Monday, January 16, 2012

The New Israel

They made the desert bloom. That was the way Israel was seen in the eyes of the world. At least to those who were paying any attention back in the pre 67 era. Indeed Israel was seen as an idealistic society consisting of some very smart people who were able to do fantastic things. That image has not only continued, it has spread into all other areas of human achievement. Israel has a pretty hefty percentage of Nobel Prize winners in a variety of fields.

No less virtuous is the fact that Israel has been a shining light of democracy in a sea of despots and dictators some of whom felt little compunction about savagely slaughtering thousands of their own citizens to retain power.

Nor is it a small achievement that Israel - a tiny little country living on a sliver of land defends herself so successfully from her enemies. Enemies whose populations outnumber her by a factor of 40 to 1 - and who would like to see her wiped off the map! Something they have tried to do many times throughout Israel’s existence - whether through war or through terror.

I have always been proud of all these facts. Unless one is an anti Semite, one cannot help but admire what Israel has done over the last 60 or so years.

As a religious Jew, I can also state with pride the achievement of the Torah world in that relatively short time. There are more Yeshivos than ever. And religious Jews are growing in number and creating many communities of largely observant Jewry. Where there are Shuls and Yeshivos and virtually all restaurants are Kosher. How nice it is to walk down a street in a city that has no traffic on Shabbos. Where stores are closed, people are dressed for Shabbos. Little kids playing in the middle of the street… the very air is infused with the aura of Shabbos.

And then there is the great pride I take in the Hesder movement. These Yeshiva students are among the most dedicated soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. And they have been doing it since the very beginning of the State. And recently even Charedim were being welcomed there with a program designed to meet their special needs.

But I fear that all this is currently going up in smoke. And women’s issues are at the center of the storm.

An article in the New York Times well illustrates my frustration. What has happened is that religious extremism that increasingly manifests itself places like Bet Shemesh and Meah Shearim is changing the way Israel is perceived. It used to be the case that the so called rock throwers were rare and limited to one small section of Jerusalem. These people were the haters of the State and sought its demise - but did little to make that happen other than spew negative rhetoric. Meah Shearim was seen as a quaint little area, of little consequence.

That has changed. They have grown exponentially and can no longer be contained in one small area of Jerusalem. They are spreading out to other areas and now demand that those areas and border areas adhere to their stringencies in the area of female modesty. That has caused pushback.

The tripwire has been a series of events all dealing with issues of female modesty. Such as strong arming women who sat on the wrong side of a bus and culminating in the events of Bet Shemesh where extremists started spitting on women and calling 8 year old girls whores.

Here is one instance of pushback. Segregating the sexes on Mehadrin buses which used to be a given - is by law no longer enforceable. The negative perceptions of one community against the other have increased. There seems to be much more enmity now between secular Jews and Charedi Jews… and even between Dati Jews and Charedi Jews.

There used to be an uneasy ‘live and let live’ attitude with perhaps an undercurrent of resentment but benign neglect. On the secular side having to do with Charedim not serving in the army, their low numbers in the work force, and the resultant poverty requiring government financial support. On the Charedi side seeing all seculars as anti Torah out to destroy them. But that’s all it was - a sort of quiet resentment.

No more. People on all sides are upset and are acting on it. What used to be a status quo balance of secular freedom and religious needs is turning into a culture war.

The backlash is effecting institutions like the IDF in ways that have never been seen in its sixty year history. To the best of my knowledge there was never an issue about Kol Isha - men listening to female singers in the IDF. I do not recall a single incidence of religious soldiers walking out of a concert because of Kol Isha until this year! Suddenly – as though this was the first time it ever happened soldiers walked out of such a performance.

That caused a reaction by the IDF hierarchy. They ruled that soldiers must attend official IDF ceremonies and may not leave if a there is a female singer. That in turn caused some Religious Zionist rabbis to resign from whatever position they had with the IDF. While I disagree with that ruling – I don’t think it is an unreasonable request to allow religious soldiers to be exempt from events that include female singers - I have to wonder, why is all this happening now? In its over 60 year history, was there never an instance where a woman sang to a group of religious soldiers until now?!

But that is not where the extremism stops. Chumra is now being treated like Halacha. And not just by extremists. The Charedi world is insisting that Israeli society honor it in the same way. It is one thing to for religious Jews to insist on their rights to follow Halacha. But it is an entirely different matter when religious Jews start insisting on Chumros as Halacha and then demanding that as public policy. That is not only causing an internal cultural war, it makes us look primitive in the eyes of the world.

Case in point is the opening comments in that New York Times article:

In the three months since the Israeli Health Ministry awarded a prize to a pediatrics professor for her book on hereditary diseases common to Jews, her experience at the awards ceremony has become a rallying cry.

The professor, Channa Maayan, knew that the acting health minister, who is ultra-Orthodox, and other religious people would be in attendance. So she wore a long-sleeve top and a long skirt. But that was hardly enough.

Not only did Dr. Maayan and her husband have to sit separately, as men and women were segregated at the event, but she was instructed that a male colleague would have to accept the award for her because women were not permitted on stage.

There is no Halacha that that requires women to sit in a separately in an audience. Nor is their any Halacha that forbids hearing or seeing a woman speak. It is only a Chumra – one that is increasingly being adopted in virtually all Charedi circles, even in the United States.

This was in fact was one of my pet peeves about the annual banquet of my daughters’ Beis Yaakov high school. The female principal was not allowed to address the audience. How ridiculous is that! And if an award was presented to a woman she was not allowed to go up on the stage and accept it or offer a public thank you. Her husband would have to do it. That too is ridiculous.

Is there any wonder Hillary Clinton compares Israel to Iran when Chumra is set up as the minimum standard? By insisting on Chumros as Halacha, the world now looks at even Halacha as primitive! Instead of the world seeing the desert bloom or looking at the number of Nobel Prize winners, they now see a new Israel being taken over by Iran-like extremists. And who are the extremists in the eyes of the world? There is no nuance. The extremists are all of us who observe Halacha. This is an image that Israel cannot afford.