Israel's identity crisis: Why it could be as detrimental as Palestinian conflict
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, who eschew army service and favor religious study over work, were once ignored as a tiny minority. But now they're posing a challenge to the Zionist state.
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The issue has also resonated with Orthodox Jews. Shaltiel Adani, whose Orthodox upbringing included activities involving men and women together but prayer services that were conducted with separate seating, says Haredi follow the most stringent adherence to Jewish law. That, says Mr. Adani, leads Haredi sects to compete to be most hard-line.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's Khomeinism," he says, referring to the leader of Iran's 1979 revolution. "Whether it's Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, people are going more toward religious [extremism] ... [Israel] already has a bad image, and this simply pours oil on the fire. It doesn't matter that it's a small extreme ... the world doesn't see it that way."
Birthrate twice the national average
As an insular community of Jews who adhere to a religious ideology that rejected the basic tenets of modern Zionism, ultra-Orthodox have always been a quaint oddity to mainstream Israelis.
Israel's founding generation was content to ignore the Haredim as a vestige of Europe doomed to vanish, giving them military draft exemptions and autonomy over publicly funded schools in return for political patronage. And so the Haredim established ghettos in Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, avoiding the army for fear of assimilation and the workforce in favor of religious studies.
But instead of vanishing, the communities have outpaced the growth of all other Israeli groups because of a birthrate more than twice the Israeli average. Israelis are now increasingly worried about the challenges of integrating a group with low labor force participation and increasingly strict religious ritual dictated by rabbis who are often at odds with the state.
About 60 percent of Haredi men don't work, pushing Israel toward "a third-world economy," says Shahar Ilan, vice president of Hiddush, an Israeli nonprofit that promotes religious freedom. "There is a fanatical tendency in the Haredi community, which is explained by the fact that modern life threatens them," says Mr. Ilan.
Closing ranks around extremists?
Many assert that the majority of Haredim oppose the extremism but are either afraid to speak out or are closing ranks, seeing social criticism as part of a broader discrimination.
"The Haredi society for the most part doesn't identify with the actions of extremists," says Ms. Rot. But there is broader support for measures like gender segregation as a protection of religious values.
Yisrael Eichler, a parliamentarian from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, says "The Haredi public is very polite and doesn't make provocations" and says that the segregated bus lines – known as mehadrin, or kosher – were created to eliminate crowding and shoving between men and women.
"It is very uncomfortable for men and women because in the Haredi community there is no contact between men and women except in the family," he says.
On Egged 292, a mehadrin bus line through the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, a grandmother explains that Haredi women such as herself usually sit at the rear voluntarily so as not to come into unwanted contact with men.
"What did you expect, a cage? This is what is accepted. Some sit in front and some sit in the back. No one is shouting and no one is spitting," she says. "I feel wonderful."
Rosenblit, for her part, says she has yet to take the same bus line to Jerusalem and says she has received death threats.
Despite the hostility, she also sees that the ultra-Orthodox fear the Israeli mainstream and says she respects women who believe in gender segregation.
"Everything has a nice explanation, but on the surface of it, they just don't understand the consequences – which is lack of freedom," she says.
But if the mainstream acts too forcefully, the conflict could escalate. "In a way their fear of accepting something different from them is their problem, and our lack of understanding is part of the problem. We fear them as much as they fear us."