Not even for one day since its birth some 63 years ago has the Jewish state known peace or normal bilateral relations with its neighbours. As a result, not surprisingly, Israeli governments have focused most of their policy attention on defence and foreign affairs.
For six decades existential threats have commanded the agenda. The Israeli public has understood this and usually made allowances for the imperfections of a country beset on all sides by enemies. But some of those imperfections, through years of inattention and neglect, appear to have festered into deeper, sub-stratum societal wounds that threaten to wreak a different, but still destructive, havoc on the Jewish state.
One of the most pressing societal threats in Israel is the blatant disrespect for the rule of law that characterizes certain pockets of the population. Specifically, we refer to the extremist, aggressive, violent behaviour of some haredi and zealous nationalist religious groups. To be sure, these groups constitute a very small, atypical sampling of the general population. But the danger to key, fundamental institutions of Israeli society is no less real for the small numbers of the thugs and disrespecters of basic human rights.
One particular sect of the haredi community in Beit Shemesh has been the most recent example of the grossly abusive behaviour by the very few against the many, harassing, abusing and bullying women for reasons they justify by their narrow, mysogynist view of our religion. (See the related news story in this edition.)
Religious, nationalist zealots have recently attacked Arabs and Jews alike in the name of their vain, misguided attestation of “God’s will.” They even attacked an Israeli army base, injuring the base’s commander.
The government and the leaders of Israel must urgently turn their focus to these non-military threats to the Jewish state. Religious leaders who wield influence over the offending haredim and zealots must denounce the extremism that has increasingly become their followers’ trademark. The government must enforce and uphold the rule of law. It is gratifying that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that he will act against “anyone who harasses women, anyone who harasses people in the public sphere.” He reiterated earlier comments: “While we will use all legal means at our disposal… this is not just a legal issue. It is also a social issue.”
The long-range, structural correction however, requires the larger mainstream political parties to amend a flawed electoral system that confers inordinately, disproportionate political and thus financial power in the hands of small, single-issue, single-constituency, political parties, many of whose followers and loyalists feel empowered by their foothold in the electoral system to brazenly flout the law of the land.
The wider common good must finally trump narrow self-interest in the politics of the Jewish state.