Religious-Secular Culture Wars Heating Up Anew


It was quite a way for Israel to enter the High Holy Days, with their theme of repentance and introspection. In Jerusalem on the Sunday before Rosh HaShanah, there were bitter Jew-on-Jew clashes, as charedi protestors threw rocks at police, and officers unleashed sometimes-callous violence against the demonstrators.

Even the man who normally speaks out for officers, police chief Roni Alsheich, has admitted that he “felt bad” when watching videos that have surfaced of police conduct. One video making the rounds on social media appears to show a police officer going up to a charedi man, seemingly unprovoked, and pushing him so hard that he went flying in to the road.

“How can this kind of thing happen?” asked the charedi politician Menachem Eliezer Moses when I talked to him on Sept. 18. He had just been speaking to the Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, insisting that he investigates, and all indications are that a probe is being launched.

Questions are also being asked about the conduct of protestors. The clashes took place at a demonstration by several hundred charedim who are furious that judges have just scrapped their community’s exemption from military service.

The Supreme Court has ruled that the arrangement that lets charedi men avoid conscription is discriminatory and unconstitutional. Many charedim are angry, but some at the demonstration seemingly overstepped lines, leading to arrests for acts including throwing stones at officers.

The demonstration came just a few days after violent clashes between secular and charedi residents in Arad in southern Israel. Some secular residents there feel that the ultra-Orthodox are changing the character of the city, while some charedi residents feel insulted by the secular — especially the resident who sparked the clashes by hanging a poster saying that charedim made the city “dirty.”


As controversy over Arad, the draft and the out-of-hand demonstration was raging in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in America discussing another aspect of Israel’s religious headache. He met with American Jewish leaders to discuss the government decision to freeze plans for a grand egalitarian section at the Western Wall, and heard their deep disappointment.

Over recent months, this Kotel issue has been the main religious-and-state matter on the political agenda here, and its power to cause societal frictions on the ground was limited, as much of the anger about the freezing of the plan comes from abroad.

Now, however, the explosive issue of the charedi draft has landed back on the agenda — with a violent bang.

The draft exemption for charedim is a very controversial issue, causing much anger and resentment among those who do serve. In the 2013 general election it was one of the major issues, and the government that was formed excluded charedi parties and passed legislation to draft charedim. But after the most recent election in 2015, ultra-Orthodox parties returned to the government and the legislation was watered down to render it almost irrelevant.

Charedim thought they had seen the back of the threat of conscription, and the fight of those who wanted to see them drafted lost its momentum. Since the Supreme Court ruling, charedi parties are demanding that the government enacts a new law that will trump the court’s ruling, and are even talking about forcing elections if this doesn’t happen. “I’m sure that none of the coalition partners want to go to elections because of this,” Moses said in a thinly veiled threat.

This is the moment for charedim to fight — and for the pro-draft lobby to resume its fight. Both will do so with gusto, especially as politically-speaking it is a godsend for the opposition party Yesh Atid, which established itself on a promise that it would make charedim “share the burden” on defense, allowing the party to assert its relevance once again. The clashes in Jerusalem were like lighter fluid poured on a fire that was just getting started.

Meanwhile, the Chief Rabbinate is licking its wounds after a defeat in the Supreme Court. Shops and restaurants can now signal to customers that they observe kashrut laws even if they don’t have rabbinate supervision — so long as they find code-words to get the message across instead of declaring themselves “kosher,” “supervised” or establishments run by “Jewish law.”

The rabbinate sees the ruling as a chipping away of its monopoly on kashrut. In other areas the rabbinate is successfully upping its assertion of power — including on the question of whom it defines as Jewish. According to rabbinical court data just released, more and more Israelis are applying to get married and finding themselves blacklisted because the rabbinate doesn’t accept that they are Jewish.

There were 134 such rejections in 2012, but 454 last year, according to figures released to the ITIM nonprofit following its freedom of information request. Most are the descendants of immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, whose Jewish credentials raise suspicion among rabbis.

Resentment from the secular and some in the Orthodox community towards the state rabbinate is already strong. But conflict over religious power could extend to another realm over the coming weeks, namely Israel’s Basic Laws, the closest thing that the country has to a constitution.

A religious-Zionist lawmaker is pushing a new proposal to empower judges to rule in the light of principles from Jewish law when they don’t have a clear judgment based on other criteria.

If the Knesset approves this proposal by the Jewish Home Party’s Nissan Slomiansky, chairman of the parliament’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, then it will become part of a basic law.

Leading lawyers have raised concerns, and liberal groups like the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) say that it could become justification for conservative lawyers to erode the state’s secular legal system.

“If you have a more conservative court then it will be able to go and use Jewish law more and more,” said ACRI attorney Debbie Gild-Hayo. It could help to make Israel look more like a theocracy “little step by little step,” she argued.

Slomiansky has said that Jewish law will only be advisory and that critics are blowing things out of proportion. But he does present himself as a man with a mission. “The words ‘Hebrew law’ and those who are involved in the task of strengthening the status of this legal system are very dear to me,” he explained to supporters.

From whom Israel drafts into the military to the Israel-diaspora relationship and how it runs the Kotel, as well as the powers of both rabbinic and civil legal systems, religious tensions in Israel are becoming broader and deeper. Perhaps the best that anyone can hope for over the coming year is that the battles are conducted with relative civility, and without the spilling of blood. After Sunday’s scenes this looks far from certain.

Nathan Jeffay’s column appears twice a month.