It’s different this time. Why? Because in Israel the reality of demographics is catching up with those who previously believed that wishful thinking makes for sound public policy.
It’s hard to distill into a sound bite what’s going on in Israel and the West Bank. Knowledgeable pundits are fond of prefacing their answers to meaningful questions about the region with, “It’s complicated…” And it’s true. In Israel, especially in Jerusalem, everything is complicated, because politics permeate every crevice, from issues of local real estate to childhood education.
I’ve just returned from a week in Israel, including visits to Tel Aviv, Herzliya, East Jerusalem, and the fascinating work-in-progress at the ambitious construction project of Rawabi City, as well as other sites in the West Bank.
While I have been to Israel many times since my first trip in 2002, I was fortunate join an outstanding program sponsored by the Philanthropy Workshop West for this trip. Among the highlights of our trip, we visited a wide range of community outreach programs for ethnic groups at risk (Israeli Arabs, the Ethiopian Jews, the Bedouins) sponsored by groups including the Portland Trust, the New Israel Fund, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
What struck me most about this visit was that Israel finally appears to be acting more introspectively to address its painful social and political contradictions, acknowledging that these can no longer be left to fester from salutary neglect.
Chief among these contradictions is the discrimination of Jews against other Jews, particularly by the ultra orthodox against Jewish women who seek the right to pray at the Western Wall, and by the State of Israel against Reform and Conservative Judaism (which define Judaism in the United States) by denying these branches of Judaism official recognition and fiscal support in Israel.
I was not expecting to hear from multiple individuals what I have felt since I first visited Israel 11 years ago: that the country cannot allow the ultra orthodox to be exempt from military service and from carrying their economic share of public services. And there is a sense of urgency that also surprised me, a sense that this must be addressed by the legislature now. To wit, the newly formed government majority in the Knesset, for the first time in the history of the State of Israel, excludes the ultra orthodox block, effectively taking the keys to the religious car away from these intolerant and uncompromising constituencies.
The release of the Women of the Wall from arrest, without consequence, on April 11 brings this new political reality home. The courts overruled the police and squarely placed the blame for public disturbance on the haredim at the scene. This is a big deal! As reported by the New York Times:
“The judge said the people disturbing public order on Thursday were a group of ultra-Orthodox protesters who were demonstrating against the women. The police said an ultra-Orthodox man was also arrested after he grabbed a book from one of the women and burned it.”
Job training centers for the ultra orthodox are springing up, supported by U.S. NGO’s and the Israeli government, and there are waiting lists because of excess demand from haredim who wish to change their lives to consist of more than Torah study. I view continued progress or renewed failure to achieve change in this area as a canary in the coal mine in terms of handicapping Israel’s prospective trajectory toward broader achievements with the Palestinians.