March 18, 2014 | National Post

Shariah with a Jewish Face

Since 9/11, all Western societies have been wrestling with the problem of how to prevent the emergence of insular ethno-religious ghettos that breed poverty, religious extremism and regressive social attitudes. For the most part, such fears have focused on restive Muslim communities, such as those concentrated in the cités on the outskirts of Paris and other large French cities. But in Israel, a variant of this demographic problem has emerged within a sub-sector of the country’s ultra-orthodox Jewish population. In the long run, this arguably poses as much as a challenge to Israel’s vibrant, modern, economically successful character as any existing external threat.

From early days, ultra-orthodox Jews have enjoyed special rights under Israeli law — including the right to reject military service. This was thought to be in keeping with the traditional belief that the spiritual health of world Jewry depends on the perpetual existence of a corps of dedicated scholars studying and interpreting God’s laws. When the ultra-orthodox community in Israel was small, this was not a major issue. (At the time of Israel’s founding, there were only 400 Yeshiva students who claimed a military exemption on the basis of their religious status.) But due to the extraordinarily high birth rate in this community, that has changed.

The most rigidly fundamentalist Jewish sects typically are lumped together under the designation of Haredim, a term that connotes “trembling” within the context of Isaiah 66:5 (“Hear the word of the Lord, ye that tremble at his word.”) Only about a third of Israeli Haredi men work. Most of the rest dedicate themselves to full-time Torah study — a noble-seeming but, when conducted en masse, economically useless activity. They do not serve in the military or exhibit any other outward sign of national patriotism, comprise a massive drain on the Israeli welfare state, and exhibit poverty levels four times higher than Israeli society more generally.

What’s worse, Haredim exhibit a level of misogyny and sexual phobia that is more commonly associated with militant Muslim fundamentalists. Public spaces in Haredi communities are rigidly segregated by sex. In extreme cases, the women even dress in Jewish burquas (colloquially referred to as “frumkas,” a play on a Yiddish word indicating piety). What’s worse, Haredim have demanded that the wider Israeli society adapt to their primitive views — insisting, for instance, that bus lines offer sex-segregated service, that advertising should be free of female faces or bodies, and that beaches maintain separate areas for men and women.

Haredi publications routinely censor out women — including, in the most appalling examples, the faces of female Holocaust victims in reprinted photos from the 1940s. The editorial policies of such publications are dictated by a board of religious censors, much like in Saudi Arabia. Haredi communities even have their own Jewish small-scale versions of the ministries of vice and virtue imposed by the Mullahs of Iran and other Muslim theocrats. This is, in essence, shariah with a Jewish face. And it is destroying Israel’s hard-earned reputation as an island of Western values in the heart of the Middle East.

Fortunately, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government has mustered the courage to take on the Haredi lobby. A new law passed by the Knesset on Wesdnesday will gradually roll back the military-service exemption enjoyed by ultra-orthodox Israelis. Critics claim it doesn’t go far enough (for instance, it offers these Jews the choice between civilian and military service, an option not enjoyed by most other Israelis). But the very fact that Israel is taking concrete steps to address this problem is a positive sign. If the situation is left to fester indefinitely, the proliferation of an economically parasitical, socially backwards underclass of unemployed (and indeed unemployable) Talmud-reading bookworms would threaten to undermine Israeli society from within.

The move has been met with much gnashing of teeth among Haredi leaders, as well as mass protests by armies of Yeshiva students (male-only, needless to say). One ultra-orthodox political leader, Moshe Gafni, even went so far as to declare “Today, Israel lost the right to be called a Jewish state.”

That is absurd. If Mr. Gafni wants to see what happens to countries that embrace theocracy, there are a few examples in Israel’s own geopolitical neighbourhood. The last thing the Jewish state needs is more of this brand of backwardness at home.

— Jonathan Kay is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post, and a Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.

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