Countering Religious Extremism In Israel


A year ago, I flew from Israel to New York and was disappointed to find a front-page New York Times article: “Israeli Women Core of Debate on Orthodoxy.”

The headline left readers with the impression that Israel was battling a Talibanesque group of ultra-Orthodox oppressors, and that the survival of women’s rights was at stake. This wasn’t the case, but there were serious troubles on the ground, many of theme having to do with the controversy in Beit Shemesh, where an 8-year-old girl on her way to school was jeered and spat at by adult religious extremists for not wearing a long-enough skirt. Thankfully, one year later the tension has given birth to real and important changes — many of which have gone unnoticed. Now is an important time to bring them to light, both to promote their progress and to undo dangerous misconceptions.

Until last year, the ultra-Orthodox community didn’t seem to care about its image in the external world. But today, it doesn’t seem willing to put up with the slander and stereotypes that emerge every time a religious extremist takes the ultra-Orthodox name hostage. And the community’s leaders are finally catching on, with rabbis applying pressure to subdue extremists. Are they prepared to publicly attack these extremists? Not yet, but even this may change as some powerful figures distance themselves from a leadership which doesn’t speak their language.

While the official line of the ultra-Orthodox community continues to promote full-time yeshiva study and the avoidance of national service (army or civilian) in Israel, there is a quiet revolution taking place. Training programs and academic courses for young ultra-Orthodox men are flourishing, and the Israeli government continues to add special programs for them in the IDF and civilian service. A pragmatic generation recognizes the need to feed its families and avoid ideological debate with the rabbis. It has been dubbed the “New Haredim,” and if brave spiritual leadership can step forward and speak to the needs of its people, then we may see a fresh alignment of core ultra-Orthodox values.

Israel last year became a battlefield of extremes. After a handful of religious extremists attacked a girls’ school in Beit Shemesh, a group of secular extremists descended upon the community and frightened the thousands who attended their protest with shockingly bigoted views. The media loved it. The people of Beit Shemesh were devastated. But as the war of words subsided, a middle ground arose and began building bridges. Ultra-Orthodox Israelis formed groups like Haredim Naim L’hakir, attracting thousands of members seeking to find a moderate voice. Secular Israeli culture experienced a wave of curiosity about the secluded world of the ultra-Orthodox. These two-way, cautious glimpses at each led to meetings of both sides on neutral territory; some ultra-Orthodox leaders even reached beyond their comfort zone to meet with counterparts from “the outside.”

But sometimes talking is not enough. Thankfully, a delicate and private initiative over the last year has built bridges that are offering serious reform: a roundtable forum between Beit Shemesh’s community leaders, including the elusive ultra-Orthodox, has created a mediation model which could move Beit Shemesh from being a microcosm of Israel’s internal conflict to an example of success. Has it been easy? Not at all. Several members of the group still demand anonymity, and one was assaulted for being a “reformer” in his community. But today the group’s existence has become common knowledge in Beit Shemesh and has successfully stopped several incidents from spinning out of control and becoming the next round of troubles for us all.

Looking forward, there is fresh tension on the horizon. The months after Israel’s elections will demand social change on issues such as the Tal Law (on enlisting haredi young men into the army), new budgets, and the standoff on women’s prayer groups at the Western Wall. But as our young country continues to work through its growing pains, one can’t help but feel that last year’s changes leave a promise of hope. There is a break in the clouds of that gloomy forecast of an extremist religious takeover of Israel. And if we nurture the people and the initiatives that are creating change, I believe we can look forward to another year of progress — and maybe even positive headlines on my next visit to New York.

Yoni Sherizen is a director of Gesher, the Jerusalem-based organization devoted to bridging the differences between Israelis and strengthening a shared Jewish identity.