Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Problem

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Middle East In Focus

Recent events in Israel have once again raised questions about the ability of Israeli society to peacefully integrate ultra-Orthodox Judaism without compromising secular democratic values.  Tensions, long simmering, have finally come out into the open, particularly since the story broke of a woman from Ashdod who was harassed on a segregated haredi (ultra-Orthodox) bus. For some, what we are witnessing is nothing short of cultural (and even civil) war, while others call out for more understanding and tolerance.

Moshe Feiglin, head of the Manhigut Yehudit [Jewish Leadership] faction in the right-wing Likud party, suggests that “[t]oday, Israel suffers more from secular coercion than from religious coercion….The entire Israeli reality has become a platform for the multi-faceted tyranny of the secular minority (approximately 19% of the public) over the traditional/religious/ultra-Orthodox majority….Just like the unhappy events in Ramat Gilad, the story of Tanya from Ashdod (who was harassed on an ultra-Orthodox bus) was a provocation….Do these provocations justify throwing a rock at an IDF officer? Certainly not. Do they justify an imbecilic ultra-Orthodox man spitting on a small girl whose level of modesty does not conform to his standards? Of course not. Most of the ultra-Orthodox have renounced his behavior.”

In an op-ed for Yedioth Ahronoth, Hanoch Daum also comes to the defense of the minority: “Haredim also have rights…. A moderate haredi I spoke with last week praised Minister Limor Livnat, who said that segregated buses should be permitted in haredi areas. People don’t realize it, but these bus routes started because of women’s complaints, he said. According to one study, one-third of all women in Israel report being sexually harassed on a bus at least once in their life….This does not justify the humiliation experienced by women who board a segregated bus and sit at the front, of course, yet it should make all of us wonder about the exact aims of the public struggle over this issue….The protest wave against the radical haredim is more than important, yet it must not get confused or get overly excited. Israel’s majority must remind itself all the time that not only women have rights. The haredi minority has rights too.”

Still others have tried to make sure that the actions of a small minority of the haredi population do not cast a shadow over the rest. For example, Arutz Sheva’s Yona Klein reflects on the events in his community of Beit Shemesh and takes to task those haredim who have advocated violence: “The ‘Tznius War,’ as we shall refer to it, concerns a certain sect of Jews who identify themselves as hareidim, who have become more and more willing to use violent or offensive means to justify their goal of bringing everyone they come in contact with to their standard of modest dress. Much, but not all, of that standard seems to reflect the actual halakhah….So why do you dress like hareidim? In fact, you don’t follow halakhah either. What you do is totally ossur [forbidden]. For the sake of the hareidi world, I ask you to take off your hats. For the sake of reducing the massive and overwhelming chillul Hashem that you have caused and continue to cause, I ask you to take off your yarmulkes, too….Please, stop representing us to the world. We are trying to be light unto the nations. Stop spreading darkness in our name.”

Jerusalem Post’s Natan Slifkin takes a similar tack: “Many secular Jews possess the absurd belief that all haredim, or even all religious Jews, are of the same mindset as the extremists….Everyone agrees that the Battle of Beit Shemesh…is about a group of hostile, hateful people trying to impose their ideology on a group of nice, normal Jews. But whereas the secular, national-religious and moderate haredim (ultra-Orthodox) think that the group of hostile, hateful people trying to impose their ideology on others are the haredi extremists, mainstream haredim think that the group of hostile, hateful people trying to impose their ideology on others are the secular….haredi society is pervaded by a fear of not appearing adequately “frum”; people in haredi communities are always looking over their right shoulders.”

Many, however, see the recent confrontations as one step too far. Yedioth Ahronoth’s Shlomo Cohen, for one, has had enough and wants to “Stop Israel’s new right…. In recent years, Israel’s agenda and public discourse have been dictated by a minority — the new Israeli Right: the radical wing of the National-Religious camp, settlers, bad weeds in the Likud and Kadima, nationalistic groups (such as Yisrael Beiteinu and others) and court jesters with a big budget (the Im Tirtzu group.) This new rightist camp is post-Zionist: The reality it wishes to produce in Israel would turn it into a state that has nothing Jewish in it (with the exception of ritual and headstones) and that is certainly undemocratic….The new Right’s takeover of Israel’s agenda, the moderate Right’s submission, and Netanyahu’s lack of leadership are accelerating a deepening rift within Israel…we too may pay the price of the new Right’s actions if we fail to curb it soon.”

In a strongly worded op-ed for Haaretz, Avirama Golam calls “Ultra-Orthodox extremism…nothing less than war…. What do secular liberals want to wage a culture war about if that culture is completely foreign to them? Over seating arrangements on the bus? Over political power in Beit Shemesh?…Many leading ultra-Orthodox figures say the reason is not only the anti-Haredi political parties that are on the way, but what is spawning them — the fact that party activists have gone too far in their arrogant extremism and brutal abuse of the public purse….No less serious is the impact of the nationalist ultra-Orthodox community. The rabbis on the nationalist right are becoming more extreme to prove that they are not ‘religious lite,’ and their Haredi colleagues are afraid to appear lenient. In light of this vicious circle, the secular-liberal community proposes a mixture of fear and hatred, instead of defining the face of Israeli society, its values and future.”

Raanan Shaked goes one step further and asks whether it is “time for Israeli civil war…. Because the radical Right, the radical haredim and the lowliest politicians in Israel’s history [are] violent — in word and deed — and they’re aggressive, and they set facts on the ground, and they wake up at night in order to spray-paint and torch, and they view the law and our courts as something that doesn’t pertain to them….This has to do with the kind of place we wish to and are willing to live in, and at this time nothing that is less than rolling one’s sleeves, hitting the streets and possibly a few head butts aimed at painful body organs will bring change. The rules of the game have changed and they are no longer only democratic.”

Responding to reports that some among the haredim community wore yellow stars during a protest, Menachem Rosensaft, writing on Jerusalem Post, believes that “[t]hose who desecrate [the] Holocaust have no place in society…. It is important to recognize that this latest misuse of Holocaust imagery and Nazi analogies did not occur in a vacuum….It is not enough to condemn the haredim who compared themselves to Jews in Nazi Europe at Saturday’s rally and then allow the incident to be dismissed and forgotten as merely another outrage in a succession of many outrages. Those who organized or took part in this obscene demonstration should be made permanent pariahs, as should the ultra-Orthodox rabbis and other leaders who refuse to denounce it. Desecrating the memory of the Holocaust is as reprehensible as spitting on a girl, and the social degenerates who do either of these things have no place in a civilized society.”

Finally, for Yakir Elkariv the events of the last two weeks mean the “Haredi-secular relationship in Israel [is] a lost cause; [the] time has come for full separation….The ties between seculars and haredim in Israel can be likened at this time to the relationship of a married couple who after long years of tension reached the end of the road. Regrettably, the only practical solution is separation, and the earlier the better….While we used to be one people once upon a time, a moral dispute that can no longer be bridged split us into two cultures in practice. It is indeed sad, but apparently it is also irreversible.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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