For progressive Jews living in Israel, it’s getting harder and harder to relate to the ultra-Orthodox. Is Benjamin Netanyahu to blame?
It’s not easy being a progressive Jew living in Jerusalem, my adopted home since making aliyah in 1979. Recent encounters have given me cause for renewed reflection and concern about my place in this complex city.
Being involved with my children’s education, I joined a group of parents at a meeting with a senior municipal official highly placed in that field. During our conversation, we learned that one-third of all students entering primary school in Jerusalem today are Arabs, a second group are ultra-Orthodox haredim, and the third is modern Orthodox or secular. Roughly speaking, only one child out of six entering the city’s school system is a non-Orthodox Jew.
Several weeks ago, that troubling statistic was poignantly brought home for me. My sister and I have five children between us – three girls, two boys. We have a tradition of accompanying those kids on their Israel Defence Forces (IDF) induction day into military service. In Jerusalem, that induction occurs at Ammunition Hill, the site of a particularly difficult Six Day War battle between IDF paratroopers and Jordanian Legionnaires. Our three daughters were the first to be enlisted. This time round, it was my nephew Carmel’s turn. The girls have all had significant experiences during their years of military service, but Carmel is joining the Nahal infantry brigade and his parents’ worries are already strikingly different.
Travelling to Ammunition Hill that morning, I drove through Ramat Eshkol, one of Jerusalem’s northern neighbourhoods. I lived there as a student in the ’80s, but in the decades since, it has become increasingly haredi. As I made my way through the neighbourhood, I was struck by the notion that almost none of the young men walking contentedly on the sidewalks of Ramat Eshkol would be joining Carmel in the IDF. The contrast was as stark as the black and white those young men were wearing.
In mid-August, Naomi, my oldest, completed her IDF service. While enjoying a well-deserved furlough before doing so, she spent a day shopping and at the beach with friends in Tel Aviv. After getting a lift part way home, she boarded the first late-evening bus heading to Jerusalem, from a junction just outside the city of Modiin. Unbeknownst to her, it had originated in the haredi town of Kiryat Sefer, headed to another of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods not far from the central bus station. Taking a seat and relishing the thoughts of her day of sun and fun, Naomi noticed people around her quickly moving away. In her ankle-length, sleeveless dress, she was not considered worthy of her fellow travellers. Adding insult to injury, after she got off, several men hurled vociferous Yiddish insults at her as she walked on a main thoroughfare leading to the bus station.
When we collected her as she got off the light-rail at Mt. Herzl, a teary-eyed Naomi talked of her infuriation and frustration. How dare these people, her fellow Jerusalemites, treat a young woman who has fulfilled her most important civic duty so disrespectfully? The distance that day between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem was much more than physical for her, and the incident raised questions about her place in this city.
And early in the morning on the first day of the Jewish month of Av, I joined a group of 15, perhaps 20, Reform and Conservative men gathered at the Kotel for Shacharit, morning prayers, to show support for roughly 100 Women of the Wall holding their monthly Rosh Chodesh services in the women’s section of the Western Wall. I’ve done this at least a half-dozen times in the past. Men pray together above the women’s section, able to view them as they lead the prayers. I’ve come to expect haredim to try to disturb this monthly ritual, attempting to drown out our prayers with shouts and screeching whistles, sometimes with their own prayers. Haredi women hurling insults at the women in their section. Men screaming at us.
This Rosh Chodesh felt different. It was more violent, verging on dangerous. We men were cordoned off by a group of the Kotel’s own security contingent, supported by special police forces. We were surrounded by some 200 young haredim, 15 to 25 years old. Their hatred was palpable. Their insults were hateful: “Reform Jews are Christians”; “Reform Jews are worse than ISIS”; “Worse than Nazis”; “Because of Reform Jews, six million died in the Holocaust” – these were but a few. Water was thrown at us, high-pitched whistles blown in our ears. They tried closing in on our group. At times during the morning, I looked back at them. Their eyes were filled with genuine loathing.
One repeatedly screamed at me, demanding I get my impure eyes off of him. Prayers ended with Hatikvah, while the din continued. As we disbanded, I found myself surrounded by 20 or so of these young men, who were screeching. I don’t remember what they said, my ears ringing from the whistles. I stood my ground. Some of the boys among them tried kicking me through the legs of those next to me. A couple succeeded. Nothing serious, but I broke off and approached a police officer standing a few metres away. I asked him to do something. He didn’t budge. As I walked away, another young man ran up to me, taunting me that I needed police protection. “Wait,” he said, “we’ll rip you apart when you get out of the square.”
These events don’t exist in a vacuum. In the current political environment, haredim are on their high horse. Their votes needed for his coalition, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet have recently rolled back decisions meant to bring the haredi community into the 21st century, to help better integrate them into Israeli society and to ensure that all Jews, in this country and around the globe, feel Israel is truly their home, without regard to the religious stream or denomination they affiliate with, if at all.
Early in August, the government revoked legislation requiring haredi schools to provide their students with 10 to 11 hours weekly of basic general studies (English, math, science) or risk losing their government funding.
Similarly, late last year, the government postponed, from 2017 to 2020 the implementation of a law requiring obligatory IDF enlistment for all full-time yeshiva students, and gave the defence minister sweeping authority to exempt these students from military or civil service.
And if that isn’t enough, on Aug. 9, we learned from documents submitted by the state to the Supreme Court that this year, government funding of haredi educational institutions for students over 18 will reach an all-time high of 1.119 billion shekels ($385.3 million Cdn).
In late January, progressive Jews the world over celebrated a historic cabinet decision to upgrade a southern section of the Western Wall, to be used for egalitarian prayer. While it was a compromise far from what the Reform and Conservative movements had initially demanded, the decision promised to properly budget the project and stipulated that those movements would be part of a government-sanctioned authority that would oversee administration of the upgraded section of the Wall.
Less than two months later, Netanyahu backtracked. Buckling under haredi pressure, he announced that while he is still committed to an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, there was a need to revisit his government’s previous decisions on the matter.
He tasked his bureau secretary with reaching a new arrangement within 60 days. Those 60 days have been followed by another 60 days, and no substantive progress has been made on the matter. Don’t hold your breath. Netanyahu will bury the initiative unless forced to do otherwise.
Our Supreme Court continues to be a beacon of hope for Israeli society. Municipal religious councils, managed by the Orthodox and haredi establishment and funded by government budgets, provide religious services to the public at large. Those services include operating public mikvahs – ritual baths. In February, after a decade-long legal battle, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark decision mandating that those public bathhouses must be opened to Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism.
It won’t surprise you to learn that less than six months later, that decision was overturned. In late July, the Knesset passed new legislation – initiated by haredi MKs and supported by all factions in Netanyahu’s government. It authorizes local religious councils around the country to prohibit the use of public mikvahs by Reform and Conservative converts.
In the latest twist in this theatre of the absurd, in early August it became known the state was earmarking funds to build separate mikvahs for progressive Jews. Haredi legislators reacted quickly, vowing to use their current political brawn to ensure no such structures are erected.
In August, we also learned that the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs will spend 80 million shekels (about $27.5 million)to participate in a program aimed at better connecting Jewish students on campuses around the globe to Israel and strengthening their Jewish identity. Three organizations were picked to carry out this task. The first, Hillel, isn’t officially affiliated with any of the Jewish religious streams, but Chabad and Olami, two Orthodox outreach organizations, were also chosen.
North American Reform and Conservative leaders criticized the initiative, labelling it both worrisome and dangerous. Their movements were not even asked to present their own campus programs to those who decided on this project, one that will soon to be directing tens of millions of shekels to groups representing only a small segment of American Jewry. This lack of proportion only added to the perception that Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Ministry is exporting Israeli societal distortions to Jewish communities abroad.
These examples might be exhausting and exasperating. They’re certainly not exhaustive.
I know the haredi community is not monolithic. Also, there are authentic rays of light shining from within the haredi community. The numbers of haredi IDF enlistees continue to rise (although it’s dwarfed by the numbers of haredim who continue to receive exemptions). I know that despite the new legislation, some haredi rabbis, educators and parents are encouraging educational institutions within their community to provide core curriculum studies, understanding that these are the gateway to better jobs and opportunities for their students and children. I know that haredi social workers and psychologists are aiding people within their communities who suffer from emotional problems. Beginning in September, for example, 24 haredi professionals will begin a course aimed at training them to deal with sexual abuse of children within their community.
Those are promising signs, but they are overshadowed by the haredi establishment and many of its rabbis who are fearful that the light might penetrate their communities and expose their flock to the world outside.
And Netanyahu, being a savvy politician, is more concerned with his political survival than with leaving a lasting legacy. Thus his continued capitulation to the haredim. In doing so, he ferments alienation among millions of Jews worldwide. Jews troubled with Israel’s policies in many areas, but who want to believe his statements in English at American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly conferences, saying that Israel is a home for all of them. Only then they learn that when he speaks back home in Hebrew, his message is different, often diametrically opposed.
Netanyahu is smart. Very smart. He must understand he’s taking a huge strategic risk. He is wrong if he believes all Jews will continue to support Israel come what may, when doubletalk and religious disenfranchisement of many of them create growing alienation and apathy toward Israel.
And by the way, despite the incidents mentioned above, I’ll continue to stand my ground. I have no plans of leaving Jerusalem. I love the beauty, the complexity, the weather and the struggle. I’m not going anywhere.