Religion and Sex in Israel: Street Clashes Over Defining a Jewish State

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Oded Balilty / AP

An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man leans on a railing as a woman and children wait at a bus station in the central Israeli town of Beit Shemesh, Dec 26, 2011

Israel seems to be at war with itself. For two weeks the Hebrew media have been dominated by street clashes between Jews arguing viciously over such matters as sleeve length and bus seating, which in the Israel of the moment are markers for the kind of country people want: Religious, or secular, or what balance of the two? It’s a conflict that goes back at least to the founding of Israel six decades ago, and grows more and more potent with the dramatic population growth of the most piously observant.

The latest flashpoint speaks volumes about the state of the nation: An eight-year-old girl stopped going to school after neighborhood men spat on her and called her a prostitute because even in long sleeves and a skirt her dress was deemed “immodest.” The men were extremist members of the ultra-Orthodox, the fastest-growing segment of Israel’s Jewish population. Known in Hebrew as Haredim, which roughly translates as God-fearing, ultra-Orthodox men are easily recognized by their signature black clothes and headgear (either wide-brimmed black felt or brimless beaver skin) their side locks and their agitation at being seated near women.

Which brings us to a second locus of controversy: Buses segregated by gender. On bus lines serving ultra-Orthodox communities, women ride in the back. Most do so quite happily, but a ruckus often ensues when an outsider climbs aboard and insists on taking a seat up front with the men, as a woman named Doron Matalon did last week. After being called a “shiksa” and “slut,” she summoned police, who arrested a passenger named Shlomo Fuchs. In the shorthand biography of news accounts, the suspect proved representative of his cohort: Fuchs is 45, has 12 children, and no paying job. Instead he studies scripture all day at a yeshiva, or religious college, which entitles him to welfare payments and excuses him from military service.

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These are sore points for the many Israelis who pay taxes and are compelled to serve in the army, an essential obligation of citizenship here. Recent efforts to draw the Ultra-Orthodox into the Israel Defense Forces have produced some successes, but also a new platform for tension. Israeli women famously also serve in the IDF (Doron Matalon was in uniform when she took her seat at the front of the bus) and in recent weeks Haredi soldiers made headlines by walking out when their sisters in arms sang at group morale-building events, such as the lighting of Hanukah candles.

Erupting within days of one another, these cascading controversies have Israelis questioning the nature of the Jewish State, 63 years after independence.

“Right now, what is holding the country together is the label, ‘Jewishness.’ But in practice, you have groups of people who have nothing to do with each other,” Eva Illouz, a sociologist at Hebrew University, tells TIME. “I think what we are seeing now is struggles that emanate from the label that people keep carrying around.”

There are almost as many definitions of Jewishness as there are Jews in Israel (about six million in a population of seven million-plus, the balance mostly being Arabs). But as Illouz pointed out in a lengthy meditation on Israeli identity in Saturday’s Haaretz, more and more are defining themselves in religious terms rather than cultural. And the numbers will surely grow. Today various ultra-Orthodox sects account for roughly 10% of the population, but the faithful produce offspring at a rate that demographers predict will within a generation or two remake the face of a country that, historically, has trumpeted its commitment to women’s rights, to name one topic secular observers worry will come into play. Already Haredim wield disproportionate cloud in politics, frequently providing the balance of power in coalition governments.

The irony is that many ultra-Orthodox actually object to the existence of Israel as a state, arguing that Jews should have waited for a signal from God before returning to their Biblical homeland. Historians recount how David Ben-Gurion, the atheist founder of the Israeli state, struck a bargain with Haredi rabbis: In exchange for stifling their opposition to the establishment of Israel, Ben-Gurion offered the ultra-Orthodox specific concessions, including their own state-funded schools.

Their numbers always included militants. Anyone driving through their neighborhoods on the Jewish Sabbath could expect to be stoned. Bearded clerics opposed Israel’s participation in the Miss Universe pageant, and today warn against smart-phones as portals to licentious websites. But heaping abuse on a second-grader put things in another realm for many Israelis. Last week several thousand marched in protest near the scene of the incident in Bet Shemesh, a city of 100,000 between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose right-wing coalition includes the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, also weighed in, vowing to safeguard equality for women. For his part, Shas leader Eli Yishai warned against tarring all Haredim because of the actions of a few extremists – in this case, several hundred who call themselves Sicarri, or daggermen.

“Anyone who doesn’t live here and only follows the hyperbolic public discourse,” Yishai wrote in the daily Ma’ariv, “would think that women in Israel cover their faces in public, that the clubs and bars packed on Fridays have become yeshivas and ritual baths, that television has scheduled Bible passage readings for primetime and that thousands of citizens have signed themselves up for the new seasons of the Bible Quiz and the leading reality show Rabbinical Idol.”

But extremists have a way of getting the final word, and New Year’s Eve brought images brazenly calculated to linger in the public memory. In Jerusalem’s Shabbat Square, ultra-Orthodox protestors denouncing “the cruel persecution of Haredi Judaism” rolled out a wagon carrying children dressed in the striped pajamas of Holocaust death camps, complete with yellow Stars of David. “Hundreds stuck the stars to their coats with obvious pride,” Nahum Barnea wrote in Yedioth Ahoronth. “Children stood before the camera with their hands in the air, in a pose meant to evoke the child from the terrible photograph taken during the Warsaw Ghetto roundup.”

At the edge of the crowd, demonstrators shouted toward the police: “Nazis! Nazis!”

“The police officers didn’t bat an eye,” Barnea reported. “They’ve grown used to it.”