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Is Israel Facing Its Own Fundamentalist Threat?

I recently returned from a two week work visit to Florida, where I had the pleasure of visiting a few JCCs and participating in JCC Association’s Executive Seminar. As an Israeli, I was asked the same question over and over: “What is wrong with you in Israel?”

Two weeks ago, a group of leaders from the North American Conservative movement returned from a visit to Israel, asking the same question. American Jewry is concerned, as many of us are in Israel. Is Israel facing an internal threat from fundamentalism?

Recent events within the ultra-Orthodox community have many in and out of Israel asking whether Israel’s democratic values are in jeopardy. Is the country’s identity as a secular Jewish State, home to all Jews of all backgrounds and affiliations, in question?

Almost 64 years after its establishment as a sovereign state, Israel is finally mature enough to deal with identity questions. We absorbed Jewish immigrants from over one hundred countries with many different Jewish affiliations, we maintain an ongoing honest dialog with our fellow Jews from overseas, and we allow tens of thousands of foreign workers and refugees to enter our country annually.  This all impacts who we are.

One of the foundational values of Israel is that it is and must remain a Jewish state. However, what does that mean? A Jewish state defined by religion, tradition, heritage, or culture? Do we have to pick and choose? I personally believe that all these definitions add many beautiful shades to my Jewish being, but do all members of this Jewish state share my belief? Surely not.

Building a state of Jews from many different backgrounds and traditions into a state for all its citizens is a process, one we need to go through to develop an identity, that while not uniform is still united. Perhaps there is no need to be as concerned by recent events where extremists tried to exclude women from the public space. Maybe these phenomena are merely the growing pains of a democracy?  We must remember–and remind others–that these few obnoxious men do not represent the entire ultra-Orthodox community. In fact, the majority of the Haredim in Israel oppose these terrible actions.

For decades, the Orthodox rabbinate has governed the state’s civil institutions. One is born, raised, married, divorced and buried based on Orthodox customs. Israelis celebrated Bar Mitzvah in an Orthodox synagogue, even though they were totally secular, because they believed that Orthodox Judaism was the only variety available. They just didn’t know any better. Since they were secular, they didn’t care enough to demand diverse options. However, in recent years, Israelis have learned more about the liberal streams of Judaism, and now, many are demanding that they be freed from the tyranny of one interpretation of Jewish life governing their lives.

This has allowed other denominations to rise, and invites secular Israelis to embrace Jewish text and traditions without giving up their identity. There is no reason to grade one’s identity as more Israeli or more Jewish. Judaism  doesn’t belong to only one stream. The two terms secular and yeshiva would never have been used together, but now the phrase means something, and it’s great.

The ultra-Orthodox community is becoming more open to new trends, as well, to social networks and to the Internet. For years, they led their lives within closed communities in Haredi ghettos. They were happy to isolate themselves, and the secular majority of Israelis were happy with that arrangement as well. New realities, exposure to what is going on around Israel and around the world, and the need to expand their communities and to move to new areas, has led to Haredim becoming more aware of what is going on and to most Israelis becoming more aware of them. In many ways, it’s a blessing. Many are now joining the army and are looking for professional training so they will be less dependent on government aid. But everything comes with a price and in this case, some Haredim have reacted in extreme ways.

If we are wise, brave and prepared, we will take this opportunity to engage in a very serious dialog. We need to be ready to ask difficult questions. This process may take a while, but it’s a necessary path towards becoming a real democracy. A democracy that like a tree has one stable trunk, with many branches and leaves.

Leah Garber, director, JCC Association Israel Office

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