Focus on Issues: Religious, Secular Israelis Taking Stock in Culture War

Dana International’s triumphant visit to the Knesset was something of a surprise in the world of Israeli politics.

To many secular Israelis, the appearance earlier this month of Israel’s raven- haired transsexual singing star before the legislature’s Education and Culture Committee was a victory in what Israeli newspapers recently dubbed an ongoing “cultural war.”

The opening shot, they say, was the successful pressure by the fervently Orthodox, or haredim, to censor the Batsheva dance troupe’s act at Israel’s official jubilee celebrations because the dancers were scheduled to strip to their underwear as part of the performance.

But Dana’s triumph, say some analysts, may have played into the hands of the haredim by confirming their stereotypes of secular culture. And a closer look at the so-called cultural war shows that it has little to do with culture, and a lot to do with politics and power.

After her recent triumph at the annual Eurovision song contest — the reason she rose to sudden prominence — Dana casually gave Tourism Minister Moshe Katzav a kiss in front of the cameras while clad in skin-tight clothes.

“I don’t regard myself as anyone’s symbol,” she said. “I see myself as a singer.”

Photo opportunities such as these were a perfect opportunity for secular Knesset members from the right and left to prove they were not beholden to the fervently Orthodox.

But when Dana arrived in the Knesset, fervently Orthodox lawmakers did not interfere — nor did they adopt the popular Knesset strategy of threatening to bring down the government.

Some analysts said their lack of a response was part of an overall strategy.

“It serves the haredim well,” said Moshe Lissak, a professor emeritus of sociology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Because they say, `Now we are certain that you are like this, this is what your culture is about – - homosexuality and sexuality.’”

Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a Knesset member from the fervently Orthodox United Torah Judaism bloc, agreed, saying Dana’s visit to the Knesset was not worth the fight.

“If this is what they wanted to have a Jewish state for after 2,000 years, that’s their problem,” said Ravitz. “I’m embarrassed, but I won’t make a fight about it because it doesn’t disturb my own life.”

Dana’s victory at Eurovision sparked a massive display of gay pride. Homosexuals and lesbians took to Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to kiss on camera and raise the rainbow colored flag — an international symbol of gay rights.

This public display was a sign of the increasing personal freedom secular Israelis have gained in recent years, despite rising Orthodox political power. Even in Jerusalem, the bastion of Orthodoxy, there is much more personal freedom than in the past.

During the 1980s, the haredim protested in front of movie theaters, even those in non-Orthodox districts, that opened on Shabbat. Today, Friday night movies are commonplace. There are even gay bars openly operating just minutes away from Mea Shearim, a fervently-Orthodox quarter of Jerusalem.

“There is much more personal freedom,” said Lissak, himself a secular Israeli. “The struggle today is about symbols — who represents the state of Israel? Secular Israelis feel today that in this area the haredim have conquered some ground with their political power. They are daring to intervene in the secular system, because of their greater numbers.”

For example, he said, the government recently started to enforce long-dormant laws to keep businesses closed on Saturdays.

And last week, President Ezer Weizman vetoed a scheduled performance of an army entertainment troupe at his swearing-in ceremony in the Knesset rather than risk confrontation with fervently Orthodox lawmakers who objected to the inclusion of female singers.

As the fight over power and symbols escalates, fiery rhetoric from both sides is perhaps the defining characteristic of this strife.

Ravitz calls for dialogue, but he also condemns the left for behaving like “Africans in the jungle” and “wild animals” by not trying to understand haredi sensitivities in recent conflicts.

And it’s not only the fervently Orthodox who are using expressions of intolerance.

“I am very concerned that in the liberal and so-called pluralistic circles, there are some very worrisome trends in the way they talk about the Orthodox,” said Dov Elboum, a secular journalist and writer who grew up in a fervently Orthodox home in Jerusalem. “A haredi cannot open his mouth today without being accused of trying to take control of something.”

Elboum, who has conducted extensive research of secular attitudes toward religion, said some of the secular rhetoric reeks of anti-Semitism. He pointed to one newspaper article on the haredim that claimed high Orthodox birth rates were a strategy aimed at milking the state for more funds.

A.B. Yehoshua, a renowned secular author and intellectual, also said secular hatred of religious Israelis is “becoming immense.” Yehoshua, an avowed atheist, agrees that the “cultural war” is really about politics and power.

Secular Israelis are “deprived of power and frustrated with the Netanyahu government,” he said. “So they are projecting all of their anger on this government and on the religious community.”

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