Ultra-Orthodox Jews

Those experts in Israel were on to something: Why secular-religious divide in Jewish state matters

Those experts in Israel were on to something: Why secular-religious divide in Jewish state matters

Earlier this year, I traveled to Israel with a group of U.S. religion journalists.

Through the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, a dozen of us spent a week exploring political, social and religious issues in the Middle East.

As I wrote in a column for The Christian Chronicle, our hosts said they hoped the experience gave us an enhanced understanding of issues in that part of the world and made us think about tough questions. It certainly did that.

Another thing it did: It piqued my interest in news from Israel. For example, one topic that we spent quite a bit of time exploring was the secular-religious divide in the Jewish state. In a front-page Christian Chronicle story, I noted:

Ironically, many religious Jews took issue with Zionism, the political movement that emerged in the late 19th century and advocated reestablishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

“Many Orthodox Jews were opposed to Zionism because (they believed) it hastened what should have been God’s work,” said Rabbi Noam Marans, the American Jewish Committee’s director of interreligious and intergroup relations. “The return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel usurped God’s domain and empowered human beings to achieve that.”

Today, deep religious divisions characterize Israel — a nation of 8.7 million people that occupies a geographic area the size of New Jersey. The overall population is about 81 percent Jewish, 14 percent Muslim, 2 percent Christian, 2 percent Druze and 1 percent other.

But often, the conflict is between Jews themselves, as secular and Orthodox Jews clash over what should happen when democratic values collide with Jewish law (halakha), according to a Pew Research Center study.

It turns out that the experts who kept referencing that conflict during our group’s visit were on to something.

I’m not sure that even they realized, though, how big an issue that it would become so soon in the battle over Israel’s future.

How big?

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Wave of distressing news underscores intersection of issues for American and Israeli Jews

Wave of distressing news underscores intersection of issues for American and Israeli Jews

A Yiddish word came to mind as I mentally organized this post about the Jewish world’s recent run of distressing news. The word is fakakta, which, out of respect for my audience, I'll politely translate as “all messed up.” It was one of my mother’s favorite rebuttals.

Yiddish terms tend to sound humorous when plopped into English conversation. But for Jews such as myself who are deeply connected to the tribe, there’s nothing’s humorous about the current spate of headlines.

They include the religious turmoil between and within Judaism’s traditional and liberal movements -- plus, of course, the deadly violence between Israeli Jews and Palestinians over political control of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif.

One slice of this balagan (a Hebrew-Russian word translated as “chaos”) was recently covered — and admirably so -- by The Atlantic magazine. The piece probed North American Conservative Judaism’s internal and ongoing struggle over the place of non-Jews within in the center-left (doctrinally speaking, that is) movement.

I’ll say more about this below.

The quickly evolving Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif story is, undoubtedly, as much a political issue as it is religion story. I'll give it its own post once the situation solidifies.

For now, suffice it to say that for many Jews and Arabs and Muslims, even for whom the issue is more political than religious, the site is a powerful symbol of their side’s just rights in the entire Israel-Palestine conflict. To underscore just how fixed the sides are in their narratives, you might read this piece from the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and this piece from Al Jazeera.

Then there’s the ongoing conflict between Jewish Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious establishment and Judaism’s more liberal Diaspora movements over prayer space at the Western Wall. I wrote about this a few weeks back, while in Israel.

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Western Wall battle: Viewing Jewish culture wars from a balcony in Israel's Galilee region

Western Wall battle: Viewing Jewish culture wars from a balcony in Israel's Galilee region

The view from my hillside guest house in the northern Israeli village of Amirim -- where I'm writing this post -- takes in the lake known in Hebrew as the Kinneret and in English as the Sea of Galilee. The lake-side city of Tiberias is also visible, as is the militarily strategic high plateau called the Golan Heights.

Errant shells from fighting on the Syrian side of the Golan regularly land across the tense border in Israel, as they have during my stay here. But they’re too far away, perhaps 20 or so miles, to be of immediate concern.

Likewise, the regular threats made by the Iranian-aligned, Lebanese Hezbollah militia to eradicate Israel in a barrage of rockets. Lebanon is just a dozen or so miles due north, but that border is mostly quiet for the moment. So why be concerned now?

What is of immediate concern, however, is the recent flare up over the Israeli government’s decision to rescind an agreement allowing non-Orthodox religious Jews to share prayer space at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site.

The nod to Orthodox political pressure enraged the organized non-Orthodox Jewish establishment. From cries of boycott Israeli leaders to claims that Israel gave U.S. Jews “the finger,” liberal journalistic pundits and organizational leaders alike seemingly competed to express the depth of their outrage and disgust.

(A second decision negating a provision that made conversion to Judaism somewhat easier within Israel was also made, though it's attracted much less attention outside of Israel, where conversion requirements are generally less stringent than they are in Israel.)

Consider all this the Jewish world’s internal culture war -- a struggle between strict adherence to traditional religious practice versus broadening the practice to accommodate contemporary sensibilities.

Ironically, the brouhaha is of little concern to the average Israeli Jew, the majority of whom are by no means strictly Orthodox, if not outright secular (though culturally staunchly Jewish).

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Adding to the Middle East mix; this time we're talking about Jewish terrorism

Adding to the Middle East mix; this time we're talking about Jewish terrorism

Despicable Jew-on-Jew and suspected Jew-on-Palestinian acts of violence were committed in Israel last week, producing much agonized soul-searching among Israeli and Diaspora Jews over how this could happen. Not surprisingly, the international media has been all over the story, supplying enough answers to the question of "how" to satisfy every taste.

Here's a quick summation of events: 

Within the span of just a few days, right wing religious settlers clashed with government forces seeking to remove illegally built West Bank settler homes, an ultra-Orthodox man attacked a Jerusalem gay pride parade, knifing six and killing a teenaged Jewish girl, and suspected extremist religious settlers set fire to a Palestinian home, killing a toddler. (I say suspected because, as of this writing, no one's actually been charged with the crime, though all signs point to the involvement of radical Jews.) 

Want more detail, including how the Israeli government has reacted to these events? Read this solid Washington Post piece published earlier this week.

Israeli Jewish civilian violence rooted in religious or political extremism -- or an unfortunate mix of the two -- is not quite the man-bites-dog story it's generally portrayed to be. Sadly, it happens too often for that to be the case. Jews, Israeli or otherwise, are no less immune to the darker human impulses than anyone else. 

Still, the anguished "How could Jews do this?" trope carried the day.

My reading of the media landscape tells me that this is the case for several reasons.

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