The Conundrum of Religious Freedom for Jews

May 10, 2010 at 8:47 PM 3 comments

Written By

Lewis D. Eigen

The Jewish prisoner flinched at the accusations of the police officer.  Wearing a traditional white and blue Jewish prayer shawl and publicly praying was so offensive to public morality that for the sake of order in the community, the religious authorities and the police officer had to act.  He had nothing personal against the accused, but it was his job to maintain a level of public order and decorum.  So many people had been so offended by the accused that he had to act.  People took their religion very seriously.  God himself had told man how to behave, and this misguided Jew goes out in public and offends most of the serious, fundamentalist religious believers.  It was not just the clerics stirring up hate.  So many people thought that God and they were being mocked by someone who had no respect for the word of God or man’s religious traditions.

The date was November 18, 2009.  The place most of us assume was probably Saudi Arabia or Iran.  That the fundamentalist Moslem bigots would not allow a Jew to pray in public.  That is the so called law in those countries that blatantly flaunt standards of religious tolerance and commonly violate the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  But this particular gross denial of Jewish religious rights was not in those countries.  It was not even in a Moslem nation.  Nor a Christian one for that matter.  It took place in the Jewish state of Israel.  The police officers were themselves Jewish.

Surly you would think there is more to this story than just someone praying in a traditional Jewish tallit.  And there is.  The felon, as the violation that was charged is a felony in Israel, was a woman.  And her crime was to pray at the Wailing Wall, the holiest location in the world for many orthodox Jews.

In most orthodox Jewish tradition, men and women pray separately in a synagogue and there is segregation of the sexes in orthodox schools and other institutions.  The Arabs who had control of the old city of Jerusalem, would never allow Israeli Jews to pray at the Wall.  When the Israeli’s gained control of the old city, people of all faiths were allowed to pray at their respective sites as had occurred 1800 years ago and before.  But when Israel finally gained control of the Wailing Wall, women initially were not allowed to pray at the Wall.  For Jewish women, the difference the Jewish control of the Old City meant was that it was the Israeli Authorities who would prevent them from praying at the Wall instead of the Jordanian authorities who had prevented them earlier along with Jewish men.

Israel is a modern democracy where the rule of law is supposed to prevail.  So a number of Israelis brought a case through the Israeli courts to the Supreme Court and obtained a ruling that there could be no such discrimination.  Women had to be given access to the Wall—not just men.

Background:  Religion in Israel

At this point, we pause for a little background about religion in Israel.  Today, the Orthodox Jews only make up about one-third of the Jewish population, not the whole population including Christians, Moslems and a smattering of others.  The “ultra-orthodox”, a smaller percentage.  The non-Orthodox Jews have always outnumbered the Orthodox, even before Israel’s official founding in 1948.  The Orthodox tend to have many more children than the non-Orthodox, and so they have been growing more rapidly than the non-Orthodox Jews, slowly increasing the proportion of the former.  This demographic shift was halted somewhat when the Jews were allowed to leave the Soviet Union and so many emigrated to Israel. Almost all were secular Jews.  The religious separation of the sexes and the rank discrimination against females is therefore only overtly practiced by two MINORITY groups in Israel, the Moslems and the Orthodox Jews.  The majority of Israelis are like the majority of citizens of most Western industrial democracies—a good bit of cultural sexism is still existent, but legally women are treated equally—except where the Orthodox Jews and the Moslems are concerned.  The public schools are coeducational, the universities are, there are plenty of women in the Knesset (Parliament) and in Government.  Israel has had a female Prime Minister, Golda Meir.  The Jewish civil courts are secular and women’s rights have been upheld by male and female sitting judges.  So how did this arrest incident come about?


History is rarely as critical in understanding contemporary politics and government as it is in understanding modern Israel.  1948 was a trauma for both Arabs and Jews in different ways.  We hear about the Arab trauma and the displaced Arabs, but many of us Americans, Jews included, are unaware of the religious and political machinations that occurred in Palestine prior to 1948.  It was no secret that the new Jewish State would be attacked by some Arabs after the United Nations resolution recognizing the newly independent state of Israel was passed. The large number of Arab armies that attacked was surprising but not Arab attacks per se.  The fledgling, Jewish government, led by the secular great statesman David Ben Gurion, had three major opponents of Israel as a Jewish state other than the Arabs.  Western Anti-Semites were one opposing group.  The United States State Department was another.  They were concerned that American access to Middle East oil would be curtailed by the Arabs if the United States supported Israel as a Jewish nation.  The third force was, by far, the most powerful and most troublesome.  It was the Jewish ultra Orthodox fundamentalists.  They were opposed to a human declared and established state.  God had already consecrated Israel for the Jewish people and no politicians, Jewish or non-Jewish could interfere with that.  The Jewish state had been established by God.  The Bible and Orthodox literature is very clear about how God ordained how the Jewish state should be operated.  No man-made Constitution could be placed higher than the word of God.  From a political and theological point of view, the belief structure of the Orthodox fundamentalist leaders of the day was logically essentially that of the Islamic Fundamentalist leaders today in Iran.  Man must not be allowed to have his highest allegiance to a civil state; or to any civil officials.  God takes precedence.  Voting and the will of a human majority cannot determine what is God’s word and what is not.  The only difference between those extreme fundamentalist Jews and the extreme Iranian Moslem theocracy leaders of today was the different scripture and literature that they used to reveal the word of God.  Otherwise they are in agreement about this point.  In 1947, Ben Gurion could not even claim in his dealings with the world that he was speaking for all the Jews of Palestine, and a number opposed his, or any other, notion of a modern, civil government.  The fundamentalists had opposed the Zionists for years.  Meanwhile it was only a matter of time before the Arabs would attack.  The Jews had to have a united front and the concept of a modern nation to organize political support in the world, obtain arms for defense, and organize a united Jewish effort in Palestine.

The Deal

David Ben Gurion and the Zionist secular politicians cut a deal with the religious fundamentalists.[1]  A formal letter was sent by Ben Gurion and a few other civil leaders to a leading Orthodox rabbi that outlined the “deal”.  The new nation state was to recognize the Jewish Sabbath.  The liberal, civil Zionists having been forced to recognize Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, in the rest of the world, were inclined to have no official Sabbath.  Each person could observe whatever day he preferred or no day at all.  The new state would stay out of it.  Those early Jewish political leaders realized that they would have a state that would include Moslems, Christians and Jews, and varying sects of each, and the last thing they wanted the new government to cope with was to get religion mixed up with the civil administration of the nation.  But that was not to be.  Other parts of the deal included the agreement that state operated dining facilities for Jews would maintain the Kosher dietary laws.  And the state would pay for a Jewish orthodox religious education for those parents who wanted it.  But the most profound part of the deal was to make personal matters of law in the nation consistent with ultra orthodox views of religious law.  This has evolved to include marriage and divorce, citizenship, religious education, and many aspects of military service, consumerism, transportation and other areas.  From the beginning of the modern Israeli state, there have also been religious political parties and these, insisting on the government honoring the 1947 deal, have had absolute or de facto control of the government ministries and offices responsible for critical areas of Israeli personal life—religious and secular.

Modern Consequences of “The Deal”

Here are some of the modern consequences of the 1947 deal.  Orthodox Jewish men who study religion (a large proportion of the ultra Orthodox, and Orthodox women are not required to serve in the military as are all other Israeli Jewish citizens.  (Opinions differ among the Orthodox, and some serve and do not claim the exemption, while others—the ultra Orthodox for example, usually do claim their exemption.)  The men may instead study Torah (in religious schools paid for by the secular and religious taxpayers).  There is no such thing as a civil marriage in Israel—only a religious marriage.  (Christians and Moslems have their own recognized religious marriage ceremony.)  The Jewish Orthodox control immigration policy.  Jews, the world over, can become citizens of Israel and will often receive much financial aid when they do so.  But it is the Orthodox who make the rules as to who is a Jew and run the hearings and administrative units to adjudicate individual cases.  While the Orthodox do not have total control over the non-religious schools, they do, in most governments, either control or have many officials of the Ministry of Education.  Most importantly, the orthodox synagogues receive state taxpayer money to pay for the Rabbis and subsidize other religious functions.  And here is where raw, naked, religious politics has infected Israel.  The Jewish Fundamentalists realize that they have a constant potential battle on their hands.  The taxpayers of Israel, as in most democracies, prefer to keep the tax rates as low as possible.  But Israel has huge, defensive, military needs.  And while most people do not realize it, the major driver of the vibrant Israeli economy (domestic and export) is science and technology.  The nation spends, even compared to America, a much larger proportion of its national budget for universities and scientific research—much of it basic research.  Even Israeli corporations are eligible for publicly funded science projects.  Taxes are high.

No Religiohs Funds for Conservative or Reform Jews

However, the Orthodox and ultra Orthodox, like any other special interest group in a democracy, want more for their purposes.  From a fairness point of view, we would assume that if the Orthodox rabbis get paid with government funds, so would the Conservative or Reform Rabbis.  There is no fair way that some rabbis would get state funds and others do not.  So the Orthodox, using their control over the Ministry of Religion, have created a brilliant, creative, solution to avoid sharing public money with the Conservative and Reform rabbis, which would run up the national costs and risk a taxpayer revolt.  They simply define a Rabbi as only an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi.  Others, by law are not even rabbis.  How do they get away with that in a democracy?  Simple, they define the theological institutions who can ordain rabbis and only include very orthodox and fundamentalist institutions.  A Reform rabbi would “flunk out”, as would an orthodox Rabbi trying to get ordained in a Protestant theological seminary or a Reform Jewish Theological Seminary.  In America, most of the Jews are Reform or Conservative.  The Orthodox are a small minority (22%) of American Jews, as they are in Israel of Israeli Jews (about 25%).  But an American Reform or Conservative, fully ordained rabbi, is not allowed to perform ANY official religious function in Israel, as there are no Israeli Reform or Conservative Rabbis recognized.  Ironically, while some American Orthodox couples will go to Israel to be married at the Wall or other religious location, many Israeli Jews come to America to marry.  The Greek Orthodox citizens of Cyprus have developed a very lucrative, major industry—Jewish marriage.  Israeli secular, Conservative or Reform Jews take a short plane ride to Cyprus where there are official Conservative and Reform Rabbis, licensed by the state of Cyprus, who perform marriages with ceremonies that would not be allowed in Israel.  One standing, sarcastic joke is, “What countries prohibit a Jew from being married bythe Rabbi of his choice?  The answer:  Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel.”

Consequences of Religious Discrimination in Israel

There are more serious consequences of this bizarre, religious discrimination in Israel.  One case being investigated now occurred during the Gaza incursion earlier.  There are Orthodox Rabbis who serve as Chaplains for the Israeli Defense Forces.  They are theoretically military officers under military and governmental authority.  However, a few military Rabbis had a different point of view of the Gaza incursion than the Government and military officials had.  They told some Israeli soldiers that they were fulfilling a Biblical mandate to drive the enemies of Israel out of the land God consecrated for the Jews—of which Gaza was an important Biblical component.  They contradicted  government objectives —which were to demobilize Hamas and Hamas facilities that were used or could be used by Hamas for rocketing Israel and retire.  Some of the Orthodox rabbis actually distributed “official” IDF literature to some Jewish troops that read:

“There is a biblical ban on surrendering a single millimeter of the Land of Israel to gentiles, though all sorts of impure distortions and foolishness of autonomy, enclaves and other national weaknesses. We will not abandon it to the hands of another nation, not a finger, not a nail of it.”

There had been no military of governmental approval of these “official publications”[2] which had been printed without authority or permission by a few of the ultra orthodox, military rabbis.  In almost any other army, the chaplains–military officers, would have been court marshaled, and there would have been public trials and government rebukes.  But those particular Rabbis did not.  Investigaritons and prosecutions were quashed.  As will be explained a little later, the peculiar political situation gives the small, orthodox political parties de facto ability to even prevent the vaunted Israeli Defense Forces of maintaining reasonable discipline and prohibit undermining a policy of the government of which they were a part.  Thus far, the orthodox parties have been able to even prevent any investigations of the events and consequences.  Israel has been accused of some violations of international law by the soldiers “motivated” by the rogue publications and the influence of the few rabbis, but even the IDF and the Government cannot defend against the accusations—which are probably much exaggerated as almost all that stem from Arab sources have proved to have been in the past.  There are serious foreign policy implications for Israel by appearing to cover up wrongdoing.  There are probably few things the military leadership would have wanted as much as to get rid of these rabbinical trouble makers and potential dangers to the Israeli state.  But the government will not allow it, for, as will be explained later, the government itself might well fall over such an action.

The “criminal” rabbis however do not, as their predecessors did not in 1947, recognize any civil government as having a higher authority than their reading and understanding of Holy Scripture.  This manifests itself most negatively with the so called “settlements” policy and practice.  Many Israeli settlers constantly beginning new settlements, almost all extreme orthodox, fundamentalist Jews, simply pay little or no attention to the government policies, the government orders, the military orders, and the orders of the Israeli civil courts.  No sooner will the Israeli courts issue an order against the settlers and in favor of the Palestinians whose land is being taken over—usually without any compensation, than some Orthodox Rabbinic legal authority or member of a religious court will issue a contrary opinion.  Although this has no legal standing in the otherwise excellent, modern and democratic Israeli civil legal system, the settlers just act as if the religious interpretation were the law—and to them it is, God’s law and not man’s.

Not a Uniquely Jewish Problem

This is not a uniquely Jewish problem.  This conflict between civil and religious law went on for hundreds of years in Christian Europe before finally civil law took precedence (literally over many dead bodies).  It is not a new problem, and is studied by political, and historical scholars extensively, but it is not usually associated with the Jews.

The Israeli Political System

Most observers from Western democracies are puzzled as to why any Government puts up with this absurd flouting and corruption of the national legal system which purports to be civil.  Even a deal of over 60 years ago would not control the country’s domestic and foreign policy of today.  But in Israel it does in part because of the Israeli parliamentary system combined with the history and the existential threat that the nation faces from the Palestinians and many Arab states.

There are many political parties in Israel, and it is quite easy for a small, splinter, minority party to have just a few seats in the Knesset—the parliament.  No single party in recent years has won a majority of the seats in the Knesset.  The only way for a government to be formed is to create some kind of a political coalition.  In the current Netanyahu led, Conservative, coalition government, the orthodox religious parties have enough seats to, at any time, withdraw from the coalition and cause the Government to fall.  The Conservative Party, heading the present government coalition, did not even win a plurality of the seats.  The opposition did, but would not promise enough to the religious parties to gain their participation to form a coalition with enough seats to have a majority.  The Conservatives were more pliable in what powers they would cede to the religious parties.  Realize that this is very different from an American president with a close majority of Congress, losing a big Congressional vote because some legislators will switch parties or just vote against their own party.  Nothing else changes in our system.  The law goes down, but the government goes on.  However, in Israel, that single vote could cause the entire government to fall and all the cabinet ministers and many other officials to change immediately if another coalition then forms a majority.  The reality is that most Israeli governments cannot afford to enforce a court decision on which the Orthodox want to take a firm stand in opposition and are willing to bring down the government—a government which religiously they do not believe has much, if any, validity.  When there are ultra Orthodox religious party members as government ministerial or sub-ministerial officials, the situation is even more difficult.  They frequently ignore the civil law and the courts and do what their personal interpretation of religious law tells them.  On other occasions, the Orthodox will compromise and allow the civil interpretation to prevail.  It is hard to predict, but the government major party “leaders” are quite intimidated and always have to assess when overruling orthodox officials who blatantly violate the civil law whether or not their enforcement of the civil law will cause their government to collapse.  Few of any political persuasion in Israel want a public battle out in the open.

A Woman Beaten by Haradi

One dramatic, recent, example that was incredibly embarrassing for the Israeli, Netanyahu, Conservative government was an incident where Miriam Shear, an American Jewish visitor, got on a public Israeli bus that was going through an ultra-orthodox neighborhood.  She paid her fare and took a seat.  But the driver told her to “go to the back of the bus”—to the “women’s section.”  This triggered memories of Rosa Parks and the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960s in the woman, and she refused to move.  Many American Jews had fought hard, and some died,  for the right of Black men and women to sit anywhere on the bus where there was an open seat.  This Jewish woman was not herself going to the back of the bus.  Then a few ultra-Orthodox Jewish males actually physically assaulted her, injuring her, and forcibly ejected her from the public bus.  “She was slapped, kicked, punched and pushed by a group of men who demanded that she sit in the back of the bus with the other women.”[3] The driver, a government employee, did nothing.  He did not even call for the police on his emergency radio.  Later, he even tried to cover up the assault and denied it had occurred.

Mrs. Shear in retrospect observed:[4]

“It never crossed my mind that I would be inviting a beating by refusing to move to the back of the bus. The most I expected were some heated verbal exchanges. I honestly did not believe that frum men would beat up on a woman on a public Non-Mehadrin bus over the seating arrangement.  The beating was bad enough. The fact that nobody came to my assistance during this melee was just as shameful. Equally disdainful were those who voiced support for those engaged in the assault.”

What she was referring to was the response of many ultra orthodox who blamed her as a “radical” and “trouble maker.” (It does bring back the unpleasant memories of the 1960s bus integration of the American South.)  Others claimed that Shear was never attacked and she was just fabricating the incident.  However, there were witnesses.  According to Yehoshua Meyer, one of the eyewitness to the incident, Shear’s account was entirely accurate. “I saw everything,” he said.

“Someone got on the bus and demanded that she go to the back, but she didn’t agree. She was badly beaten and her whole body sustained hits and kicks. She tried to fight back and no one would help her. I tried to help, but someone was stopping me from getting up. My phone’s battery was dead, so I couldn’t call the police. I yelled for the bus driver to stop. He stopped once, but he didn’t do anything. When we finally got to the Kotel [Western Wall], she was beaten badly and I helped her go to the police.”[5]

The great irony was the Mrs. Shear was taking the bus to pray at the Western Wall early in the morning.  Women were discriminated against not only in the locus of prayer at the holiest of Jewish sites but also in their transportation to the holy wall.

What had happened was that some Orthodox officials in the Department of Transportation acceded to the “wishes” of the ultra Orthodox that for buses that they use extensively, the gender separation on the bus was to be implemented.  It had been going that way for some months until the American woman, in effect, blew the whistle on the cozy, religious, but clearly illegal arrangement.  Even the Conservative government didn’t want the result that they got.  They apologized to the woman, made all kinds of statements about how this was not government policy, but never did discipline the driver or arrest the men who assaulted the woman.  They never even tried to identify the higher-up government officials in the Transportation Department who had agreed to the illegal arrangement to begin with.  They just kicked the can down the road.

The Israeli Supreme Court

The Israeli Supreme Court is very much respected in the legal circles of most democratic countries of the world.  But not much in Israel.  For the Orthodox government officials to ignore a Supreme Court decision or order is not a rare event.  For example, The Supreme Court ruled that anyone who was converted to Judaism in any country of the world, is entitled to citizenship in Israel.  At first the Orthodox refused that standard by “deciding” that a conversion by a Reform or Conservative rabbi was NOT a conversion according to the word of God.  But the zealots in the Interior Ministry will not even accept a conversion done by a “foreign” Orthodox rabbi whom they do not know.  If the rabbi is not orthodox enough, his conversion is “not legitimate.”  So,

“In every other Jewish community in the world, an Ilana (an orthodox Jew whose conversion is not accepted) is Jewish. Not in Israel. This is because the Interior Ministry has taken it upon itself to review conversions that were performed worldwide in terms of its own bureaucratic criteria.”[6] 

To the Israeli fundamentalists, they answer to a “Higher Authority” than the Supreme Court.

The Jewish Religious Battles at the Wailing Wall

So with this background, the behavior at the Wailing Wall begins to focus into a clearer picture.  The Western Wall itself has been the scene of a number of Israeli religious battles—not with Moslems or Christians but with other Jews.  When the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that women could not be excluded from praying at the Wall, there was (and still is) a Fundamentalist Orthodox rabbi (appointed by the orthodox Ministers of Religion) who has administrative charge of the Wall and the surrounding area as this falls under the aegis of The Religion Ministry.  This Rabbi refused to obey the court order, and his superiors in the ministry would not instruct him to do so.  After some back and forth over a couple of years, the Government finally cut a deal with the Orthodox, and a small, nondescript area of the wall, hardly visible to the males praying at the wall, would be opened for women only.  A large screen was erected so that male Wall supplicants would not be “offended” by the sight of women doing what they themselves were doing—praying.  So an Israeli couple (or visitors) who wanted to share the experience of the holiest site in Judaism were not allowed to pray together.  They have to separate and do their praying out of site of each other.  The Western Wall was to be treated, from a religious point of view, as an ultra orthodox synagogue and from a civil point of view with the same gender separation as only a public toilet is allowed.

Women of the Wall

Meanwhile there is a fascinating Israeli civil rights organization called “Women of the Wall” which had finally obtained the original right for women to pray at the wall.  A couple of years ago, there was a group of American women from a New York City synagogue who were making a tour of Israel, and since women now had a Wailing Wall area at which they could pray, they asked the Women of the Wall to arrange it.  This was done.  The women went to the women’s section, opened their Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament in handwritten scroll form) and began to pray.  The group included Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jewish women.  (There is a growing movement of Orthodox Jewish women for reform of the extreme sexism of Orthodox Judaism, much like what exists among some pious Roman Catholic women with respect to their religion.) The sight of women holding a Torah and praying, however, outraged and inflamed some of the more ultra Orthodox men who always “patrol” the Wall area like the Iranian religious police do so in Iran.  There is nothing in the Bible that prohibits a woman from holding a Torah and praying or leading a prayer.  As a matter of religious history, even the Jewish scriptures describe some such instances.  And orthodox religious history has many examples of women as prayer leaders for other women.[7]  However, for thousands of years it had not been common.  The Reform Jewish movement in the United States however began to have a ceremony for girls at the age of 13 which corresponded to the male bar mitzvah—a bas mitzvah.  In the bar mitzvah ceremony, the young man, for the first time takes his place as an adult religious Jew and carries the Torah around the congregation after praying from it and demonstrating his prowess at reading Hebrew and his understanding of the word of God.  The Reform American congregations just extended the practice to 13 year old girls, and in America, tens of thousands of girls go through the ceremony each year.

American Orthodox Jews Split

The American Orthodox movement is split.  They all tend to agree that this is against the tradition and the pronouncements of some of the more conservative ancient Jewish theologians who wanted women kept in a circumscribed role or who felt so directed by God.  But as American members of the religious minority who depend for their freedom to be Orthodox Jews on American legal and cultural tolerance and our American Constitution, they can hardly argue that other Jews should be denied their rights to have females pray with Torah, Tallis or anything else.  Not so, the Israeli Ultra Orthodox—the Haradi.  For them, the land of Israel is the place where they do not have to fight for the right to practice Judaism the way God mandated.  Israel is the Jewish nation where God’s commandments rule, and the norms and standards are those of the people who follow the Lord’s way.  The fact that they are a minority—even in Israel—does not matter.  They, like many Moslem and Christian fundamentalists reject democracy for the establishment of such fundamental issues.  They rely on two imperatives:  God’s laws and the 1947 deal which gives the Orthodox, not only the moral and religious right to define the norms of the society, but also the civil clout to make it all happen.  Many American Orthodox Jews have very strong ties to the Israeli ultra Orthodox.  They can hold dual citizenship, have family connections, business relationships, and jet travel allows them to move back and forth frequently.  Some American ultra-Orthodox envy their Israeli co-religionists in the sense that the latter have the power of the state to normalize the word of God while in America the Orthodox Jews have to form enclaves of the willing in order to obtain limited normalization.  And in Israel, at the beginning of the 21st century, the norm the Haradi promulgate is that women shall not lead prayers or hold torahs—especially at the Holy of Holies, the Wall.

The Chairwoman of Women of the Wall, Anat Hoffman, is a very sophisticated former politician (Jerusalem City Council Member), who phrased her objections to the arrests at the Wall in classic, stark, civil rights terms.

 “It is unthinkable that a citizen of the State of Israel is arrested for donning a prayer shawl and holding a scroll. There were hundreds of people on the other side of the screen (where the men pray) who did the same and nothing happened to them.”[8] 

The government official who triggered the arrests, from a political point of view, played right into Hoffman’s political protest.  Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitz stated,

“It is an act of provocation that seeks to turn the Western Wall into disputed territory … A prayer that causes contention and desecration of the sanctity of the Western Wall has no value. It is an act of protest.”[9] 

This ultra orthodox, revanchist rabbi tends to remind Americans who recall the Civil Rights Movement of the arguments of racists like George Wallace and Bull Conner.  The arguments, and faulty logic is the same.  The rhetoric is the same.  The resort to violence and intimidation is the same.

To this rabbi, an act of protest is not only unimportant but invalidates prayer. It itself is an amazing theological statement for a representative of a people who have had, in most nations, no other tools but prayer and protest for thousands of years.  Ironically, Israel is one of the countries of the world that civilly gives the greatest of respect to the right of protest.  Minority party protests, Arab protests, Christian protests, gay pride protests, are all standard fare in democratic Israel.  But for a Jew to protest what the Rabbi believes is the command of the Lord, is “beyond the pale.”  There are many of the ultra-Orthodox who agree with this particular rabbi, but most Israelis do not.  The Israeli press, one of the most independent and aggressive in the world, cover the protests extensively, as they did the beating of the woman who would not sit in the back of the bus and the arrest at the Wall.  Yet there is no change.

Discrimination Agaisnt Females

Most moderns, especially Americans, including Jewish Americans, decry the Islamic Law (Sharia) which makes a woman’s testimony in a court of law worth only a fraction of that of a man.  In a rape accusation where there are only the accused man and the accusing woman, the woman will never prevail.  Giving a woman’s testimony less weight is considered by most modern people virtually barbaric.  Yet many ultra orthodox Jewish rabbis are worse than the most fendamentalist Islamic mullahs on this particular point.  The Rabbis give NO CREDENCE to a woman’s testimony—none at all.  Actually, some historians credit Mohammad with modernizing the state of women with Islam.  For Jews and Christians, the woman had no testimonial weight.  Mohammed gave her a little.

There is a particualr case known among many of the ultra orthodox in Israel and in America.  This is a very notorious case among the very small group of people who are interested in the role of Jewish religious law in modern democratic society.  An American, ultra orthodox rabbi was accused of sexual assault by an orthodox religious woman who wanted her case heard by the Rabbinical Court (a method of dealing with legal matters that is used voluntarily, even in America, by some Jewish orthodox).  However, the rabbi denied any impropriety, and the Jewish court had no evidence of guilt according to its own rules—the woman’s testimony is given NO WEIGHT.  However, a number of women then came forth and told of similar assaults on them by this same rabbi.  Under Islamic law, he could be convicted as there were more than enough women whose testimony could equal the rabbi’s.  But not so in Jewish law.  The rabbi then had the chutzpa to claim that it was irrelevant how many women accused him (N times zero is still zero regardless of how large N is). Only the testimony of a man could be relied on, and that was the law.  Fortunately even amongst the ultra orthodox Jews on the rabbinical court there is not a monolithic unity of ideas.  The Rabbi was convicted although the court simply ignored the precedent.  Jewish law or not; justice came first.  They never even tried to explain their logic.  They just nailed the guy.

No Constitution in Israel

In Israel, there is no gender discrimination in the civil courts which are some of the best in the modern world.  But what might happen if the Haradi ever got control of the Justice Ministry?  Israel, incidentally has NO CONSTITUTION to protect citizens from a government that is extreme.  Even many Jews who have been supporters of Israel are unaware of this.  Why should that be?  Surely, Israel has the intellectual, historical, and juridical capability to lead a constitutional effort and produce a constitution to be ratified.  However, the Haradi see a constitution as a “stacked deck.”  If they controlled the drafting of a constitution, there is no way that most women and even most men in Israel would ever ratify a Constitution which gave female witnesses no credence.  Nor would they formally enshrine the existing sexism of ultra orthodox Judaism in a national constitution.  And if the majority of Israelis drafted a constitution which gave women equal rights, there are many Haradi who would fight to the end to block a Constitution from passing which contradicts thousands of years of Jewish precedents and doctrine.  Some Israelis argue that there are many aspects of a constitution where there would be national unanimity.  Why not at least agree on that?  But there is no way that most Israelis would ratify a constitution that did not protect certain basic rights.  This is what occurred after 1789 in America.  Our Constitution was drafted in Philadelphia but did not explicitly deal with many fundamental rights. The people demanded would not ratify such a constitution and demanded that the Constitution protect their basic civil and religious rights. It took the Bill of Rights added to the original Constitution to obtain sufficient public support for ratification.  Only in Israel, the Haradi would never acquiesce to the American Bill of Rights or anything close.  The religious parties would bring down the government that tried to draft such.  So the Israelis kick the can down the road for another time in the future which might be more propitious.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of this situation to Americans and other foreign observers is why the Israeli body politic allows such rank discrimination, against anyone, much less Jews—female, Conservative, and Reform Jews of both genders are the victims along with atheists.  This is perhaps the most interesting aspect of this overall problem.  Anat Hoffman and her Women of the Wall are not the only protesters of the religious discrimination.  Rabbi Gilad Kariv, leader of the Progressive Judaism movement, said in reaction to the recent arrest of the tallit praying woman,

“Millions of women in the Jewish world enjoy the privilege of donning a prayer shawl and taking an equal part in public prayer. It is in the Jewish State and the holiest site for the Jewish people of all places that police forces are sent to arrest a woman who seeks to pray according to her conscience and conviction. It is a great shame to the Israel Police and the State.”[10]

Others put the issue in starker, more radical, political terms.  Executive Director of the Masorti Movement, Yizhar Hess, said:

“The Western Wall must be freed from the obstructionist orthodox establishment. It is inconceivable that a Western democratic nation such as Israel does not allow religious ritual freedom for its Jewish citizens. The Western Wall must be liberated.”[11]

Mild Protest Only

Yet there is almost no statement from the government.  The opposition party does not cry out for an investigation.  They do not take the kind of shot at the government and government officials who are blatantly doing these things that almost any democratic opposition would take on in any other nation.  Even the Israeli protesting individuals and organizations are relatively quiet and dignified about their protests, in a country whose political processes are anything but quiet and dignified.  They do not try and close down the Western Wall via mass civil disobedience which would be very easy to do.  There is no lack for supporters and sympathizers, nor is there a shortage of funds for cause organizations.  They have funds from their supporters.  However, they do not picket the Knesset regularly.  They do not form coalitions with Christian and some modern Moslem groups who might be very supportive.

The Israeli protesters know full well that they are not in the same danger of religious protestors in much of the world.  They might be arrested, but they will not be tortured and murdered as in Iran, Saudi Arabia or even Egypt and China.  Yet they still limit their protests to a once a month Women of the Wall prayer meeting, and an occasional dignified protest march of a few thousand.  The officials in charge of the wall, instead of letting such a mild protest just pass, as one Israeli put it, “instead act like scalded dogs.”

The answer to this protest passivity lies in the existential threat that almost all Israelis feel from the Palestinians and the area’s Arab nations.  There is no thinking Israeli who has not imagined the worst case: Israel being overrun by a combination of forces and weapons from non-state Arabs and militant states, forcing the Israelis to face the choice that they all fear most: Do they use nuclear weapons on the attacking states and the enclaves of the non state activists?

To many Americans, the choice is not such a complicated one.  We have used the atomic bomb to save many American military lives that would have been lost in an invasion of the Japanese mainland.  At the time there was no public controversy.  Even today there are few in America who do not feel that the nuclear attack on Japan was not fully justified.  If there were an invasion of Alaska, California or Hawaii by millions of troops from an enemy country, and we did not have the military power to hold them back from overrunning one of our states, it would not take more than a few minutes for the United States to threaten the invading nation if they do not cease the invasion.  And if it continued, the only question would be whether one or two nuclear bombs should be fired or should the entire invading country be obliterated.

The Jews of Israel are totally conscious of genocide.  Proportionately, Jews have been the biggest victims of mass death of any people.  They know the trauma that lives with them even 60 years after the Holocaust.  The Israeli government has been totally silent on the issue of nuclear weapons.  They do not even admit to possessing what everyone knows they possess.  But they have pledged that Israel would never be the first to use nuclear weapons in the Middle East.  (The United States, in contrast, along with several other nuclear nations, have never made such a pledge and reserves the right to use nuclear weapons at times of their choosing when vital interests are at stake—not even American existential ones.)  Would the Israeli’s keep the pledge in such dire circumstances?  This is never debated in Israeli politics.  It is never even discussed in polite Israeli society.  Only a few Israeli scholars and intellectuals ever confront the possible issue.  Yet, almost every single adult Israeli has privately thought about this, many not even discussing it with spouses.

Second to that dread, is the fear of terrorism in much greater volume and intensity, causing even more constant war, with more Israeli victims and the retaliatory killing of the surrounding Arab and Palestinian populations or a de facto end of a modern economic state within Israel.  The Moslem extremists embed themselves into the general Islamic populations, leaving the Israelis no method of defense without extensive human collateral damage.

Israeli Religious Contradiction Settlement Time is Not Now

While Israelis differ as to their best policies and tactics to follow, almost all agree that to tear their society apart by forcing a confrontation over the meaning of a Jewish state, democracy and the religious differences among ultra fundamentalist Jews, modern religious Jews and secular Jews is a luxury they cannot now afford.  The conflict is low intensity, where each side is just provocative enough to let all know that they are not satisfied by the status quo and there must be a reckoning and resolution some day.  But most seem to believe that the day is not now, and few want this weak fissure of Israel to be tampered with now, lest an earthquake of unpredictable dimensions and consequences be started.

There is enormous silent pressure within Israel to keep the lid on this issue.  In America, that pressure is as strong amongst Jews and often even stronger than in Israel.  On this issue, there is shame amongst many American Jews.  Adherents and beneficiaries of freedom of religion and equal religious government treatment, Jewish Americans find it almost inconceivable that their beloved Israel, for which they and their families have hoped and wished for and supported, behaves in this one respect like the worst of the religious totalitarian states which they and most Americans have always despised.  Even most left wing or anti-war Jewish American organizations steer clear of this issue.  There are few issues about Israel that are rarely discussed in American synagogues.  But this is one.  If a Jew were arrested in any other industrial democracy for wearing a prayer shawl and praying, it would be all over the American media on a 24 hour cycle of almost endless, echo chamber, repetition that much news has become.  But most of the media understand that they will not be able to keep the Israeli story going if they tried to cover it heavily.  They will not be able to get many Jewish spokespeople to weigh in on this—people on either side.  As one American Jew explained,

“No possible good can come of this debate at this time.  It will inevitably be resolved, and almost certainly along an American model, but until the real threat to Israel is dissipated, the only people who would profit from engagement of this issue are the enemies of Israel and the anti-Semites of the world.”

A few disagree and say, “if not now, when” and there are some who believe that until this issue is settled within Israel, there is little possibility of a peace in the Mid East because of the issues of settlements and Jerusalem which will eventually paralyze any prospective settlement as long as a small minority can block any government action. 

American Jews Also Inhibited

The inhibition to discuss this even extends to most American, Jewish families.  They know the situation is unconscionable and cannot be consistent with a republic or a democracy no matter how broadly defined those concepts are.  A small minority of American Jews are themselves extremely ultra-orthodox, but for the rest there is great disagreement about how the situation should be remedied, but little disagreement that now is not the time to deal with it.  Within my own family, there are dear relatives who question the wisdom of my even writing about the problem.  There is at least one who believes that I have done a disservice to the Jewish people.  The fear is beyond giving enemies of Israel ammunition to beat up on the Jewish state.  Almost all educated people in the world realize that the curtailment of religious freedom in Israel is totally mild and minor when compared to the discrimination of many other nations—especially the enemies of Israel.  And in the most ironic aspect of this problem, the Islamic nations who would attack Israel on almost any other subject, actually applaud them for the policy of discriminating against women and “heretical” men in religious prayer and ceremony.  To them it is admirable for a state to make democracy and equality subservient to the word of God.  What my relative fears is that non-Jewish Americans, secular and religious, will start to pressure our government to, in turn, pressure Israel on this point—just like China is constantly pressured for not allowing religious freedom.  (Reform Jews in Israel have about the same rights of public ritual and civil support as the Falun Gong do in China—virtually none.  The difference is that in China practitioners will be beaten, jailed and even executed.  It is difference of degree, not of kind.)  This pressure for democracy might be successful and trigger the avalanche in Israel—the pent up energy and resentment of the majority that has been building in Israel since the modern state was founded and the deal of 1947 made.  Most American Jews know how outrageous the Israeli situation actually is, but they also know how adamant and rigid many of the ultra-Orthodox are on the issue.  We see it here in America amongst many of the extreme orthodox Jewish communities, albeit without the force of law. Some American Jews see an issue that could actually bring a civil war to Israel.

Incidents Force the issue Out in the Open

Every once in a while something gross occurs in Israel that begins to force the issue into the open in America.  Such was the case in the March 2010 visit Vice President Biden made to Israel to try and “kick start” the peace process.  The most contentious issue between the Israelis and the Palestinians is that of the “settlements.”  American policy has always been to decry most of the settlements as illegal under international law and to urge the Israelis to curtail the practice if not eliminate it completely.  As a matter of practical reality, no Israeli coalition government with religious parties could adopt such a policy without triggering not only a fall of government but huge social contention.  However the two allies have each maintained their own positions, and while criticizing the other point of view, they usually do not do it too vehemently.  For years American policy has been to try to be perceived by the Palestinians and other Arabs as something of an “honest broker” by taking this position, a position with which the majority of Israelis actually agree.  (Only a minority of Israelis believe that Jews—or any other people—have the right to settle in any other country without becoming legal residents or citizens of that country and obeying the laws of that country.)  However, on this particular Vice-Presidential trip, while the customary visits were made to various Israelis and Palestinians, the Israeli Government made a public official announcement of a new set of permits they had issued for the building of 1600 housing units for Jews in Jerusalem that had recently been occupied by Palestinians.  This was a huge diplomatic insult to the United States—not the announcement of the building plan, but the timing of the announcement.  The most junior diplomat in Israel knew better than to make such an embarrassing announcement during such a high level diplomatic visit.  Yet Israeli Ministers, who easily could have waited till Biden left, made the announcement at exactly the wrong diplomatic time—wrong unless there was another agenda.

Some surprising things happened.  Prime Minister Netanyahu actually officially apologized and announced an investigation into the incident.  Hillary Clinton, a huge supporter of Israel and the American Secretary of State, then went ahead and publicly castigated Israel in a way that had almost never occurred in the 60 year close alliance.  The White House joined the overt criticism.  Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, were furious with the Israeli government , and called for all kinds of retaliation.  Unfortunately, the situation got very serious and turned some Americans against Israel.  Many American Jews lobbied to have the American Government tamp down the issue and end the agnst.  And yet, few in either country would tell the truth about what had really happened.  The reason was that the truth could cause a huge rift in Israeli politics, and most Americans would never believe the truth and would be even more angry for being “lied to.”  While the exact details are not (and may never be) public, the general story is clear.  First there was no way in a million years that the Israeli Prime Minister wanted the announcement to be made.  He had no idea that it was in the works, and when the announcement was made, he was more surprised than the Americans.  He specifically apologized for the “timing” of the announcement.  But Americans, officials and citizens alike, generally did not believe that the Prime Minister did not know.  It would be like some Assistant Secretary of Commerce would announce a new arms sale to Taiwan while the Chinese Prime Minister was visiting the President in Washington.  It would NEVER HAPPEN.  No government official would undermine our State Department and our President by such an announcement even if such a deal was made.  They would have kept is quiet until after the trip.  The officials are appointed by the President—they are not members of an opposing party that might be willing to harm the nation to embarrass the President and gain political advantage.

However, that is exactly what happened in Israel.  It was not a blunder.  The officials who made the announcement knew exactly how insulting diplomacy would regard the announcement.  They also knew full well that it might strain relations with the ally that Israel most depends upon.  They sabotaged their own Prime Minister.  They did not however do it to embarrass Netanyahu.  They were religious zealots.  Their concern was that Israel might compromise on the settlement issues in order to obtain a peace.  Or worse, the government might agree to the terms that every other country in the world has with their neighbors:  That people from one country may not enter the other and build settlement or otherwise live their without the destination government permission.  That might be fine in the rest of the world, but there is only one land that God himself gave to any people.  He conscrated the lend for the Jewish People and that land includes “Judea” and “Samaria,” most of which are currently Arab territory.  And no government of man, especially a Jewish government, has the right to stand in the way of the Lord’s commandments.  For them, politics and political loyalties count for little; and diplomacy not at all when compared with God’s commands.  They wanted to sabotage the peace process.  They wanted to anger the United States.  They were afraid the their Prime Minister might be caving in on Jerusalem and Jewish rights to the land God consecrated for them.  And they accomplished their objective in the short term.  The Palestinians backed off from the indirect talks that they had agreed to at the urging of the United States.  And the Israeli Prime Minister was forced, while apologizing for the timing, to officially state the right of the Israelis to all of Jerusalem, the capital of Israel and the Jewish “right” of building on “Arab Land”.  He could apologize for the timing, but he had to support the 1600 Jewish housing units.  The units were not even to start construction for months.  There was no reason that the announcement could not have been made two weeks or two months after Biden left unless the object was to create the diplomatic incident which of course it was.

Religious zealots, certain of the rectitude of their goals, often pay little attention to practical consequences.  Most Americans would not believe that any Israeli administration would appoint such zealots to midlevel positions where they could sabatoge the Government, nor would they believe that others would help a zealot undo government policy by calling a press conference or even making copies of the “policy” for distribution to the press.  And even if such a thing were to happen, the person would be fired from his job and probably indicted for a crime.  But nothing happened to anyone in Israel.  So to many Americans, the Prime Minister was not only in on it, but probably planned it.  They do not realize that it would be hard for him to discipline these religious zealot, lower officials without a government crisis and probable dissolution.  Even an Israeli Prime Minister can be sabotaged with impunity if it were done for the implementation of the word of God.  For how long will this last?

Historical Jewish Internecine Religious Conflict

What many Jews in Israel and some in America are aware of is the tragic history of the Jews with respect to the internecine fights over the degree of religious orthodoxy that should be maintained.  The current religious struggle is by no means the first time that Jews have been in conflict over such an issue.  Historically, there actually have been violent Jewish civil conflicts over such things.  Many of these weakened or even brought down the Jewish government at the time.  In each of these struggles, religious orthodoxy was the subject of the overt debate, but there was always also a clear subtext of fear of modernization, equality, social class, and economics.  Those who insisted on more adherence to orthodoxy always took the view that God’s word trumped all the other issues.  The other side claimed that God could not have possibly required behavior that so conflicts with the basic values of Judaism and/or that those claiming the mantle of orthodoxy could find no support for their particular interpretation of proper Jewish behavior in the Torah or even in the different versions of the Talmud (there are two—the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmuds.)  Modernization, at one point in ancient Jewish history, was the adoption of many Greek cultural values—the result of the influence of the conquest of the known world by Alexander the Great who generally left the locals to rule in their own traditional manner. However that process always ended up changing those countries as the cultures interacted and Alexander (a personal pupil of Aristotle) modernized by example most of the known world.  Then came the Romans who also preferred local client states and kingdoms to occupying and running foreign governments.  Nation building was not for them.

The dominance of the Jews of Palestine by the Seleucids was enabled in large part by the disunity and weakening of the Jewish people fighting over the degree of orthodoxy that should be required and how much Hellenization there should be  Fortunately later, the Macabees revolted against the Seleucids, and the Romans turned on the Seleucids as well; with Roman help, the Jews thus had their own kingdom again, with the decedents of Judas Macabee as the Jewish king.  However the Hasmonean dynasty of kings (and a Queen) was characterized by periodic struggles over the proper degree of religious orthodoxy.  Once, the Jewish High Priest[12] was removed from office and executed by the ultra orthodox who thought he was not religiously faithful enough.  (Recall that the Mosaic law called for the death of heretics and not being orthodox enough has been a historical definition of heresy, and still is in parts of the world.  The Iranians and most other Moslems can and do point to Jewish Mosaic law and Jewish history to justify their own policy execution of heretics and blasphemers.  God ordained that for Jews, Christians and Moslems they believe.)

The Pharisees opposed slavery of any kind while the then orthodox view was that slavery was acknowledged in the Torah and was part of God’s will.  Orthodoxy of religion was totally mixed up in politics, and a low point came for the Jewish people when they had an internal battle over the succession to the Hasmodian throne.  Many of the then “modern” and orthodox Jews were fed up with the terrible governance of the Hasmodian kings and the one Queen[13] who was as bad as the kings.  She even had Rabbis and others who denounced her for not being orthodox enough, executed.  Of course, the religious extremists of the day would have executed her for heresy if they could.

Later, the ultra orthodox supported Antigonus II Mattathias, a descendent of Judas Macabee in his claim to the throne.  Mattathias led an army of zealous orthodox against Herod (yes, that Herod—the so called “great”—who was seen by the fundamentalists as too lax in his religious duties and customs.  He was too tolerant of apostacy.  Herod was kicked out of Judea.  However Herod had his supporters, non orthodox who remembered the terrible life under the ultra orthodox theocracy (a historical Jewish Taliban type government) where even non-Jews were required to obey ALL Jewish laws (as interpreted by the ultra orthodox).  They even forced non-Jewish adult men to undergo circumcision.  They were the equivalent to the Iranian Supreme Leader in their insistence of orthodoxy as they defined it.  The battle over succession was so fierce, that the Romans got fed up with the issue as it was interfering with trade and good order in the area.  The Jews were so sharply divided that the decision as to who was to be king could not be made.  Jewish society was totally polarized, much to the distress of the Roman superpower of the day. Since the Jews could not come to a decision as was the custom of the Romans of the time,  the choice actually ended up with the Roman Senate, which unanimously voted for Herod—the more “modern” of the candidates, and the rest was history.  The Romans saw the opposition orthodox led by Antigonus II Mattathias much like the Americans viewed the Taliban when they were in power in Afghanistan.  Antigonus II Mattathias made Roman Senator’s decisions for Herod very easy when Mattathias led attacks against the Romans themselves.  Herod eventually captured his ultra orthodox rival and turned him over to the Romans who crucified him—a fate to which captured and rebellious kings were rarely exposed.  But to the Romans, Antigonus II Mattathias was much more a religious fanatic than a rebellious king.

This historical tidbit is but a smattering of the historical conflict of the Jewish people over the degree of orthodoxy that should be required.  The conflict would break out whenever the Jews were independent or had a great deal of autonomy.  Most of the time for the next two millennia, the Jews were in the diaspora where unity was generally maintained in any community against the persecution of whatever Christian or Moslem government ruled them.

An Israeli Civil War?

While I think that an Israeli, physical, Jewish, civil war is an extreme fear, I do not underestimate the disunity that such a public, religious contest will cause in Israel.  Although many Jews would disapprove of this analogy, I see this politically and psychologically (though not at all morally) much like the American dilemma of slavery at the formation of our Republic.  Many Americans opposed slavery, but a large and powerful minority (not all in the South) felt very strongly that it was a critical institution to the nation’s welfare.  Religious arguments were marshaled on both sides.  However, the stark reality was that there would be no nation unless something was done to appease the minority of slavery advocates.  And a deal was struck.  For over two decades, the deal ensured that slavery could not even be discussed or referred to in debate in the Congress of the new nation. A senate with 2 legislators from each state regardless of size gave the slavery states much more power than their population warranted.  Even the House of Representatives was “rigged” by the deal.  Slaves counted for census purposes as three-fifths of a person.  Of course the slaves could not vote, but the slave states had many more Congressmen than their voting citizen numbers were entitled to.  A slave state citizen’s vote was worth much more than a non slave state citizen’s vote.  Some states had more slaves than whites and had a permanent disproportionate influence in Congress.  In the early days of the Republic, we too faced existential threats.  France seized our ships and England even burned Washington DC during the Madison Administration.

As America grew stronger and more confident, and did not see outside threats as so critical, the slavery issue came to the fore.  Deals of 60 years earlier were not going to be honored forever in the face of such a fundamental moral and democratic demand.  Despite many attempts to compromise, kick the can further down the road, and delay the national confrontation, we were not able to avoid the most terrible war in American history—our Civil War.

I do not think that the parallel will lead to a similar Israeli outcome for many reasons.  The most important difference is that the entire economic base of the South had become dependent on the institution of slavery.  Just before the Civil War, the value of the slaves in some of the Southern States exceeded the combined value of all the farms, real estate, consumer property, factories and plants, inventory and equipment thereof all together.  In Israel, the unequal monetary subsidy value to the ultra religious is still within manageable limits.  None-the-less, world-wide, more humans have been killed over religious differences than any other reason.  We must never forget that Martin Luther and other Protestants were originally Christians of the same church as the Pope.  Christians burned and tortured each other over subtle differences in their view of God’s will of how the church should operate on Earth.  Shiites and Sunni Moslems have also been at each others’ throats over relatively minor differences in Islamic worship.  Hopefully, knowledge of history and the very highly educated level of the Israelis, will avoid a physical battle in Israel, but there is little doubt that a major, political, social, and religious internal conflict is coming.  Ironically, the only thing that prevents the political conflict from breaking out into the open is the current Arab threat to Israel.  If that ever abides, the Israeli internal conflict over the dominant privileges of the minority ultra Orthodox will be joined nationally.  How the conflict will come out is not predictable now, but there is one thing of which we can be sure.  The status quo of today will not prevail.  Israel will become more of a democracy with little or no special privileges for any religious or non-religious subset or else Israel will become an official theocracy.  Whichever way it goes, many current Israeli citizens will feel that the country is not hospitable to them.  That is the greatest tragedy.


[1] Avraham Avi-haï, Ben Gurion, State-builder: principles and pragmatism, 1948-1963,

[2] The title of the offending publication was “Daily Torah studies for the soldier and the commander in Operation Cast Lead,” officially published at the time by the IDF Rabbinate.  The text is from “Books of Rabbi Shlomo Aviner,” who heads the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva in the Muslim quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem.

[3] Haaretz, November 27, 2009

[4] Miriam Shear, “Enough is Enough!”, October 24, 2007

[5] Jerusalem Post, December 28, 2006

[6] Ed Rettig and Seth Farber, “The double lives of Jewish converts in Israel”, The Jerusalem Post, November 7, 2009

[7] In Germany, in the 12th and 13th centuries, women’s prayer groups were led by female cantors. Rabbi Eliezar of Worms, in his elegy for his wife Dulca, praised her for teaching the other women how to pray and embellishing the prayer with music. The gravestone of Urania of Worms, who died in 1275, contains the inscription “who sang piyyutim for the women with musical voice.” In the Nurnberg Memorial Book, one Richenza was inscribed with the title “prayer leader of the women

[8] “Police arrest woman praying at Western Wall,” yNetNews,,7340,L-3807090,00.html.  yNetNews is the English language website of the most widely read newspaper in Israel.)

[9] Ibid

[10] “Police arrest woman praying at Western Wall,” yNetNews,,7340,L-3807090,00.html.  yNetNews is the English language website of the most widely read newspaper in Israel.)

[11] Ibid

[12] Menelaus was High Priest in Jerusalem from 171 BCE to about 161 BCE when he was executed by the ultra orthodox of the day.

[13] Salome Alexandra, 139–67 BCE

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. G. Dunnington  |  January 27, 2011 at 12:27 PM

    Your article is, on the whole, very thoughtful and well-considered. I do however, owing to the accident of my own predilections in the area of historical study, would suggest that there is both military ineptitude as well as post-war political consideration in the decision to use nuclear weapons on Japan.

    First the United States failed to pursue an even half-intelligent naval war against Japan, due to the conservatism, self interest and technical incompetence of its naval elite. The possibility of an aerial and submarine blockade of Japan – eminently possible, as evidenced by the U-boat campaign against our shipping in the Battle of the Atlantic, accomplished (as far as it was) by resources and cooperation far inferior to what the US had in the Pacific, was never consciously pursued until it became a fait accompli because of overwhelming material superiority, and even then, it was not pursued to the end.

    Second, the faction of the US elite represented by the associates of MacArthur and various financial interests who wished to be paid back their prewar investments by Japan’s military and industrial rulers, did not wish a blockaded Japan to have the inevitable revolution against the crown and the zaibatsu that would have ensued, as it did in a similarly blockaded Germany in 1918. It was politically expedient to murder hundreds of thousands of civilians instead.

    Third, as has been pointed out numerous times elsewhere, the US wanted to demonstrate to Stalin’s Russia that its overwhelming superiority on the ground in Europe was not going to be allowed to trump the Western Allies in the postwar negotiations to divide Hitler’s empire.

    The American obsession with saving the lives of its military typically blinds Americans to the self interest of its elites, and, in the end, to the interests of ordinary Americans themselves.

  • 2. rebeccaaskenazi  |  June 4, 2012 at 4:58 PM

    I prayed at the wall along side with many women who were davaning. In fact, I kissed the wall and no one stopped any of us. I don’t get this rambling missive at all.

    • 3. Scriptamus  |  June 16, 2012 at 4:15 PM

      Thanks so much for your comment. It is important because you and many others do not have a problem at the Wailing Wall and you resonably conclude that there is no problem at all.

      First, please understand that the woman’s area you prayed in was only created after several repeated orders of the Israeli Supreme Court. Those Rabbis who control the wallou dragged their feet for years, but at least this is done.

      Here is what would have caused a major incident, probably accompanied by violence as you can read past reports in the Israeli Newpapers.

      1. You did not wear a Talit. Had you, you would have been accosted.
      2. You prayed, but did not LEAD a prayer. If a woman leads other women in prayer at the wall, it is a major problem.
      3. You did not pray with scripture–a torah. Men may carry a torah and read from it or lead prayers. When women try to read from the torah, the trouble begins.

      If you are honestly interested I will try to get you a video of women praying with a torah actually being physically beaten.

      There are other problems, because of the gender discrimination, a mother may not attend a son’s bar mitsva at the wall. An American rabbi tried to lead his congregation in prayer at the wall but was not allowed as he had women in the congregation. For the ultra orthodox, they want segregation of the sexes and they should have that opportunity with a male area and a female area. But there should be a third area where mixed gender couples or groups can have access to the wall. Most orthodox Israelis have no problem with this, but the few who control the Wailing Wall not only i=want to control their own members but they want to control ALL including the Jews who do not agree with them. Each step takes repeated court battles, and continuous violation of Israeli law treating all Jews equally. Did you observe any of the “forbidden” behavior I have described? If so, please let me know as there may be some recent progress. If you did not, p;ese accept my word that these are all problems. Women have been arrested over reading a torah. Please reconsider your characterization of my article as a rant.


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