Ultra-Orthodox Jews challenge secular order

Sat, Dec 31, 2011, 00:00

WORLD VIEW:The sight of a girl being spat at and insulted on her way to school has shocked Israeli society

“Women are requested to move to the sidewalk across the street, not to pass near the synagogues, and certainly not to loiter on this sidewalk, which serves the synagogue-goers.”

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Eight-year-old Na’ama Margolese on Thursday walked safely the few hundred metres to school with her mother. Under the watchful eyes of police this time, she was greeted at the school gates by minister for education Gideon Sa’ar .

Last Friday Na’ama’s tearful description on Channel 2 (see the Israeli website +972) of her daily walk to school through a barrage of spitting and insults by ultra-Orthodox protesters had echoes of the Holy Cross school dispute in Ardoyne in 2001. It shocked a country already angered by a series of incidents of growing encroachment of religious zealotry into the public sphere more like Iran.

On Tuesday thousands rallied near the school to what President Shimon Peres called a fight “for the soul of the nation and the essence of the state”.

Na’ama, the daughter of US immigrants who are observant Orthodox Jews, lives in Beit Shemesh, a town of 86,000 southwest of Jerusalem with a substantial and growing ultra-Orthodox population. Her school is at the interface between their tight-knit enclave and the wider community, and the daily walk had become an ordeal as black-robed fundamentalists spat on her, insulted her and called her a prostitute because her modest dress did not adhere exactly to their dress code.

Nearby the town municipality removed signs indicating which pavement was to be used by women and girls, only to be replaced immediately by Haredim, determined to enforce religious prohibition on mingling of sexes.

The Beit Shemesh clashes come in the wake of a very public walkout by ultra-Orthodox officer cadets from an army concert in protest at having to hear fellow women cadets sing. The soldiers, now suspended, accept a strict interpretation of the injunction “kol b’isha erva”, “the voice of a woman is like nakedness”.

And police have recently been called to an incident when a young woman refused to move to the back of a bus at the request of zealots trying to enforce segregation of public transport.

Once a tiny minority, the ultra-Orthodox community today accounts for some 10 per cent of the Israeli adult population and is forecast to double every 16 years. In Jerusalem more than half the Jewish children attending primary school hail from it.

The coercion in Beit Shemesh is attributed mainly to a group of several hundred militants who moved from Jerusalem, known as the Sicarii, or daggermen, named after a violent faction who tried to expel the Romans in the decades before the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70.

Although they represent only perhaps a tenth of the ultra- Orthodox, their activities have brought a new focus on the community and its increasingly resented privileges in an Israeli society that is in majority mainstream observing or secular .

The ultra-Orthodox, whose rabbis seem immune from the law and whose party Shas is a key part of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coalition, have their own state-funded schools, and those studying in a yeshiva, or seminary, are exempt from compulsory military service. Almost two-thirds of ultra-Orthodox men do not work, and as they believe in a religious obligation to have large families, a rapidly increasing share of the population depends on welfare.

The importance of Shas to the coalition majority makes ending their privileges impossible. Netanyahu’s unwillingness to confront the Beit Shemesh militants is in marked contrast, many commentators complain, to his willingness not only to tolerate ultra-Orthodox practices but to place rabbis in sensitive posts in education and the state.

But the community as a whole, Avirama Golan warns in the liberal paper Haaretz, is in danger of becoming “expedient targets” for the media. The real target should be Netanyahu, she says. His “clear choice of an extreme-right, religious-Haredi coalition, and his determination to continue the devil’s deal between Likud, which purports to represent liberal-right values, and the Haredi parties, which represent reactionary values . . , is one reason for the current unrest.

“Those who strengthen the hand of the Haredi religious-Zionist rabbis, giving them senior positions in the education system, and who are lenient with mosque-burning criminals, reap the whirlwind. The whirlwind’s main victims are the silent majority of the religious population, but it sweeps all of Israeli society along with it.”

The delicate implied contract that has so far reconciled Israel’s diverse Jewish communities to the Jewish state and, for a majority, to the Zionist project, has given the country its powerful sense of common purpose. But it is showing signs of unravelling.

The ultra-Orthodox are carving out their own state within a state, its rules encroaching gradually on the secular order. Militant settlers are more willing to take on the army. And this summer the young in their thousands joined the international “Occupy” wave to wring concessions on housing from the government.

Israel’s increased political isolation in the wake of the Arab Spring is being paralleled internally by signs of social fragmentation of a society increasingly uneasy with its sense of self.