Note regarding terminology: The Western Wall of the ancient city of Jerusalem is located close to the Second Temple when Jerusalem was under Jewish control. Because of its proximity to the ancient temple site, it is Judaism’s most revered site. It’s colloquial name is “the Wailing Wall”, because of the fervent prayers offered there.
Israel is a country at war with its neighbors and within itself. Some of the key questions confronting Israeli society are:
1) Who/what is a Jew?
2) Is being a Jew a function of race, religion, or culture?
3) Can Israel survive as a democracy if it continues to be a Jewish theocracy?
Question one: Hitler said that having even one grandparent that was Jewish made a
person Jewish and thus subject to racial persecution. Israel used this definition after its founding to admit anyone of Jewish heritage. (Many of these immigrants do not follow traditional Jewish religious practices.) These include Jews of diverse races, from Russia to India to Yeman to Ethiopia. Thus, “Jewishness” can hardly be defined under any concept of racial purity, no matter how Hitler tried to define it. In practice, Ultra-Orthodox Jews define Jewishness as determined by the religion of the mother. Thus, if the father is Jewish, but the mother is not, the child is not Jewish. It’s complicated.
Question two: Many self-identified Jews do not believe in the traditional religious
aspects of Jewishness. Thus, they consider themselves to be “cultural Jews.” Naturally, the religious Jews don’t want to recognize cultural Jews as being truly Jewish, regardless of their mother’s religion. Indeed, Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews don’t recognize any other types of Jews as being truly Jewish. Those excluded include American Reformed and Conservative arms of Judaism. This is similar to some Protestant American attitudes against the Mormons: They are the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.” Yet, other Christians don’t want to recognize Mormons as being truly Christian, no matter how much they believe in Jesus, and regardless of the official name of the Mormon church. Ultra-Orthodox (fundamentalist, aka Haredi) Jews want to reserve the exclusive right to themselves to certify who qualifies officially as being Jewish.
Question three: Israel is a self-proclaimed Jewish state. The Orthodox Jewish parties
wield unrivaled power is setting the secular laws to follow Jewish Talmudic law. This is analogous to Moslem theocracies that follow Sharia law. For example, only certain recognized religions (Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Islamic, Armenian, etc.) are allowed to conduct wedding ceremonies. Since Protestant Christian sects aren’t among the few officially recognized religions in Israel, no Protestant Christian weddings are allowed. Any Protestant living in Israel who wants to get married has to travel to Cyprus, Greece, or some other country. This is just what gays have to do in the US, i.e. travel to Massachusetts and a few other states, if they want to get married. Orthodox religion can be antithetical to democracy.
Twenty percent of Israel’s population is Israeli Arabs, those Palestinians who didn’t
abandon their ancestral homes in Israel at the time of the creation of Israel in 1948, when so many Palestinians fled into neighboring Lebanon and Jordan, expecting the Arab countries to quickly overwhelm the new Jewish state. Ever since, those displaced Palestinians have never been allowed to fully integrate into those neighboring Arab countries, instead being manipulated and exploited as pawns in the greater Arab-Israeli conflict.
The Israeli Arabs reproduce at a faster rate than the Jews, so Israel is becoming less exclusively Jewish with the passage of time. When combined with the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian territories controlled by Israel since the 1968 war, Israel faces the prospect of becoming a “minority” Jewish state. This is called the “population bomb” that is putting great pressure on Israel. Israel does not intend to let a majority Arab population outvote the Jews, which would require abandonment of the democratic voting model to maintain Jewish dominance.
The dilemma facing Israel is that if it doesn’t implement the “two-state” solution, i.e.
enabling the creation of an independent Palestinian state, then Israel could become a minority Jewish state with an apartheid-like system of second-class treatment of Palestinians. The fundamentalist Jewish settlers who continue to encroach on Palestinian land with their illegal settlements are creating “facts on the ground” that make the two-state solution almost impossible. This is the conflict within Israel: between those who want to work for peace through negotiation and those who want to make life so miserable for the Palestinians that they’ll leave their occupied territories. This is the same approach that Alabama and Arizona are taking toward Mexicans, except that Mexico hasn’t been occupied by the US for the last fifty years.
Israel’s democracy is somewhat similar to Italy’s. There are many different political parties serving different constituencies. No one party has a clear majority. And so coalition governments rule by cobbling together fragile majorities. This gives the small religious parties more power than they would otherwise have, as they throw their support to whichever coalition promises them the most benefits. For example, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Haredi, are exempt from serving in the military. Very few of the Haredi work in any type of job, because they receive government welfare enabling them to spend all their time studying the Talmud. The funny thing is that their intense studies has convinced them that they are the only true Jews. They continue to regard all non-orthodox Israelis (and Americans, etc.) and not qualified to be truly Jewish.
Just a decade ago, it was a fundamentalist Jew that assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, because Rabin had dared to negotiate a peace agreement with Yassir Arafat. If there is ever a resolution to the current Palestinian problem, then Israelis can concentrate on their waging their own civil war against each other.
JudyJune 8, 2012 at 8:34 am
I highly recommend “The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East” by Sandy Tolan. It’s a non fiction work that puts you on an emotional roller coaster with a Palestinian and an Israeli. And not to be picky–but Orthodox Jews are not Haredi. Haredi can only be classified as ul;tra-Orthodox or fundamentalist.
Dallas Smith BlogJune 8, 2012 at 8:45 am
I added the word Ultra, i.e. Ultra-Orthodox, to the Haredi references. Thanks!
Susan MazerJune 9, 2012 at 12:07 am
The challenges that face the Jewish community world wide have been complex forever. Being defined as a race, ethic group, religion, nationality, … the “who are we?” question, however, is not asked among Jews…only among non-Jews. Then, there is the question of who is an Israeli. Is being an Israeli being a citizen of Israel or someone who lives in Israel…a distinction that is alive and well in Israel. Further, to the orthodox Christian population, supporting the ultra-orthodox settlers who continue to capture and claim Palestinian land, is living out the tenets of the New Testament that calls for Israel to go to the sea for Jesus to return. As an American woman who is Jewish, whose family (Mother) came from Hungary and founded the first Hungarian Jewish Synagogue in Detroit, whose life has moved far beyond my own roots, I struggle with all of this. In Israel, I am not feeling Jewish enough; in Reno, I am clearly Jewish, but unaffiliated with any Jewish community; in my own family, we are all Jewish, but each practicing as we believe which spans from non-practicing to orthodox, with Reconstructionism (an American practice) in the middle. And, we all get along. Lest anyone think that the Jewish community is rare or unnatural in its internal strife of self-identity and rituals, the Protestant reformation is still happening, with more Christian sects than ever before. The Catholic Church tries to hold its own to a point, with breaches occuring continually. Islam is also struggling with what it is and how it is in the world today…and Hindus and Buddhists have a bit more freedom but, if you go to Nepal…you will see cultural practices that reflect the oldest of practices in both schools of prayer.
To add to this experience, perhaps for myself, I must accept the confusion as representing the search for spiritual understanding that began thousands of years ago. A search for some kind of rationale that will explain the unexplainable and provide security when and where there is none. In some way, all of us are right…and what is different shows up only in the details, in the dogma, in the minutia that is so small, but so powerful in keeping us separate. At the Western Wall, where millions of Jews come to pray, where millions of Christians and Muslim come to feel the spiritual presence of God… who is to say whether it is there or not there, whether millions are wrong or right? Jerusalem itself has a history of continual construction, destruction, and renewal. and, it seems to be continuing as we all debate these questions….