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Alarm Bells in Israel

Longstanding tensions between Israel’s secular and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities have now erupted in an outbreak of vandalism and desecration, and some political commentators have begun to raise the specter of civil war. This undoubtedly overstates the intensity that the hostilities are likely to assume, but, given the delicate balance of Israel’s internal politics, what has been happening is alarming enough. Efforts are under way to damp down the crisis, and probably a truce of sorts will emerge. But the deep underlying causes of this latest demonstration of social cleavage are certain to remain.

The immediate problem began when bus stops carrying advertisements of women in bathing suits were defaced and burned, apparently by ultra-Orthodox Jews whose religious sensibilities are offended by the sight of partially clothed women. This led in turn to the desecration of a number of religious institutions, presumably by secularists who object to the power that the Orthodox wield in domestic affairs.

The larger issue goes back to the foundation of Israel in 1948, when agreement was reached not to disturb the status quo that had governed religious and secular rights in the pre-state era. The ultra-Orthodox make up no more than 10% of Israel’s Jewish population. Perhaps another 15% considers itself observant. But Israel’s unrepresentative electoral system gives religious parties disproportionate political weight at the national level. It has never been possible to form a government without one or more of these parties’ participation. This has given the religious constituency what secularists see as undue political rewards and influence.

Thus the government, however budgetarily strapped it may be, heavily subsidizes Orthodox religious educational institutions. Thus at the insistence of the Orthodox, El Al, the national airline, is not allowed to fly on the Sabbath and so loses considerable revenues. Thus nearly all major hotels in Israel are required to serve only kosher food, whatever the preferences of many of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who annually provide Israel with vital foreign exchange. Thus the only marriages recognized as valid in Israel are those performed according to Orthodox ritual.

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The dispute between the theocratically minded and those who believe that excessive clerical influence is antithetical to the ideal of a humanistic society is likely to go on indefinitely. The power wielded by the Orthodox in Israeli life is likely to go on so long as a political system is maintained that gives them weight beyond their numbers. Finding a consensus to change Israel’s political structure seems a near-impossibility. This probably means that the prominence of the Orthodox in Israeli life will also go on indefinitely.


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