The West Bank in Israel

2 Comments

Historian Gershom Gorenberg, in his book “The Unmaking of Israel,” devotes an entire chapter making the case that the ideology and practices of radical Jewish settlers and the government in the West Bank are spreading into Israel proper within the Green Line (the border before the 1967 Six-Day War). In this post I want to explore whether developments confirm this thesis, which, if true, has far-reaching implications for the country and its democratic future.

As an aside, Gorenberg’s book, published last fall, is one of the most important and engrossing books about Israel of the past year. It reads like a novel but is chock-full of in-depth research. As an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem, he is disturbed by what he sees as the destruction of the core values of Israel and Judaism. If someone like Gorenberg is so concerned, it behooves those on both the left and the right to pay close attention and to take a look at his book.

But let me return to the question of whether the right-wing West Bank ideology is spreading into Israel proper in a significant way. There are two minority groups in Israel that we can view as test cases of this.

Minority Group 1: The Bedouin in the Negev

The first group to consider are Israeli citizens in the Negev who happen to be Bedouin. Loyal to the state and often serving in the Israeli army, many have been forced off their ancestral lands and moved to crime-ridden and poverty-stricken towns. Since they could no longer practice their traditional lifestyle, the social fabric that kept their communities together unraveled.

Today, the government is implementing the Prawer Plan that will force another 30,000 of these Israeli citizens off their lands and into the townships, making way for Jewish National Fund (JNF) forests and Jewish-only settlements. The Bedouin have begun fighting back for their very lives. On March 15 I posted a column on how one such village, Al-Araqeeb, has become a symbol of resistance after being demolished repeatedly by the army and police. A few residents are still clinging to their land and now live among the headstones in the village cemetery, in the hope that the government won’t trespass on sacred ground.

A row of tiny saplings planted by the JNF to create forests on Bedouin land

The rationale for the Prawer Plan is a fear that demographic trends will lead to Jews becoming a minority in the Negev. In 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu, while speaking about the Bedouin situation, issued this warning:

…a situation in which a demand for national rights will be made from some quarters inside Israel, for example in the Negev, should the area be left without a Jewish majority. Such things happened in the Balkans, and it is a real threat.

So the fear is of a threat of secession and civil war if Jews do not retain majority control in every geographic area of Israel. Disregarding for now whether this is a valid concern, in order to accomplish this goal Israel is using strategies that destroy the core foundations of a democracy wherein all citizens have equal rights.

The government has been using tactics that it refined in the West Bank to take over the Bedouin lands: unjust and twisted laws enabling the expropriation of property at the expense of one group to benefit another group, ignoring centuries-old tribal practices for recognizing land ownership that were accepted by the Ottoman and British authorities before 1948, accusing subgroups of being a threat, making life unbearable for residents so that they will voluntarily move, and horrific home demolition practices that impoverish families and force them out. As I wrote on March 15, the greatest irony was when a young Bedouin “who had served in the Israeli army, received his order to appear for his annual reserve duty on the same day he received from the government a demolition notice for his home. No firm date is given with these notices. The bulldozer will simply show up one day at this soldier’s door.”

Demolition of a building at Al-Araqeeb on July 27, 2010

Some have labeled the Bedouin situation in the Negev the “West Bank in Israel,” warning that embittered young Bedouins are becoming radicalized. Netanyahu may be fearful of a Balkans-type situation, but he is doing a good job recreating it with his repressive policies and xenophobic comments.

Even if Netanyahu’s fear is valid, the Bedouin villages threatened with destruction account for only 5 percent of the land in the Negev. There is plenty of other land available for Jewish towns in the wide-open expanses of the desert, and there is no need for the JNF to destroy the way of life of 30,000 Israeli citizens for some additional dunams of forest. This makes no sense unless it is viewed through the prism of the ideology of the West Bank settlement enterprise, where there are similar objectives of building Jewish settlements while forcing the local population out. This brings into focus Gorenberg’s thesis.

A demolished Al-Araqeeb house

Minority Group #2: African Refugees

There are approximately 50,000-60,000 African refugees in Israel today, mainly clustered in the poorer sections of Tel Aviv and Eilat. Most entered Israel illegally, and the numbers crossing the border have increased dramatically. Many, if not most, are asylum seekers fleeing war, torture, rape, and genocide. This is a complex subject with no easy answers, but the government’s repressive policies are deplorable, especially given the Jewish history of fleeing persecution.

Homeless African refugees sleeping in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv

For months, while Nicholas Kristof has been writing columns in The New York Times about the Sudanese government bombing villages in the Nuba Mountains and the resulting mass starvation (a replay of Darfur),  Prime Minister Netanyahu and other government ministers have been accusing these same Africans, who are fleeing for their lives, of being migrant workers and an existential threat to the Jewish state. This culminated several weeks ago with a race riot in south Tel Aviv where refugees were attacked on the street and shops were destroyed by a violent mob of hundreds. The mayhem occurred immediately after Knesset members inflamed a crowd of 1,000 at an anti-African rally. This is how I described it in a blog post on May 25:

Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Danny Danon from the Likud shouted: “The infiltrators must be expelled from Israel! Expulsion now!” Miri Regev from the Likud declared, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” Michael Ben Ari from the far-right National Union party exclaimed “There are rapists and harassers here. The time for talk is over.”

The violence was preceded by weeks of incitement from Government ministers. Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been making headlines almost every day with statements such as “We must put all these infiltrators behind bars in detention and holding centers, then send them home.” Deputy Knesset Speaker Danon wrote on Facebook that “Israel is at war” and the “Infiltrators are a national plague.” As Peter Beinart wrote in a column yesterday, “A reviled, powerless minority discussed in the language of war and disease? Where have my Jewish ears heard that before?”

Not much has changed since the riot. Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who heads the Interior Ministry that is responsible for immigration, has said that most Africans are engaged in criminal activity and few deserve asylum. On May 31st in an over-the-top interview in Maariv, he went further and claimed that many Israeli women have been raped by Africans but “do not complain out of fear of being stigmatized as having contracted AIDS.” Last week’s newspaper headlines blared “Prime Minister: 25,000 illegal African migrants should be deported as soon as possible.”

Unfortunately, this rhetoric is not new. In a post on March 10 I described how the Netanyahu government has been demonizing the refugees for several years, alleging that the influx of African refugees is a demographic threat to the existence of a Jewish state and defining them as labor migrants or infiltrators (a term previously used only for terrorists). This terminology has been picked up by the media, creating a sense of hysteria over the threat posed by these helpless people.

Given Interior Minister Yishai’s attitudes, it is not surprising that the government has set up an ineffective system to screen refugees (PDF) for valid asylum claims. For example, those fleeing from the Sudan and Eritrea (an extremely repressive government that is ranked below North Korea on some measures), who make up 85% of refugees entering Israel today, are not allowed to apply for asylum. In contrast, 97% and 99% of Eritrean refugees are granted asylum in the United States and Canada, respectively. Africans from other war-torn and repressive countries can apply, but as I wrote in a March 4 column describing Israel’s flawed asylum procedures, in 2008 and 2009, of the 3,200 asylum applications submitted, only three were approved. In 2011, the results were even worse: 3,692 asylum applications were rejected and only one was approved. (NOTE: These statistics also included some asylum applications from non-African nationalities.)

The government’s response to the refugee challenge is to build massive prisons in the Negev desert where new refugees – men, women and children — will be incarcerated for up to three years. Last week saw the announcement of plans for additional facilities that will include tent prisons, where tens of thousands will be incarcerated. This week, a new bill backed by the government was discussed in the Knesset that would impose five-year prison terms on anyone employing, transporting, or providing housing to refugees. If Israel begins forcibly repatriating refugees to their repressive home countries, as Netanyahu has threatened, many will face prison, torture, or death.

The government could choose a more humane approach that is consistent with the 1951 United Nations Convention dealing with refugees, which the first government of Israel helped develop as a result of the Holocaust. There are alternative policy choices that could be made, but instead the government has chosen repression and incitement while ignoring traditional Jewish humanitarian values. For some perspective, it is interesting to read two recent op-ed columns by Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz and Rabbi Donniel Hartman.

(Full disclosure: I have a personal interest in this brewing humanitarian crisis. This past winter I helped organize a breakfast program for refugees in Tel Aviv to provide a morning meal to those who would otherwise go hungry all day. In three months we have served over 30,000 meals. The Good People Fund, an American non-profit that raises money to relieve hunger, poverty and human suffering in Israel and America, has funded this program and continues to solicit donations to keep it going. An article describing the breakfast project in this past weekend’s New Jersey Jewish Standard quoted Naomi Eisenberger, Executive Director of the Good People Fund: “We’re doing this on a month-to-month basis, as long as our funds hold out. Our attitude is that we have to leave politics aside. These are hungry people and they’re totally and completely helpless. Someone has to feed them. You can’t let them starve in the middle of Tel Aviv.”)

Breakfast being served to refugees in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park. The US-based Good People Fund (www.goodpeoplefund.org) is raising money to serve this meal on a daily basis.

The West Bank in Israel

So how do the Bedouin and the African refugee situations exemplify Gorenberg’s thesis about the West Bank ideology penetrating Israel within the Green Line? The incitement against these two groups comes from the same desire – for many a religious mandate – for Jews to redeem the entire Land of Israel and ensure Jewish majority control. In the process, the rights of non-Jewish minorities are considered less important and inevitably leads to abuse. As Gorenberg details in his book, many yeshivot now teach that the commandment to settle the land takes priority over other ethical and moral commandments in Judaism.

One very public example of this occurred before the 2009 invasion of Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) when the Army’s chief rabbi distributed a booklet to soldiers that included the following:

We are commanded by the Torah to build our state in it [the Land of Israel] and forbidden by the Torah to give up even one millimeter of it to the Gentiles, in the form of any kind of impure and foolish distortions about autonomy, enclave or any other national weaknesses. We shall not leave it under the control of another people, not even one finger of it, not even a piece of a fingernail.

The booklet goes on describe the Palestinians as being identical to the ancient Philistine enemy, and exhorts soldiers to show no mercy toward militants and civilians alike.

Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights NGO, wrote in a letter at the time to the Defense Minister that the booklet “contradicts the basic principles of the laws of war…and also contradicts the principles of Jewish morality in the name of which the Chief Military Rabbi is supposedly speaking.” Gorenberg, commenting on this and related episodes, wrote that Army Chief Rabbi Avihai Ronski, who founded a yeshiva in an illegal settlement, was “legitimizing the religious right’s anti-humanistic attitudes and its claim to be the voice of Judaism.”

Many claim that the treatment of the Bedouin and the refugees is simply racism. Even Jews from Ethiopia, who are black, have experienced serious discrimination in Israel based on their color – and as described in this article, some are struggling with their identity because of the Tel Aviv race riot.

However, I think it is more complicated than that. Professor Shaul Magid, who writes a blog on The Times of Israel, has a more insightful perspective now that Jews find themselves as a majority ruling a country:

Some have written that the attacks against migrants in south Tel Aviv are an example of racism. While racism exists in Israel as it exists everywhere, I am not convinced this is the root of the problem. The problem, as I see it, is “otherness.” More precisely, how does an oppressed people became a true majority and refashion its identity so that otherness is not by definition a threat? In this sense, the Arabs have made it too easy for the Jews in Israel to be a majority and yet not identify as such. Holocaust imagery is still used to justify Israel’s behavior, as if a country with one of the most powerful militaries in the world and the backing of the only true superpower can be equated with the emaciated living corpses of Auschwitz. The comparison is nothing less than grotesque. It is arguably the case that the victim has no ethical obligation other than to survive. But the majority is not the victim, at least not in that way. This is not to say that majorities can’t be threatened. They surely can. But majorities, unlike besieged victims, do have ethical obligations toward minorities in their midst.

What I am suggesting is that the mentality of the victim — the identity of the besieged minority — still functions as a pillar of Israeli self-fashioning, and this, I believe, underlies the tragic episode of the migrants. The “other,” any “other,” is a threat by definition, even when she is basically powerless…. what a majority produces when it identifies and acts as a victimized minority is tyranny.

I agree with Magid’s assessment – and this applies as well to the Palestinians. For 45 years they have lived under an occupation that includes policies — practiced on a mass scale — of home demolitions, property theft, economic deprivation, and incarceration without any semblance of due process. I am not referring to policies instituted for security purposes, which are valid, but rather policies that have no reason other than “redeeming the land” and forcing Palestinians out. These practices mostly occur under the radar and are rarely, if ever, covered in the overseas Jewish press. The same goes for the non-security-related violence that is endemic to the occupation – and is rapidly increasing – and the day-to-day harassment and intimidation that occurs.

And now these policies, and the ideology behind them, are being applied to the Bedouin and the refugees, in different ways for each group. The difference between the West Bank and Israel within the Green Line is indeed getting blurry.

Interestingly, Gershom Gorenberg hardly deals with the abusive aspects of the occupation in his book. Rather, he concentrates on the establishment and spread of ideology. One example he uses is right-wing West Bank settlers who are purposefully settling in mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel, bringing their ideology with them and creating conflict in areas where formerly co-existence reigned. His thesis is that this will spread to other segments of Israeli society, which it seems is already occurring.

In summation, Gorenberg uses the following allegory to describe what is happening to the country he loves:

In “God of Vengeance,” Sholom Asch’s classic Yiddish play, a character in an unnamed Eastern European town a century ago runs a brothel in his basement while trying to bring up his daughter as a chaste Jewish girl on the floor above. To protect her purity, he places a Torah scroll in his home. He has a matchmaker find a pious groom for her. His plan fails. A wooden floor cannot keep the two realms of his life apart. Reverence for a sacred scroll cannot ward off corruption when people ignore the words written on it.

Let us read Asch’s drama as an allegory for what happens when a fragile democracy tries to maintain an undemocratic regime next door in occupied territory. A border, especially one not even shown on maps, cannot seal off the rot. Nor can politicians’ declarations of reverence for liberal values.

In recent years, the corrosive effects of the occupation on Israel have been glaring, especially the vocal, shameless efforts of the political right to treat Israeli Arabs as enemies of the state rather than as fellow citizens…. Unchecked, the offensive against democracy has grown wider. The political right uses charges of treason to attack critics of policy in the occupied territories, and seeks legislation to curb dissent and the rights of Arab citizens and to bypass the Supreme Court.

And finally, Gorenberg quotes philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who in 1967 joined a small chorus of prophetic voices, including David Ben Gurion’s, that warned of the grave dangers the occupation posed to Israeli society.

Only months after Israel conquered the West Bank, philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned that continuing the occupation would “undermine the social structure we have created and cause the corruption of individuals, both Jew and Arab.” Leibowitz’s warning has proved all too prophetic.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel

The Negev: A Bedouin Village versus a JNF Forest

Leave a comment

There was a clear blue sky after many days of rain when we drove to Al-Arakib near Be’er Sheva down in the Negev. The air was cool but the sun was strong. All around us the desert was in bloom as we turned onto the dirt road, passed a small cemetery on the left and pulled up before a large three-sided Bedouin tent. In the distance I could see groves of trees on higher ground. But the surroundings around the tent were barren, just sandy ground and rocks. I was soon to find out why.

To read the rest of this post, go to http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-negev-a-bedouin-village-versus-a-jnf-forest

A Tale of Two Cities

Leave a comment

“The day Jerusalem was liberated was the day that the city heaved a sigh of relief and began to spread its wings, for the benefit of its Arab and Jewish residents alike….We will never again allow Jerusalem to become a separated, bleak and divided city.“ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

When Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke those words at the Jerusalem Day ceremony in 2010, he was already too late. Unbeknownst to his audience, Jerusalem had already become bleak and divided.

This is a tale of two cities, one rich with parks, well cared for neighborhoods and tourist attractions; the other impoverished and deprived of even basic services. And as for a united Jerusalem spreading its wings for the good of Jews and Arabs alike, well, you decide below on the efficacy of that claim.

As background, as I covered in a post on January 16, A Virtual Tour of East Jerusalem (I urge you to “take the tour” if you haven’t done so already), Israel annexed in 1967 all of what had been East Jerusalem plus 28 nearby villages and incorporated them into the municipality of Jerusalem.

Fast Forward to 2012:

Let’s see how the Palestinian population has fared 45 years later when compared to Jewish West Jerusalem.

Population: There are 303,000 Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem, one-third of the population, out of a total of 835,000 people in the Jerusalem municipality (2009 data).

Poverty: 65% of Palestinian families live under the poverty line as compared to 31% of Jewish families. (This is 2008 data. Economic conditions in East Jerusalem have gotten much worse since then so these figures have deteriorated further.)

Children:  74% of Palestinian children live under the poverty line compared to 45% of Jewish children. (Also 2008 data)

Schools: Average class size is 32 students in East Jerusalem versus 24 students in West Jerusalem. School buildings are neglected, often run down. The Jerusalem municipality’s own statistics listed 50% of East Jerusalem’s classrooms to be sub-standard in 2009 (704 out of 1,360) including 221 that were deemed unfit.

In addition, due to an estimated shortage of 1,000 classrooms in the municipal schools there, an estimated 11,000 Palestinian children (12% of school age children) did not attend school for the 2009-2010 school year due to lack of space. Tens of thousands of others were forced to attend private schools, which posed a severe financial burden on the mostly impoverished population. In 2008, the per-student budget allocation for elementary school children in Jewish West Jerusalem was 400% higher that in East Jerusalem: 2,372 NIS (New Israel Shekels) per Jewish student versus 577 NIS per Palestinian student.

Given all of this, it is not surprising that there is a 50% drop out rate for Palestinian children compared to 7.4% in the Jewish sector.

Several recent court rulings have ordered the Jerusalem municipality to build more classrooms and to increase the East Jerusalem school budget. How these rulings will be implemented is a question that will unfold over time.

Pre-school: There are roughly 15,000 three and four year olds in East Jerusalem. Despite the importance of early education on child development, 90% of them are not enrolled in a pre-school educational program. This is not for a lack of interest. There are only 2 municipal pre-schools in East Jerusalem compared to 56 in West Jerusalem.

Land: One-third of the land in East Jerusalem has been expropriated by the Israeli government from Arab owners since 1967.

Housing: As of 5 years ago, over 50,000 housing units for Jewish residents has been built on this expropriated land. That number is larger today. No housing has been built for Palestinian residents.

Housing density for existing homes in East Jerusalem is almost double what it is for Jewish residents: on average, 1.9 people per room versus 1 person per room. It is nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits to construct new houses or to repair existing ones due to discriminatory policies. The result is massive illegal construction without safety inspections and the constant threat of demolition by the government.

View of East Jerusalem neighborhood

Municipal Services: There are minimal municipal services provided to East Jerusalem residents. A simple walk through neighborhoods will reveal decrepit roads and sidewalks, and few public parks or playgrounds. Hundreds of streets are not provided with trash collection services that results in trash piling up everywhere.

Street scene in East Jerusalem

Water connections: 160,000 Palestinian residents, over half the population, have no legal connection to the water network. Either they jury-rig connections to the water mains or they use stored water in containers.

Sewage: Estimates state that East Jerusalem is in need of 50 kilometers of new main sewage lines. Entire neighborhoods still use cesspools, not ideal for densely packed urban neighborhoods, and existing sewage facilities are antiquated and poorly maintained. It is not unusual for sewers to overflow and for sewage water to run above ground close to homes.

NOTE: These last few items pose a risk to public health from infectious disease but they continue to be ignored by municipal authorities.

Postal service: 10 post offices serve Palestinian areas compared to 42 in West Jerusalem. Mail delivery is only partial and sporadic making commerce more difficult.

In addition, Palestinian residents face the ongoing menace of home demolitions and eviction, especially in the neighborhoods directly abutting the Old City where the government works closely with several ideological NGOs to evict Palestinians and replace them with Jewish settlers (For details, see my posts of January 2 and January 10).

Home in East Jerusalem shortly after being demolished. Note pile of rubble in the background.

The construction of the Separation Wall, as noted in previous posts, has disrupted the flow of commerce by severing neighborhood from neighborhood and all of East Jerusalem from the nearby commercial centers of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the rest of the West Bank. This has caused massive economic dislocation and impoverishment.

Separation wall in Jerusalem. Note how it splits this neighborhood in two, severing all connections.

The data above is just a sampling of the comparisons between Palestinian East Jerusalem and Jewish West Jerusalem. For those interested in more details, you can read a full report that was produced by The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an organization that fights for the rights of all Israelis. (For more details, see http://www.scribd.com/doc/31806771/Report-May10-ACRI-Human-Rights-in-East-Jerusalem-Facts-and-Figures Scroll down to page 38 for English). A preface to the report sums it up as follows:

“Israel’s policy for the past four decades has taken concrete form as discrimination in planning and construction, expropriation of land, and minimal investment in physical infrastructure and government and municipal services. As a result, East Jerusalem residents suffer severe distress, and their conditions are worsening.”

“Life in East Jerusalem can be described as a continuing cycle of neglect, discrimination, poverty, and shortages. These, compounded by construction of the Separation Barrier cutting Jerusalem off from the West Bank, have led to the social and economic collapse of this part of the city. A large majority of East Jerusalem residents do not receive, and cannot afford to buy, the most basic services.

It seems to me that the facts on the ground in East Jerusalem belie the claim that Jerusalem is indivisible. East and West Jerusalem are like two separate worlds, one a modern urban environment, a magnet for visitors, and the other a neglected and impoverished backwater. The demand for a unified city which has been made into a roadblock for peace, the city that tourists are shown with reverence, is a Potemkin Village hiding the truth.

Update on recent Bedouin Home Demolitions:

Two days ago I linked to a late breaking story about a middle of the night demolition of several Bedouin homes. Unfortunately, more details have emerged that make the situation more distressing. In all, six houses were destroyed making many more families homeless than was originally reported. See this update to read what the experience was actually like: http://972mag.com/idf-commits-price-tag-attack-against-activists-resisting-home-demolitions/33866/

Salim Shawamreh's house before it was demolished. See the link above for the view afterwards.

Profoundly disconcerting in the above link was when one of the Israeli soldiers yelled at Rabbi Arik Aschermann, director of Rabbis For Human Rights in Israel who had rushed to the scene, to take off his skullcap because “he was a disgrace to Judaism.” This while the soldiers were escorting a bulldozer from house to house, demolishing them without any advance notice. In the dead of night, entire families – men, women, children and babies, bewildered and disoriented – were evicted into the cold winter rain with no shelter and just the clothes on their backs.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof. (Justice, justice shall you pursue.) Deuteronomy 16:20

Haredim and the future of Israel

Leave a comment

Recently, the newspapers in Israel have been filled with articles about the clash of the ultra-orthodox, called Haredim, with Israelis who are oriented to the modern world. This conflict has been going on for decades but recently it has attained a new intensity that is galvanizing larger segments of the population. It seems every day there are headlines of new incidents or Haredi protests.

Overview of the Current Clash:

The latest flare-up began in December when two women, one secular and one Haredi herself, refused to move to the back of gender segregated buses that were designated to serve the requirements of the Haredi community. The actions of these women garnered front-page attention that compared them to Rosa Parks in long-ago Montgomery, Alabama. But the issue really gained traction when an 8-year old girl from a religious but non-Haredi family was spat upon and derided by Haredi men in the city of Beit Shemesh for being too immodestly dressed. 10,000 people rallied to support her along with women’s rights after she described on TV how she was scared to walk to school through her neighborhood’s Haredi gauntlet.

But as an article in the New York Times stated, these incidents were just the latest in a long festering clash. “The list of controversies grows weekly: Organizers of a conference last week on women’s health and Jewish law barred women from speaking from the podium, leading at least eight speakers to cancel; ultra-Orthodox men spit on an 8-year-old girl whom they deemed immodestly dressed; the chief rabbi of the air force resigned his post because the army declined to excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers perform; protesters depicted the Jerusalem police commander as Hitler on posters because he instructed public bus lines with mixed-sex seating to drive through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods; vandals blacked out women’s faces on Jerusalem billboards.” (see the full article for more background at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/15/world/middleeast/israel-faces-crisis-over-role-of-ultra-orthodox-in-society.html)

More recently the concept of Kol Isha, a Jewish law that prohibits hearing the voice of a woman singing, has caused controversy in the Israel Defense forces (IDF). IDF policy is that all soldiers, no matter what their religious orientation, must attend ceremonies even if women are singing. The chief rabbi of the Air Force resigned in protest and this week, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, an influential rabbi who directs a hesder yeshiva (a yeshiva that combines Torah study with army service) also said he would be resigning over this issue. He charged that the IDF is “bringing us close to a situation in which we will have to tell [male] soldiers, ‘You have to leave such events even if a firing squad is set up outside, which will fire on and kill you.'” (For some insight into the orthodox perspective on this, see http://www.theyeshivaworld.com/article.php?p=114857 . Note the comments at the bottom.)

Lest you think the conflict is only about gender issues, this week a 3rd grade boy in Beit Shemesh revealed that on two recent occasions he had been physically attacked or threatened by Haredim in his neighborhood, once for walking his dog which is considered “impure.” See http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/ultra-orthodox-teens-accost-u-s-immigrant-boy-in-beit-shemesh-1.407677

Some Background:

This controversy represents a clash of worldviews that might have ramifications beyond the particular issues that are causing the current friction. There is huge resentment towards the Haredi world from the general public, especially among those who identify as secular. Two-thirds of Haredi men do not work. Most study in yeshivas full-time supported by government subsidies. Few serve in the army. They have their own school systems where secular subjects are seldom taught (math, science, foreign languages or non-religious history). Thus they are not equipped to participate in a modern economy and have a distinctive worldview.

Government subsidies also provide allowances for each child, making it somewhat easier for them to practice the commandment of “be fruitful and multiply” resulting in very large families. Haredim are mostly very poor. They draw significant resources from the state without contributing their fair share economically. Although one of their main values is the intrinsic worth of Torah study, this is not meaningful for much of the Israeli public.

Because of the way that the political system works in Israel, minority parties like those that represent Haredi interests have inordinate influence in the coalition governments that are formed. Such is the case today as it has been in the past, no matter which major party was in power. However, the breaking point may be approaching, especially given the large social protest movement from last summer when thousands of Israelis took to the streets demanding a change in government and economic policies.

Demographics

Let’s leave the current controversies for a minute and take a look at this from a broader perspective.

The total population of Israel is 7.8 million. This includes 250,000 Palestinians in the annexed part of East Jerusalem, 42,000 residents of the Golan Heights (mainly Jewish and Druze) and the 325,000 Jews who live over the Green Line in the West bank. It does not include the Palestinians who live in the West Bank outside of Jerusalem and over 200,000 migrant workers in Israel.

Out of the total 7.8 million population,

  • 75%, or 5.5 million are Jewish
  • Almost 20% are Arab: 1,240,000 Muslim (16.8%) and 153,000 Christian (2.1%). This includes the 250,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
  • 1.7%  (122,000) are Druze, a non-Muslim group mostly located in northern Israel and the Golan Heights.
  • Roughly 4% are not classified.

Now, getting back to the Haredi/secular divide, let’s look at the religious composition of the Jewish population. A study done by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics in 2010 asked Jews over 18 years old to define themselves.

  • 8% of these adults said they were Haredi. However, they have a high birth rate with many families having 10 or more children. For example, despite being a minority of 32% of the population in Jerusalem, they account for 60% of the children attending elementary school. Thus their percentage of the total population including children is higher. It is estimated that their population will double in 16 years.
  • 12% stated they were “religious”: non-Haredi orthodox, known as national religious or religious Zionist.
  • 13% said they were “religious-traditionalists”: mostly adhering to Jewish Halacha (Jewish law and observance). Their level of observance probably varies widely.
  • 25% are “non-religious traditionalists”: only partly respecting Jewish Halacha. This probably includes regular Friday night Shabbat meals with family and some observance of holidays.
  • 43% defined themselves as “secular.”

Remember, these figures represent adults. Due to the higher birth rates of the religious, Haredi and non-Haredi, the total percentage including children of the religiously oriented is much higher as is their growth rate.

An article in the Jerusalem Post (http://www.jpost.com/NationalNews/Article.aspx?id=214979) cited a report released in 2011 that forecast that by 2030, only 18 years from now, the majority of Israel’s Jewish population will be religious – a reality that could lead to several different results, including an increase in poverty, the annexation of the West Bank settlements and Israel’s deterioration into an anti-democratic country.

The report, which was compiled by Prof. Arnon Soffer, who holds the Reuven Chaikin Chair in Geostrategy at the University of Haifa, also concluded that by 2030, the Haredi population will reach more than a million people, which will place an especially high economic burden on the secular population.

“As long as the Haredi percentage of the population increases, the economic gaps between the Haredi population and the remainder of the population will continue to grow, requiring a greater transfer of funds [from the secular population] to support them.”

The report goes on to state. “The public agenda, the public square and the cultural aspects of the country stand to all reflect the spirit of the Haredi and religious world…. Education will become Torah-based, courts will be operated according to Jewish religious law and much of the media will undergo a transformation in which a large amount of the content it broadcasts will disappear.”

The report concludes that, without changes in policy, this will lead to greater emigration of the secular population, further accelerating these demographic trends. There is an interesting article by Dr. Lawrence Davidson, professor of Middle East history at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, that plays out this scenario in greater detail at http://axisoflogic.com/artman/publish/Article_63302.shtml?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+axisoflogic%2FAxisFeed+%28axisoflogic.com%29 .

Indeed this narrative is already being reflected on the West Bank with influential settler leader Benny Katzover’s recent call for getting rid of democracy. He stated, “The main role of Israeli democracy now is to disappear. Israeli democracy has finished its role, and it must disassemble and give way to Judaism. All leads toward recognition that there is no other way but to place Judaism at the center, above all else, and this is the answer to every situation.” (http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/dismantle-israeli-democracy-and-replace-it-with-jewish-law-says-settler-leader-1.406035)

But as even Professor Davidson points out, the future scenarios are still conjecture. We need to keep in mind that much could change in the coming decades. The less religious and secular segments of society are feeling embattled, both economically and culturally, and a backlash could easily occur that would change many of these dynamics. There was a fascinating Op-Ed in Haaretz recently that pointed out the coming election could surprise everyone. Almost 800,000 voters, mostly Arab and those on the left, chose not to vote in the last election but are very likely to do so in the next one. They represent 25% of those who last voted (3.3 million) and could change the political dynamic in Israel today – which, by changing government priorities and policies, could impact how the society is structured in the future. For this excellent piece, see http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/israel-s-arabs-and-seculars-will-return-to-the-polls-1.406379

Interestingly, Israel’s Arab citizens could play a key role in changing the political dynamic if they choose to participate in greater numbers and if the Jewish parties and their constituencies would be willing to form coalitions with them. The Arab community also has a very high birth rate – their percentage of the population has doubled since 1950 despite the massive immigration of Jews during much of that period. How fast this population grows and how it interacts with the Jewish majority is a wildcard in the mix.

Nothing is a given. In the meantime, the Jewish religious-secular conflict is playing out on the streets of Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. Depending on one’s perspective, one can be filled with despair or with hope.

%d bloggers like this: