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Religious Tensions in Israel

I have found the whirlwind of controversy surrounding Tim Tebow fascinating. He has become a lightning rod for the growing tensions between Christian culture and secular culture we have witnessed over the last few years in America. The fact that he is so polarizing says much about the climate of our culture.

My daughter brought to my attention an editorial that appeared in the Jerusalem Post over the weekend. The author explores the kinds of tensions that could manifest themselves in Israeli culture if they were to experience a phenomenon like the Tebow episode. The editorial can be found at http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?ID=253759&R=R1.

You may find some background to the editorial helpful. Modern Israeli society is about half secular Jews and half religious Jews. The Modern Orthodox make up the largest group of religious Jews. They are believing, observant Jews, but they interpret the laws less stringently than do most other orthodox groups. They are staunch Zionists and therefore have a disproportionately large presence in the military and the government.

Despite being fewer in number than the Modern Orthodox, the Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi Jews) are a very influential part of Israeli society. They make up less than a sixth of the population. Most of them live in a handful of enclaves in Jerusalem. Most do not participate in or even support the government (many are indifferent to the existence and survival of the state of Israel), most do not serve in the military, most of the men do not work (they receive a small stipend from the state for studying the Torah), and they have many children (so many of them live very modestly, if not in poverty). But many Jews, especially the Modern Orthodox, have great respect for the Haredi Jews’ level of commitment to their beliefs. So despite their lack of public involvement, the Haredim have a very strong voice in the affairs of state.

Over the last month or so, there has been renewed tension between the Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox Jews) and the rest of Israeli society. I have been tracking the unfolding of events by reading the Jerusalem Post. Here is my recounting of what has been happening. It all started when a group of adult Haredim stood outside a grade school located in one of their sections of Jerusalem and jeered and spit on young girls arriving at school dressed in a way that did not meet their standards of modesty. This traumatized the young girls (about 8 years old, as I recall) and was widely publicized in the Israeli media. At about the same time, a Haredi man was arrested for throwing rocks through the window of a bookstore (located in a Haredi area) that was selling books that the Haredim consider inappropriate (I don’t remember what they were). Soon after, there was an incident in which some Haredi men on a bus in a Haredi area insisted that a woman on the bus, who had taken a seat at the front of the bus, move to the back, in keeping with the Haredi value of separation between men and women in public places.

These incidents provoked a flood of negative responses from the rest of Israeli society. Many Israelis saw this as another indication of the Haredi Jews’ commitment to forcing all Israelis to conform to Haredi religious scruples. The outrage expressed by the Israeli public was, at least in part, fueled by considerable bitterness toward the Haredim for the fact that they benefit greatly from the state but contribute little toward Israeli society. So the negative response was quite strong and widespread.

The Haredim responded to this backlash by staging a demonstration in which they dressed in clothes like those issued in Auschwitz and wore yellow stars with the word “Jude.” They claimed that the press and Israeli society were treating them like the Nazis had done.

Some secular Israeli women struck back by organizing a flash mob in a Haredi area. About 250 women did a dance performance in the streets. This was particularly provocative since Haredi men are prohibited from seeing women dance and hearing women sing.

I have not seen any more recent developments, but editorial content suggests that tensions continue to be very high. This is the context in which the editorial writer is making his observations.

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