As tensions rise between Israel and Iran over the controversy surrounding the recent assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, an Iran nuclear scientist, a conflict in Israel over the very nature of the state has been arising. The conflict concerns the encroachment of the ultra-religious onto the country’s secular public life and institutions, and has been principally centred in Beit Shemesh, a demographically mixed town of 80,000 located in the heart of Jerusalem. Within this community, tensions between members of ultra-religious Haredim and more progressive religious Zionists have intensified following a series of incidents over the issue of female exclusion from public life.
Tensions came to a head after an incident on Beit Shemesh’s public bus line, the “Mahedrin,” which runs from Haredi population centres to the Old City and wider Jerusalem. Controversy erupted when a group of Haredi men sought to informally enforce religious law. When a secular female IDF soldier tried to sit near the front of the bus, she was verbally abused by Haredi men, hurling insults such as “Shikse,” a derogatory Yiddish term roughly translated as “prostitute” and implying “loose morals.” Furthermore, there have been many incidents of protest against the Orthodox girls’ school in Beit Shemesh, Orot Banot, in which men and boys from Haredi extremist groups such as “Neuturei Karta” and “Sirikim,” have thrown rocks and eggs at young, supposedly “immodestly” dressed girls. These actions have garnered widespread condemnation throughout Israel and from the larger Jewish Diaspora. More recently, the mayor of Beit Shemesh, Moshe Abutbul, came under fire for having a sign declaring separate designated walking areas for men and women. He argued, on behalf of the Haredim, for the public exclusion of women, claiming that the signs simply “kindly” ask women to respect the gender segregation by crossing the street and walking in their designated area.
This ongoing debate in Beit Shemesh represents the wider issue in Israeli society, concerning its nature as a hybrid system, in which civil secular law and religious law are both state-sanctioned. In light of these recent tensions between religious and secular citizens, the question now is whether this hybrid system can continue to ensure democracy and equal rights for all Israelis (Jewish and Arab alike) as well as religious values. Underlying this central issue is the practical issue of demographics, which has served to exacerbate the conflict. With Haredi family sizes growing, there is an increasingly sizeable segment of the population demanding that secular Israel law should be made subject to religious law. One thing is clear though. As the state of Israel continues to butt heads with Iran over its nuclear program, its own claim to fame as the only democracy in the region and an inherently Jewish state in the eyes of its visionary David Ben Gurion is under threat due to the careful erosion of civil rights, or at least respect for women. Now that’s Meshuggah.
Featured picture: David Shankbone