Saturday, October 30, 2010

Israel and Its Religious Right

When the word “Jew” is used, does it elicit thoughts of an ethnic group, or thoughts of a member of a religion? This is not a trivial question. It is one that has bedeviled “Jews” since before the formation of Israel as a state.

In 1948 the Zionist leaders, who were mostly planning on a secular homeland for all Jews, made a Faustian bargain with an Orthodox religious group referred to as the “Chief Rabbinate.” Authority for the Chief Rabbinate was first ceded by the British decades before. The net result was that Israel would share governmental and judicial responsibilities with this religious group. This inclusion of a specific religious sect into the fabric of the state would have significant ramifications for any who would call themselves Jews, and, today, may pose an existential threat to the democratic state of Israel. A reference for these issues can be found here.

Not surprisingly, this Chief Rabbinate was given responsibility for interpreting and mandating specific religious functions for religious Jews. What is startling is that the state also gave them responsibility for all marriages and divorces and the authority to decide who was legally a Jew. There are no civil marriages in Israel. If you do not wish an Orthodox marriage, or you do not qualify, you must leave the country to get married. Marriages in other countries are recognized by the state.

This mixture of secular and religious in the governance of the state gives rise to a number of issues that an outsider might consider quaint, or even humorous. The Orthodox religious have their own political party. While not large numerically, within the splintered party landscape of Israeli politics this group can have inordinate influence.

One of the issues being contended by the religious conservatives is whether or not the government’s computer should be allowed to operate on the Sabbath. Another issue revolves around the allowance of a subsidy for religious studies.
“During its six decades of existence Israel has maintained a shaky alliance with its ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority that allowed most religious men to avoid military service, attend separate schools and get paid by the state to study the Bible instead of entering the work force.”

“But this system is coming under new scrutiny, pressured by a series of Supreme Court rulings, an ambitious education minister and the hugely unpopular cost of sustaining a fast-growing ultra-Orthodox population that has few skills for the 21st century and now accounts for one in four Jewish first graders — and growing.”
This is becoming a major issue, with schools and education becoming the focal points.
“Some 245,000 students — about one in every six in Israel — are enrolled in ultra-Orthodox schools from grades 1-12, according to the Education Ministry. The schools, which emphasize religious studies, are essentially run by nonprofit organizations that do not answer to the state, though they receive government funds.”

“Many secular Israelis see the ultra-Orthodox, with their large families, as a financial drain and are growing less willing to subsidize them when half of their men don't work — preferring to study the Torah— and their children are taught little math and science. They warn that if the system continues it could ultimately undermine a country that has become a high-tech powerhouse with vibrant media and culture.”
So much for the quaint. This comingling of the religious and the secular has a dark side also. One serious issue involves the definition of who is a Jew. Only the Orthodox version of Judaism is officially recognized in Israel. That leaves the Conservative and Reform movements in a kind of awkward position. A few months ago there was a law proposed that would extend the power of the Orthodox rabbis to validate, or not, all conversions to Judaism, not just those in Israel. Most practicing Jews in the U.S. are in either Conservative or Reform movements—neither are recognized as valid religions by the Orthodox.
“What's at stake here? For some, Jewish identity comes by straightforward means: a mother who is Jewish. A conversion conducted by an Orthodox rabbi in Israel, or any recognized rabbi outside of Israel. The new bill will render any non-Orthodox conversions invalid.”
In effect, the Orthodox are telling the Jews of the rest of the world that we will take your money, and we will let you fight and die for us, but don’t think of yourselves as being true Jews. This proposed law passed an Israeli committee, bur was eventually killed—for now. A number of letters went out from U.S. Senate offices asking the Israeli Ambassador whether they had lost their minds.

Smug religious fundamentalists are intolerant and intolerable wherever you find them.
“A frequent complaint of Christian clergy in Israel is being spat at by Jews, often haredi yeshiva students. Even Christian ceremonial processions have been alleged to have been spat at, with one incident near the Holy Sepulchre causing a fracas which led to the destruction of the Armenian Archbishop's 17th-century cross. The Anti-Defamation League has called on the chief Rabbis to speak out against the interfaith assaults. One Christian complained that the spitting was ‘almost a daily experience’.”
The most serious ramifications of this religious fundamentalism are in the area of international relations. The world wants to see a two-state solution arrived at in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. The religious conservatives want to see Israel’s lands restored to their Biblical boundaries—the ones God promised them. Gadi Taub wrote a column addressing this issue.
“The secular Zionist dream was fundamentally democratic. Its proponents, from Theodor Herzl to David Ben-Gurion, sought to apply the universal right of self-determination to the Jews, to set them free individually and collectively as a nation within a democratic state. (In fact, the Zionist movement had a functioning democratic parliament even before it had a state.)”

“This dream is now seriously threatened by the religious settlers’ movement, Orthodox Jews whose theological version of Zionism is radically different. Although these religious settlers are relatively few — around 130,000 of the total half-a-million settlers — their actions could spell the end of the Israel we have known.”
Taub says these people have religious convictions that are narrowly focused.
“....a single commandment: to settle all the land promised to the ancient Hebrews in the Bible....disciples, energized by a burning messianic fervor, took Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War of 1967 as confirmation of this theology and set out to fulfill its commandment. Religious enthusiasm made the movement subversive in a deep sense — adherents believed they had a divine obligation to build settlements and considered the authority of Israel’s democratic government conditional on its acceptance of what they declared to be God’s politics.”
Taub worries that a democratic Israel cannot survive if these people get their way, because the only way for Israel to rule such an entity would be by establishing an apartheid regime. Actually, there are three other options. One can enslave the Palestinians, one can drive them out, or one can kill them—all methods approved by the Bible.

I fear this will not end well.

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