, stabbing any Jew they decided was a traitor to their cause. Their weapon of choice, the blade, gained them the name. That some haredim have adopted this sobriquet is beyond frightening, until we realize that the schools to which these people go have taught them no Jewish history whatsoever. Or is that even more alarming?

Now readers of our dailies and listeners to CBC know that in parts of Israel women are segregated to the back of the bus. Those of us old enough to recall that epithet shudder at the overtones. “Women to the back!” can be easily heard as “Blacks to the back,” and we all know where that ended.

While some may claim that the women doing this are “secular,” making a provocation, no one can argue that Yocheved Horowitz is anything but a God-fearing and educated haredi woman. A member of the Gurer Hasidim, she, too, has been yelled at and denigrated within her community for rightly pointing out the wrong-headedness of this bus tommyrot.

My own dati friends in Israel tell me that such verbal (and sometimes more physical) attacks are not uncommon, and becoming more common. Sometimes it appears that the perpetrators want to empty a neighbourhood for their own followers to occupy. Could this be the case in Beit Shemesh?

More distressingly, they also retain their grip on political power and the amazing amounts of money that flow into their systems from a government cravenly beholden to them in the Knesset.

These incidents, and so many more that we may never hear about, point to a darker reality.

A system of separate and unregulated schools for sectarian communities – seemingly designed to accommodate a few at the inception of the state – now threatens to overwhelm not just the political life of the country, but its most cherished values of democracy, freedom from religious persecution (in this instance being perpetrated by the haredim and some chassidic sects), and equality for men and women in all walks of life.

The separation of state and synagogue has been eroded by years of bowing to demands by sectarian political parties for a place at the governing table, enabled by Israel’s bizarre voting system. It has been weakened considerably by the growth of schools that teach not the values of a democracy, but the demands of a narrow theocracy. Both the political and cultural stresses on civil society have been exposed by these latest happenings.

Some haredim claim that, once things die down, they can deal with the extremists internally. A few others, such as Yocheved, have gone public and suffered for it, among the threats being that no one will marry their children.

How to begin to address these issues?

Public services need to stand firm against attempts to make them into private apartheid places. Politicians need to overcome their addiction to haredi and extremist parties. No less importantly – indeed crucially – the education system in Israel must be reconfigured.

Those within the haredi community who know that change has to come from within need to open their schools and minds to see that they are a part of a wonderful, flawed state, along with every other citizen of Israel. As with so much, change can only happen from within.

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