A Positive Backlash


We have little expectation that the preliminary talks being held in Jordan between the Palestinian Authority and Israel will lead to any substantive progress, primarily because neither side seems particularly interested in advancing the process now. Rather, their motives are to please Washington and Amman and not appear to be the party standing in the way of negotiations. Not exactly a formula for dramatic breakthroughs.

But on another front, that of the Israeli domestic scene, there are signs that recent attacks by Jews on other Jews — on soldiers at an IDF army base, and on youngsters attending a school in Beit Shemesh — may have reached a trigger point, shocking citizens and leaders into positive action.

Like the famous Peter Finch character in “Network,” the fictional TV anchor Howard Beale, Israelis seem to be saying they’re “mad as hell and they’re not going to take this anymore.”

Just what “this” is, precisely, is hard to define, but there is a sense of societal anger over violent actions against one’s own people, and especially the discrimination against women and girls that has crossed the line from religious observance to civil rights, like where one sits on a bus or how one dresses to attend school.

The religious-secular divide in Israel is as old as the state, and resentment by secular Israelis over the power of the Orthodox Chief Rabbinate to determine issues of personal status — like marriage, divorce, conversion and burial — has always been an issue. But with the haredim growing so rapidly in population, having disproportionate clout in the government and driving increasingly stringent religious rulings, the societal backlash is more evident.

The added element of a small, fanatic group of haredim known as Sicarii, who instigated the Beit Shemesh protests, has added fuel to the fire.

An article this week in Tablet, the Jewish online magazine, by Erin Kopelow and her husband, Ariel Beery, a founder of PresenTense, the Israel-based group promoting social entrepreneurial ventures, calls on Jews here and in Israel to fight the “systemic bias in Israel.” The couple urged American Jewish organizations and foundations to give the Israeli government an ultimatum — “enact legislation to protect the rights of women and the non-Orthodox” in the next 90 days or lose all funding and lobbying support.

What’s noteworthy is that such anger is coming from Beery, an IDF veteran (as a volunteer), Avi Chai Foundation fellow and leader of pro-Israel efforts on campus and beyond.

The sad fact is that large segments of the Israeli population have nothing to do with each other. To bridge the gap, some leaders are stepping up.

Just this week Shimon Peres became the first president of Israel to appear publicly with the Masorti (Conservative) movement, marking 35 years since the movement’s founding in Israel. After listening to Shirat Machar, the Masorti co-ed performance troupe, Peres opened his remarks by saying, “I came here this evening to hear women singing,” a pointed reference to the growing concern in Israel about gender inequality. (An incident that attracted much attention recently took place when several haredi soldiers walked out of an IDF event where women soldiers were performing.)

The implicit message in the Peres participation at the event, during which he praised the Masorti movement’s “commitment to humanism, peace, human rights and the rights of citizens,” was that it is time to recognize the religious rights of all Jews in Israel. “Different streams exist in Judaism,” Peres said, “which has room for conservative and liberal viewpoints.”

Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, spoke out for dialogue this week to ease religious tensions, announcing an initiative to encourage “moderate voices from all communities” to participate.

The Beit Shemesh branch of Partnership 2gether, a Jewish Agency-sponsored program to link diaspora and Israeli Jews in an exchange of ideas, is calling for proposals, and will pick the three best by the end of this month. The goal is to go beyond dialogue and create programs that will address communal needs in Beit Shemesh, from repairing buildings to serving at-risk youth.

Let’s hope the moderates can seize control of this issue and that the discussions prove more fruitful than the ones taking place in Amman.