The big drama so far in Israel this week has involved Tanya Rosenblit, a 28-year-old writer and translator. Boarding a bus from the coastal town of Ashdod to Jerusalem, she stood her ground for about half an hour when ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jewish men tried to pressure her to take a seat at the back. Rosenblit became an instant heroine, appearing on TV with the transportation minister and publishing an op-ed about her experience in one of Israel’s largest dailies.
In January 2011 Israel’s Supreme Court declared forced gender segregation on buses illegal. Politicians from both right and left condemned the attempt to coerce Rosenblit. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said “a fringe group must not be allowed to dismantle what we share in common.” Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, himself ultra-Orthodox, said, “We don’t have the authority to force our ideas on others. This country does not belong to the haredi community.”
Gender segregation on Israeli buses has, of course, gotten attention from lofty places lately. Speaking to the Saban Center earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it and other Israeli phenomena reminded her of Iran. And last week in an already-notorious op-ed Thomas Friedman included segregated bus lines for the ultra-Orthodox community (to repeat, now outlawed) in a volley of jibes against Israel.
As the above story reveals—yes, there is a problem; and yes, it’s being addressed. It should also be seen in the right dimensions: only a small proportion of the public buses serve neighborhoods (mostly in Jerusalem) of the ultra-Orthodox, who account for 9 percent of the Jewish population. But, for some, catching a rumor somewhere (sex-segregated buses in Israel!) is enough to heap some more vilification on the much-criticized Jewish state.
And how did the problem come about? Does it really signal a deterioration of democracy, as Clinton complained? Or does it in fact reflect something quite different?
The ultra-Orthodox have always been a problematic community in Israel, ranging from hostile to ambivalent toward the secular state. But back in 1948 when Israel was established, they were a tiny community. Young haredi men were exempted from military service and even given state support for yeshiva studies. The secular-Jewish majority tended to see the haredim as an eccentric remnant of the Diaspora that, in any case, would soon wither on the vine.
It didn’t turn out that way; instead the community—very literally applying the biblical “Be fruitful and multiply”—burgeoned. And the last few years have finally seen some moderation, with small but increasing numbers of haredi young men enlisting for army service and others abjuring lifelong yeshiva study for the workforce. At the same time, another part of the community, anxious about these trends, has turned more extreme—hence such phenomena as sex-segregated buses and attempts to force that practice on others.
This capsule history, though, reveals that the flourishing of the ultra-Orthodox community resulted from Israel’s democratic virtues of pluralism and tolerance. A community that the majority resented for its hostility or coolness toward the state and refusal to take part in defending it, and whose way of life many considered a distortion of the Jewish religion, was nonetheless allowed to go its own way and even supported from the public coffers. No one forced them to serve in the military; accommodations were made for their needs, like closure of streets in their neighborhoods for the Sabbath. If today part of the community is challenging Israel’s democratic norms, it’s because—in part—of having benefited for so long from those very norms.
Something similar pertains to Israel’s Muslim community. When Switzerland banned the building of minarets in 2009, when France banned Islamic face veils earlier this year, to the best of my knowledge Secretary Clinton, columnist Friedman, and their legions of fellow Israel-critics did not publicly lambaste these countries for gutting their democracy. Minarets and Islamic face veils are, of course, all over the place in Israel, and no one would dream of trying to prohibit them. In fact, one of Israel’s few restrictions on religious practice is on prayer for Jews and other non-Muslims on the Temple Mount—in deference to Muslim sensibilities.
It should be pointed out, too, that at a time of rampant persecution of Christians in the Middle East, causing mass emigration and vanishing populations, Israel is the region’s only country where (mostly Arab) Christians enjoy full rights and have seen a dramatic increase in population—from 34,000 in 1948 to over 150,000 today.
So next time you hear that Israel is rapidly reverting to the Dark Ages, don’t believe it. A radically heterogeneous country in a harsh part of the world, Israel faces more than its share of challenges. Friends of Israel don’t rush to condemn it; often context and nuance can reveal a very different picture from the latest media clichés. As for those who profess their deep love and concern for Israel but jump to pile more indictments on it, they look more like enemies.
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