Dark Clouds Over the House of the Sun

More than 1,000 members of the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community demonstrated in Jerusalem against the “infestation” of a new Modern Orthodox girls’ school adjacent to a Haredi neighborhood in Beit Shemesh. There, a young girl was spat upon by a group of ultra-Orthodox fanatics for her less than Haredi-sensible fashion. There were also protests directed at mixed gender buses, with efforts to consign women to the back of the bus or have them on segregated ones.


Beit Shemesh means “house of the sun,” a place where the ray of sunlight brings warmth and enlightenment. These protestors brought shame to Beit Shemesh when they wore yellow patches with the word “Jude” and dressed their children in concentration camp garb. These extremists are not representative of the mainstream Haredi population, and this insulting behavior was condemned by virtually all segments of Israeli society and Diaspora Jewry. See our statement at www.ujcnj.org.


But the larger issue remains of how to reconcile meeting legitimate religious needs without trampling on the rights of the greater public. This issue was addressed by Israel’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion.


In the words of his biographer, Avraham Avi Hai, Ben-Gurion believed “there was a basic difference between the issue of ‘religion and state’ in Israel and that of ‘Church and state’ in Christian countries. Judaism was not a matter of faith or belief alone. ‘The Jewish religion is a national religion…it is not easy to separate the national from the religious aspect.’ Thus, for example, Israel’s holy days or holidays have a dual meaning: ‘religio-cosmic’ and historio-national.’”


Referring to the continuation of the jurisdiction of the rabbinate over matters of personal status in the newly established State of Israel, Ben-Gurion wrote: “The existing arrangement is the fruit of compromise which naturally cannot satisfy all opinions, as is the way of compromise; (it) was adopted to prevent a war over religion…which might drastically impede the ‘merging of exiles,’ (a goal) which occupies a crucial place in the state.” He called for the establishment of a “national minimum…which would guarantee that observant, traditional, and secular may live as they desire, without coercion or violation of conscience, while maintaining the Jewish character of the state and of the Jewish people in it.”


He retained the practice of the British Mandate and Ottoman Empire that made “matters of marriage, divorce and maintenance between Jews the exclusive jurisdiction of rabbinical courts.” The religious court justices (dayanim) became state employees.


Regarding the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), “Ben-Gurion did not permit the establishment of separate ‘Orthodox’ units in the armed forces, but did agree to exempt Talmudic students from the draft.”


These exemptions, made at a time when the Haredi population was relatively small, is now a major manpower issue for the IDF, as the Haredi population is the fastest growing in Israel.


Their unemployment rate is also extremely high, with welfare and child allowance payments for their large families an increasing drain on the economy. How to address these social issues is an enormous political and ethical issue.


Ben-Gurion, the Socialist, summarized his views on the compromises he made as a state builder: “Whoever now wishes to stir up a war of religion…strikes at the soul of immigration and sabotages the security of the state….saving the nation and preserving its independence and security in this conflict-ridden and storm-tossed world have priority over any religious or anti-religious ideal.


“Necessarily, in this period of laying foundations, people of differing principles and varying interests must work together…in an effort to concentrate the people in its land…and when the great hour comes the ingathered nation will decide the great questions.”


Two generations later, the great hour has come to decide on the great questions: how a modern, democratic Jewish State can grow economically and secure its manpower needs for defense while maintaining the social fabric of an increasingly fragmented society. Statesmen, not politicians interested in preserving power via back-room deals with parochial interests, are now needed to decide the “great questions” posed by Ben-Gurion.


My next blog will address some of the initiatives that we in MetroWest are undertaking to promote greater dialogue and education between the different segments of Israeli society.


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