Divided Within: Israel and the Religious Right

By Simon, Ariel | Harvard International Review, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Divided Within: Israel and the Religious Right


Simon, Ariel, Harvard International Review


While the Israelis and the Palestinians continue to hammer out a permanent peace agreement, another serious conflict is brewing in Israel: the ideological conflict between Israel's ultra-orthodox Jewish population and secular Israelis.

While most Jews in Israel are unapologetically secular, there is a vocal ultra-orthodox minority--known in Israel as the Haredim (God-fearing)--a group which is becoming increasingly involved in the political and social affairs of the state, creating a conspicuous rift within the government.

The heart of the Haredi movement is found in Me'a She'arim. The controversy generated by this small neighborhood in Jerusalem is a microcosm of the greater conflict that has become prominent in Israeli society. The Haredi community in Me'a She'arim is older than the nation itself. Primarily Eastern European Jews, the Haredim follow a strict interpretation of traditional Talmudic law. This includes rigidly defined gender roles, a comprehensive observance of the Sabbath, and a long history of anti-Zionism, all of which are in conflict with the values of the majority of Israelis. "Modesty squads" have patrolled Me'a She'arim for years, driving out women who dress provocatively or people who violate the specific norms of the Haredim. The squads sometimes go so far as to spit on and beat transgressors. The gate surrounding Me'a She'arim is a stark reminder of the ideological divide that has come to define religious life in Israel.

The conflict between secular Israelis and the ultra-religious Haredim is not new. Indeed, Haredi criticism of the state of Israel has been widespread since the nation's independence in 1948. This criticism is rooted in the belief that a Jewish state has no legitimacy until the arrival of the Messiah. Because the independence movement of 1948 was largely secular, some ultra-religious consider the state fundamentally sacrilegious. "Jews beware!" warned posters that appeared in the streets of Me'a She'arim during a recent election. "If you put a ballot in the box, you are putting the Knesset above the Torah! We will die before we commit such an act."

This extremism has been mirrored in other infamous incidents, including attacks on female worshippers at the Wailing Wall and stone-throwing at cars driving around Me'a She'arim on Saturdays (a violation of strict observance of the Jewish Sabbath). Some members of the Haredi community of Me'a She'arim have even been vocal supporters of terrorist activities, even writing letters to Arab leaders calling for assistance in the destruction of the Israeli state. …

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