Unchained at Last

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Although this blog is usually about Israel, I am highlighting a moving article in this past weekend’s Jewish Forward newspaper about a new USA-based organization, Unchained at Last, that helps women escape from arranged marriages that are abusive. This is a subgroup of battered or threatened women who face additional cultural constraints on escape. Click here to read the column.

The article tells the story of the founder of the organization, Fraidy Reiss, who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox world and how, after many years, she finally left her volatile husband, overcoming intense communal pressure to stay. Unchained at Last now helps women from other cultural milieus in similar situations where arranged marriages are common and divorce is discouraged, even in cases of abuse.

As the article states, the Good People Fund has provided the early financial support to start the organization and help it grow. Please forward this on to others who might be interested in learning about this issue or go to the Good People Fund Facebook page where you can share the article with your Facebook friends.  Thanks.

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Strange Comrades: Gershom Gorenberg and Israeli Singing Star Noa

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What would the Talmud say about the suppression of public debate over Israeli policies in the American Jewish community? This is the question posed by Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg in “An Open Letter to American Rabbis” in the May/June issue of Moment Magazine. Gorenberg , who made aliyah 35 years ago, wrote “The Unmaking of Israel,” a highly readable book chock full of facts that make a powerful case that the occupation of the West Bank is destroying Israeli democracy. But in this Letter, he shifts his attention to America and expands on a theme that Peter Beinart focused on in his recent book, “The Crisis of Zionism” – the stifling of criticism in the American Jewish community about Israeli government policies. But Gorenberg uses an interesting twist, drawing on a Talmudic text to illustrate that healthy debate is an essential part of the Jewish tradition and that limiting debate undermines that heritage.

Along similar lines, a controversy has recently erupted around the Israeli singing star Achinoam Nini, also known as Noa, for her participation in an alternative Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) commemoration on April 24th. Last weekend she posted a moving column which illustrates what can happen to public figures in Israel today who dare to act contrary to the expectations of the right-wing ideologues. (I attended the event where Noa performed and wrote about it in a short blog post on April 25.)

I wish it were possible for every rabbi and Jewish communal leader in America to read these columns by Gorenberg and Noa. It might lead to more open and informative conversations.

Palestinian-Settler Interactions in East Jerusalem, Part 1

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Dr. Goldstein, Dr. Goldstein,
There is none like you in the world.
He entered dressed up as an officer
And cocked his Galil rifle.
He snuck quietly into the hall named for Isaac.
He took aim at the terrorists’ heads and squeezed the trigger tight
And shot bullets and shot bullets and shot,
And shot bullets.
[Refrain]
Dr. Goldstein, Dr. Goldstein,
There is none like you in the world.
Dr. Goldstein, Dr. Goldstein,
Everyone loves you.

Lyrics to a song of praise for Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the settler who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron during Purim in 1994.  Sung by Jewish settlers at a Purim celebration in the Sheik Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem (see this short video: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3857671,00.html)


Until now I have provided many facts and figures to describe the conditions that have been imposed on Palestinians in East Jerusalem. On January 2nd and January 10th I outlined the strategies used by settler NGO’s in collaboration with the government to evict long-term Palestinian residents from their homes. On January 26 I described how the government has deprived Palestinian East Jerusalem of resources, causing severe social and economic distress to the populace.

But statistics cannot convey the struggles of day-to-day life in East Jerusalem. So this is the first of several posts that will open a window into how the influx of settlers and government actions have impacted the personal experiences of Palestinian residents.

Two populations:

There are two populations living side by side in the areas abutting the Old City of Jerusalem who hate each other. Before getting into the specifics of Palestinian-settler interactions, I think it is useful to try to gain an understanding of the attitudes and beliefs of these two groups.

Jewish Settlers

The Jewish settlers who have moved into Palestinian neighborhoods are ideologically driven by a messianic vision of redemption. These religious settlers believe they have a divine right, actually a commandment, to settle the land of Israel. It is a spiritual act to serve a transcendent purpose. These beliefs have also been reinforced by 60 years of brutal terror attacks and wars. Many view the Palestinians as a modern incarnation of Amalek, the tribe that harassed the Hebrews when they wandered in the desert after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. God commanded the total destruction of Amalek without mercy.

Perhaps the best insight into the attitudes of these settlers, and those with similar ideologies, can be gleaned from what happened during the Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) celebrations last year. This day, which commemorates the re-unification of Jerusalem in 1967, is usually a disturbing day for Palestinians but this one was particularly difficult. 40,000 settlers and their supporters rallied throughout East Jerusalem, hurling curses at Arab residents and mass chants of “Death to Arabs.” For 24 hours, through the middle of the night, thousands of religious youth marched through densely packed Palestinian neighborhoods until the early morning hours, screaming out nationalist songs. This link is a truly frightening video clip that illustrates through actions and words the sentiments of a large and influential segment of Israel’s population: http://www.en.justjlm.org/487

David Shulman in The New York Review of Books provided more detail about this troubling day and placed it within a broader context at this link: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2011/jul/07/two-marches-two-futures-jerusalem/

As Shulman points out, “The slogans call up rather specific memories: I couldn’t help wondering how many of the marchers were grandchildren of Jews who went through such moments—as targets of virulent hate—in Europe.” Nevertheless, these are the sentiments that are prevalent among the settler population living in the midst of thousands of East Jerusalem Arabs. Let’s keep this in mind when viewing the next series of posts that will examine settler interactions with the Palestinians.

Palestinians:

The Palestinians in East Jerusalem view the settlers as invaders who intend to force them out of their homes so as to populate their neighborhoods completely with Jews. Indeed, this is the stated goal of the settlers and the NGOs that support them – and the government is clearly cooperating with this endeavor as well. As noted previously, the settlers live in heavily guarded compounds in houses from which Palestinian residents were evicted. The evictions were facilitated by allegations of fraud and by laws specifically designed for the sole purpose of removing Palestinians from their homes. Many more families were forced out when their homes were demolished by the authorities. In the Silwan area, large tracts of land have been expropriated for archeological digs managed by Elad, one of the settler NGOs, and many more homes are threatened with demolition when a large tourist attraction that is planned will be built.

Everyone knows someone in these close knit neighborhoods who was made homeless by these actions. Compounded by the lack of municipal services, this has caused huge resentment towards the settlers and the government. Indeed, many residents know it is only a matter of time until they too will lose their homes without any recourse.

Like the settlers, there certainly are radicals among the Palestinian population who are driven by messianic or religious zeal. But the vast majority of residents simply want to raise their children, build a good life for themselves, and live in peace among their families and friends. They also yearn for political independence and equal rights.

Given the conflicting goals, friction is inevitable between the Jewish settlers and the Palestinian residents. In a democracy it is the role of government to mediate disputes, enforce the law equally, and provide all residents with equal opportunity. That is not happening. Settlers receive all the support of the government as they attempt to displace the Palestinian residents who are helpless in the face of an overwhelming power.

In the coming posts, I will describe the experiences of the Palestinian populace, using their own words whenever possible, as they interact with settlers and the police.

A Tale of Two Cities

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“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 Democracy Redux

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Over the weekend I became a bit uncomfortable with the previous column I posted last Thursday titled “Haredim and the Future of Israel.” This is a complicated issue and in my desire to shorten a long post I edited out some of the nuances.

I fear I may have implied that the Haredi world is monolithic. In fact, there are many different sects ranging from those who support the Jewish state to those who reject it. Some sects are more extreme than others in their religious practice or have different customs altogether.  Although they all share a similar worldview, the actions of the most extreme groups, who have attracted the attention of the media, have been criticized by many in the Haredi world or at the least not supported by them.

To illustrate an alternative lens through which to view the ultra-orthodox community, there was an interesting Op-Ed printed in Friday’s Haaretz that presented a modern woman’s positive experience, some might say even a quasi-feminist perspective, on the Haredi world. See http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/can-ultra-orthodox-culture-go-overboard-in-its-quest-for-modesty-1.408262

The writer, Robin Garbose, embraced orthodoxy as an adult and founded Kol Neshama, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides “professional artistic training and performance opportunities for girls and women in a Torah-observant setting….” (Her extensive bio in the entertainment industry and the performing arts can be found at http://www.kolneshama.org/staff-bio-robin-garbose/.)

Garbose directed the recently released film “The Heart that Sings,” a movie by and for women. The cultural divides that fracture Israeli society were on display when the film was shown at the Cinematheque in Tel Aviv. (For those interested, you can read various responses to the event at http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/tel-aviv-cinematheque-tries-to-bar-men-from-screening-of-film-by-ultra-orthodox-director-1.403985 and http://www.jpost.com/Opinion/Op-EdContributors/Article.aspx?id=250905)

On a related note, I felt that my previous post may have inadvertently lumped together the Haredi world with the more mainstream and larger Orthodox community within which there is diversity as well. An example is last Friday’s Op-Ed in The New York Times written by Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in the Bronx. Rabbi Linzer presented a modern Orthodox perspective and offered a strong critique of the extremist Haredi outlook. See his column “Lechery, Immodesty and the Talmud” at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/20/opinion/ultra-orthodox-jews-and-the-modesty-fight.html?_r=3&src=tp .

And finally, for those that can’t get enough about this topic, Yossi Klein Halevi, the author and columnist who is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wrote an excellent overview of the Haredi-secular clash in this article from The Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/opinions/opinion/israel-faces-up-to-religious-extremism/article2305648/

Democracy versus Judaism:

Today’s Haaretz has dueling Op-Ed pieces that also touch on my last post. The first is from Benny Katzover, the influential settler leader whom I quoted last Thursday as advocating the replacement of Israeli democracy with Judaism. Haaretz gave Katzover an opportunity to clarify his position which he did in this morning’s Sunday paper at this link: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/drought-and-emptiness-prevail-1.408550

I think he may have dug himself into an even deeper hole. Katzover presents a morally warped argument, within an Israeli context, to justify authoritarian or theocratic rule in the name of a higher goal.

Even worse, he uses factually incorrect statements to make his point. For example, he wrote, “the destruction of terrorists’ houses is generally prevented by the High Court.” He is referring to the policy of Palestinian home demolitions that the courts in Israel occasionally have prevented. Never mind that over 20,000 homes and other structures have been demolished by government bulldozers, often with little notice, bankrupting untold innocent families and making them homeless. Their crime was not housing terrorists but rather the inability of Palestinians to obtain building permits to meet their families’ needs or simply to do repairs that have to be done. This is just one example of how Katzover and his allies – a powerful and dominant force in Israeli government – has perverted the ethical and moral dimensions of Judaism for their version of serving God or some mythical Jewish destiny.

The response to Katzover was penned by Yair Sheleg at http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/father-judaism-and-mother-democracy-1.408549 .

Although I question a few of the examples Sheleg offers at the beginning of his column, the latter half is a clear exposition of the inherent tensions built into any democracy, balancing the collective good against individual rights. By implication he exposes Katzover’s thesis as simplistic and lacking depth.

These two columns taken together are a replay of arguments by those who justify oppression in the name of some higher ideal versus those who defend the human dignity of every person.

Atlanta:

On an unrelated note – or perhaps some would say closely related – I expect many readers have already heard about the infamous column by Andrew B. Adler, the publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times, who published a column on January 13th suggesting that the Mossad might consider assassinating Barack Obama. It almost slipped under the radar until Gawker.com picked it up last week and it has since gone viral. See: http://gawker.com/5877892/

Some say Adler is an aberration or he simply made a mistake. I think that is disingenuous. Rather he is a symptom of what has gone terribly wrong.

Haredim and the future of Israel

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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.

5,000 feet up

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Recently two articles were brought to my attention that offer a bird’s eye view of what has been happening in Israel.  Although coming from very different perspectives, I think you’ll find these of interest – see links below – because they address  trends and developments that will affect what Israel might be like in the future.

The first is an interview with Rabbi David Hartman, the founder of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. Rabbi Hartman made aliyah 40 years ago from America because, as he says in the interview, ““That’s what I thought I would see in Israel–a living Judaism that was gentle, sensitive, moral, loving. From the moment that I moved here, I fought for it to be that way. That’s why I built the institute, as a place open to religious and secular, Jews and Arabs.” The interview is an anguished cry from a leading religious scholar about what has happened to Judaism and Israel; where did they lose their way religiously and morally?

In the past few days I have had several conversations that tried to understand how coveting the land seems to have become the central obsession of the Jewish state. How did stones and dirt become more important than how we treat other human beings? How did very religious Jews seem to become more concerned with the minutia of observance versus the ultimate spiritual purpose of that observance? Although I was unable to formulate adequate answers to these questions, Rabbi Hartman attempts to address these very issues in the interview. See http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4159477,00.html

The second article is an opinion piece in last week’s Haaretz newspaper written by Ari Shavit, a centrist columnist who in the past was generally sympathetic towards Netanyahu. He is very concerned about the concerted attacks on democratic principles and civil rights in Israel and how that might transform the country into something unrecognizable. As he writes in this column, “Time after time there have been assaults by the secular right and the religious right on the principles of liberalism and on liberal institutions, but there has never been an all-out, multi-pronged and multi-dimensional attack on the core values of the Jewish democratic state.” It is notable that someone like Shavit is publishing this type of piece.

I expect in future posts on this blog that I will provide details on specific issues such as attempts to limit freedom of the press or restrictions on funding for human rights organizations. But Shavit in this column presents a broader picture. See http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/israel-has-never-been-so-ugly-1.401501

Lest you think Israel is alone in this assault on democratic values, far-right and even fascist parties are becoming stronger in many European countries. Hungary is the canary in the coal mine where a veto-proof, two-thirds majority of right wing parties in the parliament has re-written the constitution to limit freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and gerrymandered election districts to ensure their continued power. This doesn’t make the Israeli situation any better but perhaps does provide some context.

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