June 18, 2010


The Jewish Religious Conflict Tearing at Israel (Matthew Kalman, Jun. 17, 2010, TIME)

The parents at the center of Thursday's drama, followers of Rabbi Shmuel Berzovsky who leads the tiny Slonimer Hasidic sect, chose two weeks in jail rather than sending their daughters to the Beis Yaakov school near their homes in the religious West Bank settlement of Emanuel. Their reason? At the school, the Ashkenazi kids would mingle with religious Mizrahi kids, some of whom come from more secular extended families and therefore, say the Slonimers, could expose their sheltered daughters to unwanted influences from the wider world. And their imprisonment was the culmination of a two-year battle between the ultra-Orthodox sect, which effectively controls the school, and Israel's secular Supreme Court. Before the Beis Yaakov controversy, few people had heard of the Slonimer, named for the town in Belarus where their first rabbi lived 200 years ago, and the sect's internal power struggle between rival leaders in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. But the fight over the schoolgirls has united the tiny group and transformed it into the latest torchbearers of a festering feud between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular establishment.

Thursday's demonstration was the largest in Jerusalem since ultra-Orthodox protesters gathered in similar numbers in 1999 in a show of strength against the supposed antireligious bias of Israel's Supreme Court. A decade on, the gap between the two entities is wider than ever, with running debates over such issues as the power of religious courts, state subsidies for religious students, religious exemption from military service and access to public roads on the Sabbath.(How the Sephardim gained political clout in Israel.)

In August 2009, the Supreme Court ruled that a separate stream created in Beis Yaakov school two years ago for the Slonim amounted to "rampant discrimination" against the rest of the pupils, who are 95% Mizrahi. The court ordered the school, which is financed by the state, to remove the physical barriers and integrate the classes. For six months, the parents defied the court. When the barriers finally came down, 43 families removed their daughters and then sent them to another state-funded school in Bnei Brak, an hour's drive away. But parents are not allowed to move their kids from one school to another in the middle of a school year without permission from the education authorities, and their departure left the Beis Yaakov school with too few kids to be viable.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that the parents must return their daughters to the now desegregated school by Thursday or report to jail.

The open defiance of the parents led opposition leader Tzipi Livni to wonder aloud about the future of the rule of law in Israel and the deafening silence of government ministers scared of offending ultra-Orthodox parties that hold the balance of power. "I have heard that there is a group of people who have said ahead of time that they refuse to accept a Supreme Court decision," Livni told supporters this week. "There is no room for such declarations in a democratic state. I am not a fan of the Supreme Court's involvement in all issues, but when the political and state leadership does not accept decisions based on the values of the state of Israel, the Supreme Court has no choice."

Israel's other demographic challenge (Tim Franks, 9/03/07, BBC News).

The Haredim live in a world apart from modern, westernised West Jerusalem, devoting their lives to the study of Jewish law and thought, practising what they see as the purest form of Judaism.

It is widely accepted that Palestinian population growth in Israel and the occupied territories is a major strategic issue for Israel.

But the proportion of ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews is also growing, approximately three times as fast as the rest of the population.

In a country where every 18-year-old Jew is supposed to join the army - and which has faced six major conflicts with its neighbours and battled two Palestinian uprisings - that Haredi population growth poses some urgent questions.

The ultra-orthodox do not face compulsory conscription; they are exempted from national service in order to continue their religious studies.

Once it was a tiny minority which took that route; now they account for more than 10% of draft-age Israeli Jews. By 2019, the government forecasts they will constitute almost one in four.

Former Deputy Prime Minister Yosef Lapid represents a constituency in Israel that asks whether Haredi behaviour is not in fact undermining the Jewish state.

"I have nothing against them because they are religious," says Mr Lapid. "I very much oppose the fact that they don't serve in the army. They represent God in God's country, but don't defend God's country".

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 18, 2010 5:59 AM
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