CJN columnist Jean Gerber this week eloquently pours out her heart and a deeply felt bit of her wrath on the subject of the recent unsightly efforts by some extremist haredim in Israel to segregate women away from men in the public domain of Israeli life.
She writes, of course, as an aggrieved Jewish woman. But more poignantly, she writes, simply, as an aggrieved Jew who is worried for the future of Israel, the “wonderful, flawed state” that means so very much to her.
“Israeli society has dangerous rifts that, unaddressed, will be more dangerous than 10 Arab armies,” Gerber writes, referring to the hardscrabble resentments and distrusts among and within the various religious groupings to their non-religious fellow countrymen and women.
Gerber aptly described the bullying of eight-year-old Na’ama Margolese and the subsequent aggressive protests last month in Beit Shemesh as “a public display of choleric fundamentalism.”
And she was absolutely correct.
The rowdy, crude, boorish behaviour we witnessed directed at Na’ama and her mother was shocking, an affront to our sensibilities as human beings, let alone as Jews. And we were ever more puzzled and wounded and angered because the justification for the behaviour was said to emanate from the teachings of the holy texts.
Last week, in an op-ed essay in the Globe and Mail, the eminent Israeli commentator, writer, scholar Yossi Klein Halevi also condemned the extremist haredi behaviour.
But he explained the recent boldness of the violent behaviour in terms that were new, not often, if indeed noted at all by social and political writers.
“The haredi community is hardly monolithic and is divided by its attitudes toward the secular state. It is, in part, the growing involvement of some haredim in mainstream Israeli society that has led to an extremist backlash among others. This new wave of fanaticism isn’t a sign of self-confidence but of desperation.” (My emphasis)
Klein Halevi points out that the integrative steps that increasing, though still small, numbers of haredim have taken to find employment, to serve in the army, to join in the national public discourse are worrying some of the even more cloistered and insular haredim. And thus, the latter, such as the sect in Beit Shemesh, lash out with greater “religiously based” ferocity.
In an essay titled Gender Troubles on the website Jewish Ideas Daily, Yehudah Mirsky makes much the same point.
“But the mounting violence against women, no doubt reflecting sincere conviction… also seems to bespeak increasing internal tensions.
“Though traditionalist, they have internalized modern aspirations to remake society and strategies of ideological mobilization. Far from monolithic, they have their own internal kulturkampfen. Haredi singers perform before mixed audiences. Haredim serve in special military units – and often face community ostracism. Haredi women have made extraordinary educational and occupational strides. The response by some has been to send them, literally, to the back of the bus – and push them out of view elsewhere.”
The harsh and ugly images we have seen of late involving the haredi violence in Beit Shemesh and Mea Shearim do indeed depict a certain truth of haredi attempts to manipulate public life to suit their own narrow mysogynist purposes. But as Klein Halevi and Mirsky – both astute and knowledgeable observers of Israeli life – suggest, the violence also depicts a certain turbulence stirring within the variegated stripes of haredi life.
Notwithstanding the sociological roots of the haredi violence, Klein Halevi, Mirsky and Gerber also point out that the key cornerstone of any ultimate response to the violence must be political.
“Israel’s dysfunctional coalition system,” as Klein Halevi describes it, must be permanently reformed.
“The real threat to Israeli society comes not from the acts of haredi extremists but from the distorted relationship of the haredi community to the state. Haredim not only exclude themselves from the responsibilities of Israeli citizenship but demand that the mainstream subsidize their separatism.”
Klein Halevi concludes as so many others concerned for Israel have concluded: “The large major political parties [must] join together to change the current coalition system, which allows minority parties to force their will on the majority.”
As urgent a place as the Iranian threat, the rise of Arab Islamism in the Middle East or the moribund peace process with the Palestinians occupy on the national agenda of the State of Israel, so, too, should the subject of electoral reform.
If the State of Israel is to be eternally for the citizens of Israel and for the people of Israel, the government of Israel must set to this task as a matter of the highest national priority. — MBD