An exploration by Avi Bram into religious – secular tensions in Israel and what can be done to bridge the divide.
The treatment of women by the ultra-Orthodox sector has been the hottest topic in Israeli public debate for over a month now, and on my recent visit to Israel I was confronted by it at every turn.
Although the issue has been a point of contention between religious and secular Israelis in the past, the current media storm kicked off on the 16th December when a secular woman, Tanya Rosenbilt, refused to move to the back of a public bus when asked by an ultra-Orthodox man. She was going from Ashdod to Jerusalem, on a line that was normally only travelled by ultra-Orthodox passengers. The man then prevented the bus from moving on, and police were called to resolve the stand-off. The policeman first asked Tanya to move to the back in order to resolve the incident, but she again refused (an Israeli High Court ruling in January 2011 found that enforced segregation on public buses is illegal, but a bus line is allowed to have a suggested seating arrangement for passengers to follow ‘voluntarily’). The policeman turned to the man who had asked Tanya to move, who agreed to leave and wait for the next bus. The entire altercation delayed the bus for about half an hour, and was not the first of its kind in recent years, but Tanya’s account of the incident was picked up by the media and unleashed a wave of opinion from both secular and religious commentators.
The discussion was inflamed by a news report on Israel’s Channel 2, one week later, which revealed that an 8-year old girl in Beit Shemesh (a town near Jerusalem with a mix of secular, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox residents) was afraid to walk to school because she had been repeatedly spat on and cursed by ultra-Orthodox men. Her offence was ‘dressing immodestly’, even though her Modern Orthodox parents had dressed her in a way that the vast majority of Rabbis would recognise as complying with Jewish laws of modesty.
During my visit, over the New Year, I discussed the issue with Israeli relatives – both secular and ultra-Orthodox. Both felt that the intensity of the public outcry over the incidents was due to more general tensions between sectors of society, rather than a response to the specific events. The media coverage often portrayed the incidents as part of a larger campaign. For example, the channel 2 report referred to Beit Shemesh as a ‘parable’ and explicitly played on secular fears that the ultra-Orthodox will become so numerous as to impose their values on the rest of society – even bringing gender segregation to public streets and removing pictures of women from posters and billboards.
The sensationalism of the channel 2 report, and much of the subsequent rhetoric from journalists and politicians, is an indication of the deep mistrust between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis (with the Modern Orthodox to some extent caught in the middle). Both sides fear that the other will impose their lifestyle or values on them. Without mutual respect and trust, small incidents will continue to flare up as each side believes they are caught up in a war of attrition.
One step towards improving the situation would be to end the special exemption from army service that ultra-Orthodox men and women enjoy. The IDF serves as a force for cohesion for those who serve in it (bringing together Israelis from different classes and countries of origin), and ending the exemption would facilitate personal relations between the ultra-Orthodox (who often live in ghettoised neighbourhoods) and the rest of society. It would also reduce the resentment that is caused by a perception that the ultra-Orthodox are not sharing the defence burden.
Similarly, it would be beneficial to speed up the integration of ultra-Orthodox men into the workplace. Although many ultra-Orthodox women are in paid employment, there are 121,500 men in full-time study at a religious institution, called a yeshiva or kollel (as of end of 2010). Seeing as the total ultra-Orthodox population is around 600,000, this implies that most of the adult men are enrolled in a yeshiva or kollel. Married men who study at a kollel receive a stipend, which is paid for from donations and a budget allocation from the Ministry of Education. Together with welfare benefits and the wife’s income (if she works), this allows the majority of the men to support their families without getting a job.
The extent of state support for these scholars is much lower than most secular Israelis believe – it is around NIS 700 (approximately £120) per month stipend and NIS 230 (£40) via a council tax rebate. There is also a ‘minimum income guarantee’ that gives an extra NIS 1040 (£180) per month to scholars with 3 children or more and a low family income (a report by the National Economic Council – available in Hebrew - found that the state benefits account for less than half of the typical kollel scholar’s household income). These are not huge sums, but they fuel a perception that that the ultra-Orthodox are given preferential treatment. My cousin, a bio-engineering student, told me, “I am studying and so are they, what’s the difference between us? Either give the grant to both of us or give it to neither, you can’t give them a grant and make me pay tuition”. If these grants were withdrawn, and religious scholars were encouraged into the workplace, it would remove this source of contention and bring more ultra-Orthodox men into contact with other elements of Israeli society.
In return, the secular majority should show the ultra-Orthodox that they are valued members of society and their faith is respected. The government could provide grants to a select number of the most promising Torah scholars, similar to the way it funds posts at universities. Withdrawal of stipends for the rest should be done gradually, to give them time to adjust, and training and support should be provided to those ultra-Orthodox men who want to obtain employment.
Although other Yachad writers may disagree, I believe that gender segregation should be permitted on private bus lines that serve the ultra-Orthodox community. Men and women are separated in their education system and synagogues, and we should accept the community’s wish to extend this practice to transport which is privately provided. However, it would be far better if they were to separate the genders to the left and right side of the bus rather than front-and-back, in order to reduce the similarity to Deep South America in the 1950′s. As it is, Tanya Rosenbilt is already being referred to as the Israeli Rosa Parks.