Polarization: Now at the Fringes, but Endangering the Future

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April 1, 2012
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Kalman Neuman

Gloomy prophecies of polarization are endemic in the Jewish state: The Jewish proclivity for dissent, the transformations that our people have undergone in the past 200 years, the attempt to create a polity from an amalgam of immigrants while undergoing a constant military and political crisis — all make prognostications of schism easy.

What are the different axes that could have constituted a basis for polarization among Israeli Jews?1 Some of the “poles” seem much less worrisome, such as the receding Ashkenazi-Mizrachi gap. Notwithstanding income inequality and the tent protests of last summer, economic issues are not threatening the social fabric.

At one time, it seemed that the most divisive issues, billed as “the coming crisis in Israel” and as a “perpetual dilemma,” would be questions of religion and state such as the Orthodox monopoly on marriage and divorce and the perennial issue of “Who is a Jew?” Surprisingly, they remain on the back burner. Solutions have been found to sidestep some of the most contentious issues, most famously (or notoriously) the institution of weddings in Cyprus — a popular alternative for couples unable or unwilling to be married by the Orthodox rabbinic establishment.

Another perceived flashpoint was the tension between Jewish uniqueness and cosmopolitan globalization. On this front, there are indications that instead of polarization, postmodern Israel has developed multiple models of interface between tradition and modernity. The fluid and multiple identities encouraged by contemporary culture have allowed a plethora of alternatives, and not just a binary choice. One is no longer surprised to find Israeli cultural icons studying Jewish texts, recording piyutim (liturgical poetry) as pop music, and visiting holy gravesites. Recent publications have focused on phenomena like the mesorati’im (“traditional” Jews, not to be confused with the Masorti movement, the Israeli brand of Conservative Judaism), who brew their own broth of old and new, or the datlashim, the “formerly religious,” whose personal odysseys allow for new types of coexistence between tradition and autonomy. Even a newspaper like Makor Rishon, which caters to the settler population and their supporters, includes a weekly supplement that challenges traditional dichotomies of religious and secular, and calls for the creation of an inclusive Jewish culture. The Israeli center, it seems, does hold, as has been illustrated in the recent Gutman Center for Surveys/AVI CHAI report, “A Portrait of Israeli Jews: Beliefs, Observance, and Values of Israeli Jews.”2

On the other hand, recent events in Beit Shemesh and in the West Bank, even if instigated by extremist fringes, might be the tip of an iceberg and reflect issues that challenge the fabric of Israeli society.

The first challenge is the Haredi community and its place in society. We know now that reports of the ultimate demise of ultra-Orthodoxy were premature, if not false. Its endurance is based upon a strategy of self-segregation that is cultural and often geographic. It is unrealistic, perhaps unfair, to expect the Haredi community to engage in Israeli public discourse. Haredi participation in the public square is limited to apologetics or proselytization. The funeral of an eminent ultra-Orthodox rosh yeshiva will go unnoticed by an Israeli public with whom he had no interest in communicating. On the other hand, few in the non-Haredi world support a melting-pot agenda of imposing enlightenment on the ultra-Orthodox. A policy dating from early statehood granted them a culturally separate and geographically distinct sphere; then, full autonomy was given to their schools and the streets of Mea Shearim were closed on Shabbat.

The current conundrum should be framed not as a quest for cultural coexistence or for the forging of common civic values, but rather as one of demography and ultimately of economics. The growth of the ultra-Orthodox population and its limited participation in the workplace is creating an ever-growing drain on the Israeli economy. Demographic pressure creates a need for constant expansion, thus bringing Haredi mores beyond the pale of their enclaves. This, in turn, threatens the lifestyle of existing neighborhoods and communities. The tension in Beit Shemesh is to a great extent the result of Haredi expansion and the ensuing fear of ultra-Orthodox hegemony in the town.

In order to lower the flame, there must be soul-searching and openness to change on both sides. We must begin to distinguish which issues would allow for compromise and accommodation — even if ideologically problematic — and which would not. For example, in order to encourage Haredi participation in the workforce, should Israeli policy allow them to forego army service (or replace it with a token “national service”)? Does the goal of having Haredim enter the workforce (or the goal of having Haredim serve in the military) justify acquiescence with gender segregation in public transportation, in the workplace, or in army units?

Can Haredim accept educational reform that would introduce the study of English language and math proficiency, but would not jeopardize an ideology that could be threatened by the study of literature and history?

Policy analysts and pundits disagree about how to advance the necessary changes: Would it be better to impose them by legislation and judicial action or by letting internal processes proceed incrementally by implementing a nuanced carrot-and-stick strategy of creating new alternatives within the Haredi community? All are concerned about the future if the status quo remains.

Another danger of polarization fomenting in Israeli society is in the Religious Zionist community and in the perpetual Israeli dilemma of the ultimate status of the occupied territories/Judea and Samaria. While the stereotype of the bearded, gun-toting settler is unfair to the diversity among those who live beyond the Green Line, Religious Zionists are the most ideological inhabitants. They are, overwhelmingly, the ones who live in settlements outside of the blocs contiguous to Israel and beyond the separation wall, and they are therefore most in jeopardy of losing their homes and communities in the event of an agreement with the Palestinians  or in the case of a unilateral withdrawal of some type. These areas contain from 70,000 to 130,000 Jews (depending on where one draws the line), including a few thousand Jews who live in the “outposts” or “unauthorized settlements” that (according to the 2005 Sasson Report commissioned by then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon) were built without proper governmental authorization, but with the unlawful participation of various governmental or quasi-governmental agencies. These Religious Zionists are linked to the larger Religious Zionist community by ideological ties as well as by family and friendship. For them, many of whom are aware of no reality other than the post-1967 borders, a mass evacuation of the settlements would be an act of aggression against their deepest beliefs. The fear of such a withdrawal is traumatic enough to make even the dismantling of minor “outposts” a casus belli and to bring fringe elements to violent efforts. For some of them, the political debate has cultural overtones, as a struggle between an Israel grounded in the Jewish past and one committed to contemporary global culture. They would perceive withdrawal as part of a process of eradicating the Zionist, Jewish nature of the state.

At the present time, the political process is at a standstill and violence is at the fringes. The implications of a major withdrawal from the settlements — which would mean a massive evacuation or leaving behind tens of thousands of Jews within a Palestinian entity — might, I fear, create polarization on a scale with the American or Spanish civil wars or the partitions of India or Ireland — all of which have left scars for decades or more.

The prophecies of Israel imploding have until now proven to be wrong. I can only hope that my fears are equally unfounded.

1 I am unqualified to speak about the Arabs in Israel, but I do acknowledge that what happens to Israeli Jews will also impact Arabs.

2 See www.idi.org.il/sites/english/events/Other_Events/Pages/GuttmanAviChai.aspx

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Dr. Kalman Neuman, a rabbi, teaches history at the Herzog College in Gush Etzion and is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.

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