The A-Z of Israel
On 22 January, Israelis will go to the polls. The world watches – but how much do we really know about the country that calls itself “the sole bastion of democracy” in the Middle East?
A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
O is for Orthodox
Ultra-Orthodox Jews from the Vizhnitz Hasidic dynasty watch the funeral procesion of their rabbi Moshe Yehoshua Hager in March 2012. Photograph: Getty Images
David J Goldberg writes: From his election as chairman of the Jewish Agency in 1935 during the British Mandate until his retirement from the Knesset in 1970, the single most important figure in Israeli politics was David Ben-Gurion. His single biggest mistake during all those years at or near the helm was to insist in 1948, against the objections of his socialist colleagues, that religious parties be included in his coalition cabinet.
Ben-Gurion’s motive was understandable. A convinced secularist with a Marxist disdain for religion, he nevertheless wanted the first Jewish government in 2,000 years to be as broad-based as possible. The price he had to pay was to grant the Orthodox the final say in matters of Jewish status. That dispensation has never been rescinded, because their parties invariably are an indispensable factor in whichever coalition emerges after an election.
And they are canny in pushing their interests. From state funding for their schools and faith institutions to exemption for Talmudic students from military service (see T for To the End of the Land), they are experts at – if they will pardon the expression – pork barrel politics. To this day, Orthodox criteria define who is a Jew and who may or may not be religiously married or buried in Israel, although less than 20 per cent of the Israeli electorate ever votes for a religious party and four-fifths of Israelis are unabashedly secular.
Nor should it be imagined that the miniayatollahs in black gaberdine coats, with their prayer shawls and beards and side curls bobbing as they bustle through the streets of Jerusalem, are a cohesive group. They come in all shapes and varieties of belief, from Neturei Karta (“guardians of the city”), who don’t recognise the state because it was not established by the Messiah (but who enjoy its handouts), to adherents of Mizrachi, the religious Zionist party that seeks to build the state on Torah-true values. Various Hasidic branches do not recognise or talk to each other. The ultra-Orthodox – or Haredim, meaning “tremblers (before God)”, as they are known, who want to force women to the back seats on buses, recently spat at an eight-year-old girl for being immodestly dressed and declared it a sin to sell property to non-Jews – are not to be confused with the ultra-nationalist zealots who set up camps on hilltops in Judaea because they are part of “our sacred homeland”. Mainstream Orthodoxy, willing at least to recognise the challenges that sexual equality and women’s emancipation pose to traditional belief, is embarrassed to be associated with such fundamentalists.
Yet thanks to Israel’s unworkable system of proportional representation, this motley and diverse conglomerate, representing perhaps 10 per cent of the population but growing exponentially because of its fecund birth rate, five times the national average, always holds the electoral balance. Politicians of the right or left have to swallow their distaste and curry favour with the religious vote. Other branches of Judaism such as Reform or Conservative have established themselves in Israel, but their rabbis are denied recognition, their converts rejected and their synagogues refused state funding, all due to the coercive power wielded by the Orthodox rabbinate. Israel prides itself on being the only proper democracy in the Middle East; yet the excessive influence of religion on civil government has more in common with Iran, Egypt or Turkey than it does with western countries where separation of church from state is the norm.
An incident just over a year ago became a symbol of the worsening Kulturkampf between the Orthodox minority and the secular majority. Israel’s ministry of health decided to give a prize to a professor of paediatrics, Channa Maayan. Knowing that the ultra-Orthodox acting minister and other religious figures would attend the award ceremony, Prof Maayan dressed in long-sleeved blouse and ankle-length skirt and sat separately from her husband in the segregated women’s section. That was not enough. She was told that a male colleague would have to accept the prize on her behalf. Furious protests ensued.
In 1891, Achad Ha-Am, a formerly devout Jew-turned-humanist and advocate of “cultural” Zionism, paid his first visit to Palestine. The pervasiveness of conventional Orthodoxy appalled him. In a celebrated essay (“Truth from the Land of Israel”) he wrote:
I went first, of course, to the Wailing Wall. There I found many of our brothers, residents of Jerusalem, standing and praying with raised voices – also with wan faces, strange movements and weird clothing – everything befitting the appearance of that terrible Wall. I stood and watched them, people and Wall, and one thought filled the chambers of my heart: these stones are testaments to the destruction of our land. And these men? The destruction of our people.
Nowadays, the situation is even worse.
Dr David J Goldberg is emeritus rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London and the author of “This Is Not the Way: Jews, Judaism and Israel” (Faber & Faber, £14.99)