Israel: A Sharply Divided Society on the Brink of a Cultural Civil War

By C, Allan | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 31, 1999 | Go to article overview

Israel: A Sharply Divided Society on the Brink of a Cultural Civil War


C, Allan, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Israel: A Sharply Divided Society on the Brink of a Cultural Civil War

The election victory of Ehud Barak as Israel's new prime minister has caused many observers in the U.S., in Israel and in the Arab world to hope that the peace process will once again move forward.

Exactly how forthcoming the new Barak government will be, of course, remains to seen. And while the future course of the peace process remains uncertain, what seems clear is the fact that Israeli society is sharply divided over fundamental issues and appears to be on the brink of a cultural civil war.

Stanley Greenberg, the pollster who has served both President Clinton and Mr. Barak, has worked in many countries and was struck by the depth of disagreement on fundamental questions in Israel. Even in South Africa, he said, there was no basic discord over the nature of the state once apartheid ended and democracy was introduced. "But in Israel, on religious -- secular issues, on security -- peace issues, and on land issues, a range of groups sees that losing the election threatens their way of life," he said.

Many Israeli voters, for example, were Russian-speaking immigrants who arrived this decade from the former Soviet Union. Angry at the neglect of the previous Labor Party government, they voted 2 to 1 for Netanyahu in 1996. This placed them in a coalition with Likud's ultra-Orthodox allies. Their rights of residency, marriage and funeral arrangements were in the hands of the Interior Ministry, controlled by members of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party. Because a significant number of the new immigrants are married to non-Jews, their children are not considered Jews by the Orthodox and, as a result, cannot marry in Israel or be buried there.

"When the Interior Ministry doesn't recognize a member of one of our families as a Jew, it really hurts," said Michael Raif, a Russian immigrant who is deputy mayor of Rishon LeZion, Israel's fourth largest city. In some cases, he said, the obstacles posed by the Interior Ministry have caused immigrants to return to the former Soviet Union. These tensions drove many Russian immigrants to turn away from Netanyahu and cast their voles for Barak.

In the months preceding the election, the tensions in Israeli society became increasingly clear. In February, Orthodox Jews rallied in Jerusalem to protest the Israeli Supreme Court's recent decisions that would limit the privileges of the Orthodox in Israeli society. In a counter-rally on behalf of religious freedom and pluralism, Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg declared: "There is a war in Israel. There is a cultural war...that will determine the life or death of democracy in israel."

The secular Jewish state established in 1948 has been characterized as "largely a fleeting episode."

Israel's best known author, Amos Oz, issued an appeal to Israelis to join the Reform and Conservative movements as a way of protesting the religious monopoly which the Orthodox now have in Israel. In response, The New York Times (Feb. 18, 1999) reported: "Hundreds of Israelis have now contacted the offices of the Reform and Conservative movements to register as members. The groundswell of sympathy is a backlash against the [Orthodox] rally which many nonreligious Israelis saw as an assault on the judicial system and democratic institutions...Through a series of legal battles, the Conservative and Reform movements have chipped away at the Orthodox rabbinate's control of religious affairs, winning court orders to register non-Orthodox conversions and to seat Conservative and Reform Jews on religious councils. The inroads have brought a torrent of invective against the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, who has been labeled `an enemy of the Jews.' Reform rabbis have been called clowns and leaders off a non-Jewish sect."

Amos Oz declared: "We wanted to show the Orthodox that there is another Judaism that is appropriate for us and to strengthen these moventents, which are being persecuted. …

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