Those experts in Israel were on to something: Why secular-religious divide in Jewish state matters

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Earlier this year, I traveled to Israel with a group of U.S. religion journalists.

Through the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, a dozen of us spent a week exploring political, social and religious issues in the Middle East.

As I wrote in a column for The Christian Chronicle, our hosts said they hoped the experience gave us an enhanced understanding of issues in that part of the world and made us think about tough questions. It certainly did that.

Another thing it did: It piqued my interest in news from Israel. For example, one topic that we spent quite a bit of time exploring was the secular-religious divide in the Jewish state. In a front-page Christian Chronicle story, I noted:

Ironically, many religious Jews took issue with Zionism, the political movement that emerged in the late 19th century and advocated reestablishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

“Many Orthodox Jews were opposed to Zionism because (they believed) it hastened what should have been God’s work,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations. “The return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel usurped God’s domain and empowered human beings to achieve that.”

Today, deep religious divisions characterize Israel — a nation of 8.7 million people that occupies a geographic area the size of New Jersey. The overall population is about 81 percent Jewish, 14 percent Muslim, 2 percent Christian, 2 percent Druze and 1 percent other.

But often, the conflict is between Jews themselves, as secular and Orthodox Jews clash over what should happen when democratic values collide with Jewish law (halakha), according to a Pew Research Center study.

It turns out that the experts who kept referencing that conflict during our group’s visit were on to something.

I’m not sure that even they realized, though, how big an issue that it would become so soon in the battle over Israel’s future.

How big?

Big enough to crumble Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Which leads us to a timely, informative piece that ran on the front page of the Washington Post earlier this week with this rather mundane print headline:

Israel’s religious-secular rift evident in politics, on streets

Want a more provocative title? Here’s the online version:

How the battle of bra-baring waitresses and ultrareligious protesters explains Israel’s political crisis 

Well, OK.

The story’s lede sets the scene with a clash outside what the Post describes as “a vegan and LGBT-friendly cafe” in Jerusalem.

Then the newspaper explains why this is news — big news:

The confrontation reflected a central tension in modern Israel over the very nature of the state, founded by secular Zionists but with an ultrareligious population that is growing in size and influence.

That tension came to the forefront late last month, thwarting longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a new government and sending a stunned nation to the polls for the second time this year. Netanyahu needed two competing factions, secular and religious, to form a governing majority in parliament, and they were deadlocked over legislation that proposes drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the military as other Israeli Jews are.

The ultrareligious parties oppose conscription as an attempt to assimilate their cloistered communities by thrusting their young men into contact with secular life and values.

But Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s ultranationalist former defense minister, has made resistance to ultra-Orthodox influence an essential part of his appeal to his political base of secular Russian-speaking immigrants. Those close to him say the conscription issue is part of his wider concern about a minority community that receives state welfare payments and tax breaks while contributing less than other Israeli taxpayers.

Read the full article for much more crucial background and context. But don’t miss this key fact behind the growing ultra-Orthodox influence: They are having lots of babies and becoming a larger segment of Israeli society — a trend not likely to change:

But while the Bastet staff may have won a small reprieve, the wider battle is only expected to escalate. The ultra-Orthodox, also known as Haredim, make up only 12 percent of the population but are the fastest-growing segment of Israelis, with women giving birth to an average of 6.9 children.

Meanwhile, another front-page story this week — this one in the New York Times — caught my attention.

The print headline:

Growing Cultural Rift Disrupts A Time-Honored Trip to Israel

The online title (unlike the Post story) is slightly different but not much juicier:

Birthright Trips, a Rite of Passage for Many Jews, Are Now a Target of Protests

The story itself is interesting and definitely worth a read.

The gist:

Over nearly two decades, a nonprofit organization called Birthright Israel has given nearly 700,000 young Jews an all-expense-paid trip to Israel, an effort to bolster a distinct Jewish identity and forge an emotional connection to Israel. The trips, which are partly funded by the Israeli government, have become a rite of passage for American Jews. Nearly 33,000 are set to travel this summer.

But over the past year, some Jewish activists have protested Birthright, saying the trips erase the experiences of Israeli Arabs and Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank. Activists have circulated petitions, staged sit-ins at Hillels on college campuses and blocked Birthright’s headquarters in New York. But no protests have generated more publicity and outrage than the walk-offs from a handful of Birthright trips.

It’s fascinating stuff. Check it out.

Photo by Bobby Ross Jr.



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