A call to support the Orthodox majority opposing extremism

In the struggle within the Orthodox Jewish community between reactionaries who use Judaism as a weapon against democracy, and modernists whose worldview is based on integrating the two, the reactionaries have been the dominant voice – but the silent majority is starting to raise its own.

By Rachel Liel

It cannot be easy to be a modern Orthodox Jew in Israel today, not when leading voices in the community are calling for Israel to reject the modern, democratic world.

The latest such declaration came from Benny Katsover, an “elder statesman” of the West Bank settler movement. “The main role of Israeli democracy now is to disappear. Israeli democracy has finished its role, and it must disassemble and give way to Judaism,” Katsover told a publication of the Chabad movement’s messianic wing. His statements were reprinted prominently in the popular right-wing Orthodox website kipa.co.il.

Katsover was immediately seconded by a far more influential figure within the Orthodox community, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, the rabbi of the Samaria region. “It is clear to everyone that Israeli democracy is bankrupt,” he told kipa.co.il. “The vision of a halachic state (ruled by Jewish law) is one of the things we believe will come about in the future, may it be in our lifetime, and put this country right.”

Contending that most Supreme Court judges are “far from the spirit of ‘grandfather Israel’ and halacha,” (Jewish law) Levanon went to say that until democracy gives way to halacha, “Part of fulfilling the vision of the halachic state is to work toward fixing the Supreme Court and appointing more judges who are suitable and close to Jewish tradition.”

Surprising? It shouldn’t be. At the end of 2009, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, the key figure behind moves in the Knesset to change the make-up of the Supreme Court, said: “Step by step, we will bestow upon the citizens of Israel the law of the Torah, and we will turn halacha into the binding law of the nation.” Neeman was speaking at a Jerusalem conference on halacha attended by many of the country’s most revered rabbis, and was warmly applauded.

All this is chilling enough for secular or nominally religious people to hear. But for modern Orthodox Jews who are trying to live simultaneously in their community and the wider world, such words must be especially intimidating.

There are so many Orthodox Jews who are also dismayed by these calls to dismantle democracy and institute halachic law. There are so many organizations made up of Orthodox Jews who shudder at the idea of imposing their religious beliefs on Israeli society, and who are fighting the efforts by Orthodox extremists to do so.

In his interview, Katsover also claimed that the campaign against the ultra-Orthodox drive to exclude women from the public sphere was a plot by the Left to “incite” against Judaism. “The leftist activists prepare well-timed campaigns against anything that smacks of holiness… The media campaigns over insignificant issues in order to undermine Jewish identity,” he said.

This would be news to the family of eight-year-old Na’ama Margolese of Beit Shemesh, who was traumatized by ultra-Orthodox fanatics and became the symbol of the movement against the exclusion and intimidation of women in public. The Margoleses are a modern Orthodox family. Orot, the girls’ school attended by Na’ama that is the object of the Beit Shemesh fanatics’ fury, is a public (state-supported) religious school.

Furthermore, a glance at a video that recently went viral – a “flash mob” of some 200 Beit Shemesh women dancing to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” – shows that many of the dancers’ heads are covered. The flash mob’s organizers were a team of Orthodox, traditional and secular Beit Shemesh women.

There is a struggle going on within the Orthodox Jewish community, a struggle between reactionaries who use Judaism as a weapon against democracy, and modernists whose worldview is based on integrating the two.

For too long, the reactionaries have been the dominant voice of Orthodox Jewry in Israel, and they’re becoming more and more extreme. However, the silent majority in the community is beginning to assert itself, to stand up to intimidation, to raise its voice.

They are fighting for democracy in Israel with great bravery against very powerful forces. They deserve the notice, admiration and support of all Israelis.

Rachel Liel is the Director of the New Israel Fund, Jerusalem office

Disclaimer: In 2011, +972 received a grant that was administered through the American branch of the NIF.