A schism within Israel’s society?

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The recent events that brought the ending of the exemption from compulsory military service for ultra-Orthodox men have shown the cracks between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox within Israel’s society.

The exemption, called Tal Law, started in 1948 when the Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion waived military service for 400 students; a number that increased over time to 37,000 in 2011.

They were dedicated to studying the Torah, Jewish Law, instead of doing military service that, in Israel lasts for 3 years for men and 2 for women. However, the Tal Law was suspended last August as Israel’s Supreme Court considered it unconstitutional.

With this decision, it is expected that the number of ultra-Orthodox conscripts will increase but not the interaction between them and the seculars. Prof. Yagil Levy, a senior lecturer at the Department of Sociology, Political Science and Communication in Open University of Israel, states that “the Haredi rabbis condition any integration (to the Israeli Forces) with separation to avoid secularization impacts and, of course, interaction with women”.

The Haredi, as the ultra-Orthodox are often known in Israel, traditionally keep to their own towns or neighbourhoods; they even have their own education system. Many ultra-Orthodox schools refuse to teach the core curriculum; so thousands of pupils grow up with only a rudimentary knowledge of maths and none of other sciences, foreign languages or non-religious history.

They also see the segregation between men and women as a strict religious rule to follow. This then creates clashes between them and the secular. For example, the attack of a woman for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Jerusalem and the harassment of an 8-year-old girl over her dress on her way to school in the town of Beit Shemesh last year.

Ultra-Orthodox men were responsible for these acts and justified their actions saying that they were defending the halakha (Jewish law). However, secular and moderately religious Israelis denounced these actions as a serious interference with their public lives. 

The conflict between secular and religious citizens in Israel is not something new; the above clashes are only the latest examples. In 1951, cars and buses were burnt in protest against those who did not follow the Sabbath observance, and, in 1958, ultra-Orthodox men protested against the opening of a mixed gender swimming pool in Jerusalem.

These examples draw a historical line of division between the secular and the religious community – a division that started even before the state was established.

When the state of Israel was created, a problem had to be addressed: how could a schism within the Jewish community be avoided? The decision was made to accommodate religious demands that were, at the same time, a challenge to the freedom of conscience guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence of Israel.

For example, in the 50’s, the rabbinical courts were granted with the absolute control of marriage and divorce laws, and the religious day of Sabbath was declared the national day of rest, which led to the prohibition of public transport on Saturdays.

These policies remain today in Israeli society which, among others, have created a sentiment of discontent among the secular population against the religious sector, as the former feel that the state has a permissive policy toward the latter.

Secular and moderately religious Israelis have come to see the ultra-Orthodox as an economic and social threat. More than half of ultra-Orthodox men are unemployed, in comparison with 14% of secular men, according to figures provided by the Israeli government – Figures that could increase,  as it is expected that the population of this group, which today conforms 10%, will rise to 17% in 20 years time. They have the highest birth rate, having, on average, eight children per family.

The situation among Israeli society is often described in the streets with the following sentence, “In Israel 1/3 of the nation serves in the army, 1/3 works, and 1/3 pays taxes. The problem is that this is all the same third”.

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