On February 13, 2012, I wrote about some issues of religious-secular tension in Israel. There have been some further developments and I thought I would comment.
Last week, the Tel-Aviv Municipal Council voted 13-7 to ask the Israeli Ministry of Transportation to permit buses to run in Tel-Aviv on Shabbat (Saturday). As I have discussed, buses do not run in most of Israel on Shabbat, which is the national day of rest. There are some exceptions. For example, Haifa, one of Israel's largest cities, does have bus service on Shabbat. At this point, the Ministry of Transportation has indicated that it will refuse the request and will maintain the "Status Quo."
The "Status Quo" in Israel denotes the agreement entered into between religious and non-religious parties at the time of the founding of the State of Israel. The then-future founding Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, wrote a letter in which he set out certain principles that the State of Israel would follow. Though the State would be democratic and would provide for freedom of thought and expression, it would recognize certain religious principles that would form part of the national law of the fledgling state. Included in this "Status Quo" was the idea that Shabbat would be a national day of rest and that all public institutions would have Kosher kitchens.
There was also an agreement that a certain number of highly observant Ultra-Orthdox Jews would be exempt from military service so that they could devote their full time and attention to furthering their religious studies. It was anticipated that this would be a very small number of students and would therefore be tolerable for the State to allow this exception to an otherwise universal system of military conscription.
Recently, this "Status Quo" has come under fire in different ways. Secular Israelis have perceived an increasing level of Ultra-Orthodox religious observance in certain public areas. For example, there has been a proliferation of gender-segregated buses (particularly in Jerusalem), Ultra-Orthdox opposition to women singing in the army (something women have done, without complaint, since the Israeli army began), other issues of the exclusion of women in billboard advertising, public state-sanctioned ceremonies and other fora. This attempt to set increasingly stringent boundaries by certain Ultra-Orthodox groups has led to a series of public protests, many of which have been organized by the "Yisrael Hofshit" ("Be Free Israel") Movement.
Perhaps, partially in response to these perceived attacks on the Status Quo by Ultra-Orthodox and some Orthodox Israelis, secular Israelis have felt emboldened to raise their own concerns about the Status Quo and to take steps to challenge it. One area of such concern has been the issue of public transportation, particularly in the Tel-Aviv area. As members of the Tel-Aviv Municipal Council have suggested, Tel-Aviv does not generally bar people from driving on Shabbat nor does it prevent taxis from running or even public passenger mini-buses. It is only large buses and trains that do not run. Mayor Ron Huldai and those who support him have argued that it is unfair that those who have the money to own a car or pay for a cab are free to do whatever they want on Shabbat whereas those who cannot afford car or cab fare, particularly students, soldiers and seniors, but including many other Tel-Aviv residents as well, are all "grounded" each Shabbat. Those who oppose the Tel-Aviv Municipality's request for Shabbat bus service have argued in favour of the Status Quo which has been in existence now for more than 60 years. They argue that it will further erode the Jewish character of the State and will commercialize Shabbat and negatively impact the quality of life in Israel.
The other "Status Quo" issue that is being publicly debated is the issue of military exemption for Ultra-Religious Israelis. A few weeks ago, the Supreme Court of Israel ruled that the exemption is now unconstitutional and cannot be continued. Israel's High Court held that the law created inequality in Israel. An article in Haaretz on February 23, 2012 noted that there now 62,000 Ultra-Orthodox Israelis taking advantage of the Tal Law to avoid military service. Israel's Supreme Court held by a 6-3 majority that this situation could not continue.
The move to eliminate, wholly or partially, the exemption from military service for Ultra-Orthodox and the movement to institute public transportation in many other areas of Israel are both signs that the long standing Status Quo is being challenged. There are certainly other challenges on the horizon including the challenge to the existing system whereby Jewish weddings, burials, conversions and ritual circumcisions are all within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinical authorities.
All of these challenges are related to the issue of where to draw the line between democracy and freedom and the Jewish character of the State of Israel. These issues are likely to lead to continued considerable debate in the future as religious and secular Israelis seek to find a manageable compromise that will be workable for both sides.
Sunday, February 26, 2012
Monday, February 13, 2012
Israel faces many different types of issues, some of which are distinctly more problematic than those with which other countries have to contend. There is the ongoing threat from Iran of a nuclear attack; Threats of missile attacks from Hezbollah to the north and from Gaza to the southwest; and the uncertain impact of events in Egypt, Syria and other surrounding countries. Internally, Israel has had to deal with a variety of criminal charges against various politicians and is constantly threatened by or actually paralyzed by (even if only for a short time) general strikes.
But bubbling beneath these issues, some of which are genuinely existential in nature, Israel is still grappling with another crucial issue - the balance between being a Jewish state and a democracy and the need for people of diverse religious viewpoints to find a way to get along.
Two incidents over the weekend in Israel caught my attention in different ways. The issues are very different but they are clearly related.
On Shabbat (the Sabbath), in Kiryat Yovel, YNET news reports that some people put up posters of naked or semi-naked women, depicted in well known art. One poster was Sandro Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus," reproduced above. The other was "Tahitian Women" by Paul Gauguain. Both posters were apparently labelled the "beautification of women." In Hebrew, the wording would be very similar to the "exclusion of women," an issue which has been in the public spotlight in Israel for many months now.
Kiryat Yovel is a neighbourhood with an increasingly Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population. Yet it is not an exclusively ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood like Mea Shearim or B'nai Brak. It still has a sizable population of secular residents.
At first blush, it sounds like a needless provocation. The posters are not connected to some upcoming event, for example an art exhibit. Nor does there appear to be any real purpose to putting them up other than to strike back at the perception of increasing Haredi influence in this Jerusalem community.
On the other hand, the context is more complex. This incident comes after reports of some companies removing women (even modestly clad women) from advertising posters in Jerusalem, as a result of Haredi pressure, in some cases where the very same photos were used with the women included in other parts of Israel. The poster incident comes in a city in which there have been some very public disputes taking place over the issue of gender-segregated buses and even gender segregated streets. Viewed in light of many of the incidents that have occurred, while the incident may be provocative, it is also responsive. Much like the Scandinavian Muhammad cartoons, in some ways, the posters can be seen as a free speech statement by some who view gender equality as very much under attack. Ultimately, I'm not sure that this is the best way to deal with Haredi threats to freedom and gender equality, but it certainly made an interesting point.
On the same Shabbat, in Tel-Aviv, a group of protesters from the "Be Free Israel" movement gathered to protest the lack of public transportation on Shabbat and Jewish religious holy days. This is also a fairly complicated issue. The "Yisrael Hofshit" (Be Free Israel) movement has held a number of rallies around the country protesting the exclusion of women. They have invited women to sing and have pushed back against a number of public incidents in which women were shunned. Of course the movement received overwhelming support from the majority of Israelis for its stance on this issue. But now the movement has looked to expand the range of its attacks on perceived religious coercion by railing against publicly supported religious laws.
As a Jewish State, Israel has many public manifestations of Jewish influenced law. The State holiday calendar revolves around the Jewish calendar with the addition of certain national Israeli holidays. Saturday is the official day of rest and in many areas, all of the shops and restaurants are closed. In many areas, there is no public transportation or other public services. You certainly won't find any cars on the road on Yom Kippur, even in the most stridently secular neighborhoods.
Some argue that these state-supported Jewish laws are unfair and should be changed. One source of argument is that the "democratic and free" nature of Israel should trump the Jewish nature of the State. Given that the majority of the population is secular, these people argue that the ban on public transportation is an imposition of minority religious values on a non-religious public. It is a form of religious coercion in that it forces people to observe the Sabbath on some level.
Others argue that the ban on public transportation in many areas of Israel disproportionately affects the poor, the youth, students and soldiers. Since there is no general restriction on driving a car, taking a cab or using a large mini-van or mini-bus on Shabbat in Israel, the lack of public transportation primarily impacts those without the means to use these other forms of transportation.
There is certainly merit to both of these arguments but there are other points to consider as well.
Some have argued that the country's bus drivers have the most to lose and will now be forced to work while much of the rest of the country continues to take a day off. Even if they are paid overtime rates or given an option, this will still impact Shabbat for many drivers, some of whom may feel that they have no choice but to accept Shabbat shifts.
Others look to the balance between democracy and a Jewish State. Trying to balance these two values has necessarily involved certain compromises. In Ra'anana, for example, all of the stores and restaurants on the main street are closed on Shabbat. At the far end of the city, there is a small commercial area with a number of restaurants and shops that are open on Shabbat. For now, the city seems to manage well with this compromise.
The general operation of buses throughout Israel on Shabbat will have a significant effect on the Jewish character of the state, even though there are already many cars on the road. It will likely lead to many more stores and restaurants opening up, a significant increase in commercial activity and a decrease in the number of Israelis who are able to enjoy a day of rest each week. In some ways, it will mirror what has occurred throughout North America as shops have opened up on Sundays and vastly increased the general commercialization of society. But North America is a different case. Since it is not predicated on the religious values of one group, the impact of having Sunday closings was simply unfair in a society which claimed to treat all religious groups equally.
Israel must grapple with different issues than those in North America. Since it is trying to continue to define itself as a "Jewish State," it makes sense that there will be some public laws that reflect the Jewish character of the State. It is tricky to find the right balance. There are certainly many areas in which it would now be prudent to take away monopolistic power from the religious authorities - in areas such as marriage, divorce, funerals, conversions and even Kashruth (Kosher certification laws). It may also make sense to expand public transportation in areas that are overwhelmingly secular. But at the same time, the only way that the State will continue to be a "Jewish State" is if there are at least some aspects of that Jewish character that are publicly promoted.
As I have argued in other blog posting on this point, one thing that would certainly assist Israelis across the spectrum from religious to non-religious would be the move to a two day weekend with Sundays as a general non-working day. Buses would run and stores would be open but Israelis would be able to enjoy a much needed second day of rest with no restrictions.
In any case, the challenge presented by both of these incidents is to continue to look for a balance and a compromise and ways for religious and non-religious communities to find common ground despite their often diametrically opposite points of view.