They want to retreat centuries to a purer time when men were closer to God. No, not Islamists seeking to return to the time of Muhammad in the seventh century. I’m talking about the haredim, Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jews.
First, a bit of Torah. People have long believed in an idyllic past. Witness the Garden of Eden. Initially, Adam and Eve live in innocence. But the clever serpent talks Eve into violating God’s command thus earning women everlasting condemnation from conservative Christians, Muslims—and ultra-orthodox Jews. (Of course, as the narrator in my novel in progress, The Boy Walker, comments, “Remember, that schmuck Adam bit a chunk out of the forbidden fruit without a word of protest.”)
We see something of the same longing for the past in this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash. Jacob tells Pharaoh, “Few and hard have been the years of my life, nor do they come up to the life spans of my fathers during their sojourns” (Genesis 47:9). Jacob sees himself farther from God’s presence than Isaac and Abraham.
And the haredim? They march backward to their ideal spiritual past in the seventeenth century resisting change and scorning modernity. Fine. That’s their right. But they react with hatred and violence to those who seek a Judaism compatible with the contemporary world. And that’s wrong.
Witness the travails of the city of Beit Shemesh. Haredim, who impose strict standards of “modest” dress on their wives and daughters, segregate males and females in their publicly funded schools and seek to do the same on public transportation. In the name of God, they’ve spat on an eight-year-old orthodox girl named Naama Margolese. Grown men have called her a whore. Naama’s crime? She doesn’t dress like a haredi schoolgirl. Naama, on her way to school, is guilty of “encroaching” on haredi territory—an enclave on which the rest of Israel may not intrude. In fact, the haredim want Beit Shemesh split in two so they can have their own city with their own laws—funded by others since they don’t work but receive stipends form the government. The government says no. One state. One set of laws. But it’s not that simple. Segregated buses continue to run in Jerusalem with government sanction because of haredi political clout.
Anti-haredi protestors have taken to the streets in Beit Shemesh. How this matter will conclude is anyone’s guess. Israel gives small religious parties the power to be part of coalitions. Haredi minority parties can make or break a government. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party is likely to speak volumes but tread lightly.
Lest the U.S. rebuke Jerusalem for upholding a double standard—which Jerusalem does—consider this. A few weeks ago, Saudi Arabia beheaded a woman for practicing witchcraft. Our Salem witch trials ended long ago. But no public outcry came from the White House. And yesterday, Washington announced it is sending $30 billion worth of F-15 fighter jets to the kingdom. National security and all that.
The Israeli government can look to this and other precedents to excuse its accommodation of the haredim. It’s all politics. Sooner or later, Israelis will have to decide what kind of politics they will tolerate regarding those who will not tolerate them.
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