On hating the haredim (& not enough empathy with Ethiopian Israelis)

March 10, 2012


* Why is it that the Israeli media, which hastened to defend the dignity of a Nigerian cleaning woman and described in great detail an Eritrean mother’s longing for her child, refrains from publishing passionate and moving editorials on the plight of the Ethiopian Israeli community?

* Contrary to media hype, Israel is not becoming an ultra-Orthodox theocracy. Rather, the recent violence is a reaction to increasing integration, and a symptom of the haredi (ultra-orthodox) Jewish leadership losing its grip.

* There are an estimated 40-50,000 Africans currently residing in Israel, mainly from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea. With around 2,000 clambering across Israel’s southern border with Egypt each month, the flow of migrants shows little sign of slowing.

 

CONTENTS

1. Israeli elites were quick to support the social justice protests, so why not the Ethiopian ones?
2. A proper legal process is needed to help genuine African asylum seekers to Israel
3. Change is coming to a community defined by its rejection of change
4. “Media double standard harms Ethiopian cause” (By Elad Uzan, Jerusalem Post)
5. “No cosmetic answer to Israel’s African influx” (By Dan Kosky, Times of Israel)
6. “No, Israel isn’t turning into an Iran-style theocracy” (By Gil Troy, New Republic)


This dispatch contains three articles concerning three groups in Israel that are sometimes maligned or not given fair treatment: Israeli Ethiopians, non-Jewish African migrants, and ultra-orthodox Jews.

For those of you who don’t have time to read the articles in full, I have prepared extracts first, followed by the full articles.

-- Tom Gross

 

ARTICLE EXTRACTS

ISRAELI ELITES WERE QUICK TO SUPPORT THE SOCIAL JUSTICE PROTESTS, SO WHY NOT THE ETHIOPIAN ONES?

Writing in The Jerusalem Post, Elad Uzan, a research student and leader of an Ethiopian Israeli youth advocacy group, says:

Why is it that the Israeli media, which hastened to defend the dignity of a Nigerian cleaning woman and described in great detail an Eritrean mother’s longing for her child, refrains from publishing passionate and moving editorials on the plight of the Ethiopian Israeli community? Why is it that when it comes to displaying similar solidarity with tens of thousands of loyal Israeli citizens, their voices suddenly turn silent?

Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the slogan chanted by the crowd at last week’s demonstration: “I stand here to remind those who have forgotten: Ashkenazi Jew, Sephardic Jew, Ethiopian Jew – we are all brothers!” Could it be that the central message of the Ethiopian community – national pride and strong Jewish values – have caused the media to avoid the issue?

To explain this phenomenon one must put it in historical context: Ethiopian Jewish immigration was driven primarily by passionate Zionism. There is concrete evidence of Ethiopian Jewish attempts to make aliya (on foot) to Jerusalem in 1860, well before Herzl’s political Zionism and decades before the First Zionist Congress. Call it “black Zionism.” …

The Ethiopian Israeli community protests out of a genuine demand for Jewish solidarity, as sons and daughters of the Jewish nation, in the nation-state of the Jewish people. Their demands are motivated not only by the international and universal values that are the focus of the Israeli media, but also by national, Jewish values, which the Israeli media often snubs…

This fealty to Jewish values has led them to be perceived as the “enemy” by those who claim to be proponents of the universalist view, which is particularly wary of national values and which has a strong hold on the media.

This doesn’t mean that the Israeli media sees the Ethiopian community as a literal “enemy,” but given the fact that the base demand for equality is rooted in national-Jewish values, the Israeli media simply does not see the Ethiopian community as an ally in promoting the universal perspective….

 

A PROPER LEGAL PROCESS IS NEEDED TO HELP GENUINE AFRICAN ASYLUM SEEKERS TO ISRAEL

Dan Kosky, a political consultant and longtime subscriber to this email list, writes in The Times of Israel:

Last week, the dubious distinction of housing one of the world’s largest detention facilities moved one step closer towards reality for Israel. The National Council for Construction and Planning gave its approval for the construction of a huge detention center in the South, slated to house up to 11,000 African migrants expected to enter the country in the coming months. Prime Minister Netanyahu has boasted that construction of the mega-facility is a decisive action, proving that “this Government, unlike its predecessors, acts.” In reality, though, it is nothing more than an expensive cosmetic quick-fix. Although the detention camp may move the problem of African migration out of sight, it avoids any real solution for a community which keeps on growing.

There are an estimated 40-50,000 Africans currently residing in Israel, mainly from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea. With around 2,000 clambering across Israel’s southern border with Egypt each month, the flow of migrants shows little sign of slowing. Few dispute that this is an untenable situation. Clearly no country, Israel included, is obliged to open its borders and accept all-comers. On the other hand, Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s claim that all Africans in Israel are opportunistic workers, that none deserve asylum and that every “last of the infiltrators return to their countries” is equally ludicrous... Prime Minister Netanyahu has rightly emphasized that refugees fleeing for their lives must be afforded protection in Israel…

Voluntary organizations report that the application procedure is highly inefficient, typically lasting years. For Eritreans and Sudanese, who comprise the bulk of Africans in Israel, the prospect of asylum is made virtually impossible by the fact that they are granted ‘temporary protection’, by virtue of their nationality. This grants them a safeguard against deportation, but no other rights…

The reality is that the brand new shiny detention complex will be nothing more than an expensive facade (at an estimated cost of NIS 250 million to the taxpayer). Far from resolving the issue of African migration, it will merely shift the problem out of public view deep into the desert. Out of public sight, out of the public mind, or so the government likely hopes…

The flawed mindset which currently views the plight of Africans as a zero sum game where all must stay or all must go, must be replaced with a real attempt to identify and afford rights to refugees. A robust system to efficiently process asylum applications is desperately needed, where refuge can be granted to those who require it and economic opportunists rejected…

 

CHANGE IS COMING TO A COMMUNITY DEFINED BY ITS REJECTION OF CHANGE

Professor Gil Troy, a subscriber to this email list, writes in the American magazine The New Republic:

The demonizing of Israel, dismissing the democratic Jewish state as a right-wing, religious, racist project, continues. The latest storyline describes ultra-Orthodox Israelis – known in Hebrew as haredim – as medieval Neanderthals rapidly converting Israel into an Iran-style theocracy. This popular caricature encourages those liberals seeking excuses to stop supporting Israel. The appalling images of bearded, black-hatted zealots spitting on eight-year-olds, forcing women to the back of public buses, and parading their children with yellow stars in protest, are all being read as tea leaves predicting Israel’s imminent degeneration into Haredistan. But what if the opposite is true? Haredi rampages seem more like impotent attempts to build a firewall against modernity than harbingers of conquest.

Change is coming to a community defined by its rejection of change. Haredim are joining Israeli society. Haredi vocational programs are proliferating, as government generosity wanes. Over 3000 haredi soldiers have now served in Israel’s army, including a combat-ready unit. Many haredi women, who increasingly are highly educated and working, are demanding more respect while continuing to maintain gender distinctions. The debate about television and internet usage is intensifying, as modern popular culture seeps into the society, which is not hermetically sealed.

While haredi triumphalists emphasize their high birthrate, the outflow of the last two centuries since the Enlightenment continues. Though statistics are elusive, communal anxiety abounds about the apostates. Most haredim, while denying the hemorrhaging, have close relatives who are no longer haredi. The deserters are numerous enough to have inspired a television drama series: Simanei She’eilah (question marks), which tracks the stories of haredi runaways living in a Tel Aviv halfway house, debuted last year.

The Zaka organization provides the most dramatic – and inspiring – example of haredi engagement with Israeli society. Zaka became famous during the second intifada, dispatching ultra-Orthodox crews who cleaned up the spilled blood and pieces of flesh strewn about after bombings. … A Zaka team in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake worked through the Sabbath, saving lives… Yad Eliezer established soup kitchens and distributed relief supplies during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, while Yad Sarah’s nationwide network assists the disabled, the elderly, and the housebound.

In the popular media, in both Israel and abroad, images of rock-throwing, gender-segregating, yellow-star-wearing extremists obscure these good works – and a more accurate picture…

Haredim – and their leaders – are, of course, partly responsible for the broad anger against them. Many lack civic spirit. Few serve in the army. The separation of women often entails inequality. Their politicians exploit Israel’s fragmented coalition-governing system. A culture of lawlessness has grown in many communities, and their holier-than-thou attitude toward fellow citizens rankles.

Nevertheless, even in Bet Shemesh, the town where the haredi men spat on the eight-year-old schoolgirl, the true story is more complex than headlines suggest. “Haredi residents are furious at the recent developments and resent that they are being blamed for the acts of a tiny minority,” the haredi paper, HaModia reported…

In Bet Shemesh and elsewhere, the fight often pits ultra-Orthodox against modern Orthodox, not necessarily religious versus secular. Rachel Azaria is a young activist who surprised everyone by winning a seat on Jerusalem’s City Council in the last election. She has fought gender segregation on buses and the banning of female images from bus ads, while working to make the Western Wall welcoming to all visitors and not the world’s largest outdoor haredi synagogue. A religious woman, the mother of three young children, Azaria insists she is not anti-haredi, and that many haredim have encouraged her. “I am the address for haredim,” she explains, “because I am willing to get my hands dirty.” She adds: “I want to affirm to the haredim that they are a part of us – we are all here to stay.” …


FULL ARTICLES

MEDIA DOUBLE STANDARD HARMS ETHIOPIAN CAUSE

Media double standard harms Ethiopian cause
By Elad Uzan
The Jerusalem Post
January 25, 2011

Why is it that the Israeli media, which hastened to defend the dignity of a Nigerian cleaning woman and described in great detail an Eritrean mother’s longing for her child, refrains from publishing passionate and moving editorials on the plight of the Ethiopian Israeli community? Why is it that when it comes to displaying similar solidarity with tens of thousands of loyal Israeli citizens, their voices suddenly turn silent?

Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the slogan chanted by the crowd at last week’s demonstration: “I stand here to remind those who have forgotten: Ashkenazi Jew, Sephardic Jew, Ethiopian Jew – we are all brothers!” Could it be that the central message of the Ethiopian community – national pride and strong Jewish values – have caused the media to avoid the issue?

To explain this phenomenon one must put it in historical context: Ethiopian Jewish immigration was driven primarily by passionate Zionism. There is concrete evidence of Ethiopian Jewish attempts to make aliya (on foot) to Jerusalem in 1860, well before Herzl’s political Zionism and decades before the First Zionist Congress. Call it “black Zionism.”

Much time has passed since the days of these pioneers: Ethiopian Jews who immigrated to Israel in recent decades have been victims of many instances of discrimination and racism, mostly from institutions, as reflected in the data analysis published by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. Other instances of racism, the ones that have reached the mainstream media, have been mainly from neighbors and in work relationships.

Ethiopian Israelis demand justice. They demand equality. They demand that the color of their skin be not an impediment in the workplace or academia. They demand to be judged by their actions and achievements. They do not want housing prices to drop when they move into a neighborhood.

The Ethiopian Israeli community protests out of a genuine demand for Jewish solidarity, as sons and daughters of the Jewish nation, in the nation-state of the Jewish people. Their demands are motivated not only by the international and universal values that are the focus of the Israeli media, but also by national, Jewish values, which the Israeli media often snubs.

Echoes of this worldview could be sensed in newspaper articles critical of Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s initiative to encourage Israeli children to learn about Zionism’s struggles for political independence via stories about Israel’s fallen soldiers, and opposition to his initiative to sponsor school field trips to Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs and the Old City of Jerusalem.

Ethiopian Israelis want integration based on shared values: Judaism, military service and higher education, through which they can express their individual contributions to the Jewish state. This fealty to Jewish values has led them to be perceived as the “enemy” by those who claim to be proponents of the universalist view, which is particularly wary of national values and which has a strong hold on the media.

This doesn’t mean that the Israeli media sees the Ethiopian community as a literal “enemy,” but given the fact that the base demand for equality is rooted in national-Jewish values, the Israeli media simply does not see the Ethiopian community as an ally in promoting the universal perspective.

Another factor which prevents the media from embracing the Ethiopian-Israeli cause is the fact that it has been, at least ostensibly – apolitical. The press (in general) has ceased to see itself as only the “watchdog of democracy,” and considers itself a political actor for all intents and purposes. The key role that the media plays in a democracy, namely bringing the events of the day into the watchful eye of the public, exposing government corruption and irregularities and able interpretation of all these are no longer at the center of the media’s agenda.

Media nowadays is interested in shaping the public agenda, not reporting on it. This can be seen from recent editorials published in major newspapers.

The Ethiopian-Israeli community’s struggle for essential civil equality does not seek to eliminate or replace the current coalition government, nor is it tied to any one political view. Therefore, unlike last summer’s social protest during which the current government was denounced, the media simply sees no reason to give a stage to the Ethiopian-Israeli struggle.

Erasmus of Rotterdam, besides being an early proponent of humanistic education, was the one who claimed that human beings become humane through a process of humanization that includes education and socialization. Recent history teaches us that education may also lead to dehumanization of man; education for the ennoblement of a certain race over another also strips people of their humanity.

But feelings of national pride are appropriate, as long as they do not reject the legitimacy of other ethnic groups and their legitimate ethnic pride and aspirations.

Those of us who believe in both Judaism’s universalist ethic as well as the moral humanism and the values of Zionism (i.e., Jewish National Movement) believe that the contradiction between these streams can and must be resolved. The existence of a healthy, moral Israeli society requires us to implement the ethical, universal teachings of both the Talmudic scholar Hillel the Elder and German philosopher Immanuel Kant: That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. Human beings are sacred in their own right; they must never be used as mere means to an end.

That is a message that the Israeli media would do well to consider.

 

NO COSMETIC ANSWER TO ISRAEL’S AFRICAN INFLUX

No cosmetic answer to Israel’s African influx
By Dan Kosky
The Times of Israel
February 16, 2012

Last week, the dubious distinction of housing one of the world’s largest detention facilities moved one step closer towards reality for Israel. The National Council for Construction and Planning gave its approval for the construction of a huge detention center in the South, slated to house up to 11,000 African migrants expected to enter the country in the coming months. Prime Minister Netanyahu has boasted that construction of the mega-facility is a decisive action, proving that “this Government, unlike its predecessors, acts.” In reality, though, it is nothing more than an expensive cosmetic quick-fix. Although the detention camp may move the problem of African migration out of sight, it avoids any real solution for a community which keeps on growing.

There are an estimated 40-50,000 Africans currently residing in Israel, mainly from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea. With around 2,000 clambering across Israel’s southern border with Egypt each month, the flow of migrants shows little sign of slowing. Few dispute that this is an untenable situation. Clearly no country, Israel included, is obliged to open its borders and accept all-comers. On the other hand, Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s claim that all Africans in Israel are opportunistic workers, that none deserve asylum and that every “last of the infiltrators return to their countries” is equally ludicrous. It ignores the reality of those fleeing terrifying tribal violence in Sudan and Eritreans persecuted because of their religion or refusal to serve in the army. Prime Minister Netanyahu has rightly emphasized that refugees fleeing for their lives must be afforded protection in Israel.

The real problem is that until now, Israel has made an embarrassingly bad job of making the critical distinction between refugees and migrant workers and shows no sign of doing so. Incredibly, since 2008, only 17 Africans have been granted asylum in Israel. This paltry number is not the result of a rigorous process, but rather the consequence of there being little or no process at all. According to Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law, from roughly 34,000 asylum seekers in Israel, just 3,211 applications were processed during 2008 and 2009, with only 3 requests granted.

Voluntary organizations report that the application procedure is highly inefficient, typically lasting years. For Eritreans and Sudanese, who comprise the bulk of Africans in Israel, the prospect of asylum is made virtually impossible by the fact that they are granted ‘temporary protection’, by virtue of their nationality. This grants them a safeguard against deportation, but no other rights. Crucially, as they are already ‘protected’, they cannot apply for refugee status, leaving them in an anxious state of limbo. Given the almost total absence of officially recognized refugees in Israel, Bibi’s promise to protect them is entirely hollow. It is rendered even more meaningless by recently introduced legislation which allows for detention of up to three years for all those who illegally enter Israel, regardless of their motivation. Under the new law, no distinction is made between refugees and economic migrants, all are to be considered “infiltrators.”

And of course, the “infiltrators” will be housed in the government’s brand new shiny detention center in the desert. Netanyahu would have us believe that the giant facility is part of a coherent plan to tackle a problem that has been avoided until now. According to the Prime Minister’s Bureau, the prospect of detention is designed to stifle the economic incentive to cross the border into Israel. However, in the same breath, we are also told that facilities at the complex will include computer labs, a hair salon, sports areas and kindergartens. Is this really likely to deter those desperate for an alternative to African squalor? The shockingly frequent instances of torture, rape and abuse on the journey to our “promised land” have yet to stem the flow of Africans. It is almost laughable to think that a detention center brimming with amenities will have the desired effect.

The reality is that the detention complex will be nothing more than an expensive facade (at an estimated cost of NIS 250 million to the taxpayer). Far from resolving the issue of African migration, it will merely shift the problem out of public view deep into the desert. Out of public sight, out of the public mind, or so the government likely hopes.

But, as with all cosmetic solutions, it will only succeed in thinly veiling reality. No amount of money spent on costly border fences or detention centers can substitute for a sensible and sophisticated approach to the issue. The flawed mindset which currently views the plight of Africans as a zero sum game where all must stay or all must go, must be replaced with a real attempt to identify and afford rights to refugees. A robust system to efficiently process asylum applications is desperately needed, where refuge can be granted to those who require it and economic opportunists rejected.

Making this clear distinction would help dispel the current cloud of ambiguity under which economic migrants can ride on the coattails of genuine refugees all the way to Tel Aviv. It would be immeasurably more effective than a swanky detention facility in deterring those merely looking for work. In a country founded partly as a safe haven for Jewish refugees, an asylum system which protects the persecuted must be the answer to African migration.

 

NO, ISRAEL ISN’T TURNING INTO AN IRAN-STYLE THEOCRACY

No, Israel isn’t turning into an Iran-style theocracy
By Gil Troy
The New Republic
February 2, 2012

The demonizing of Israel, dismissing the democratic Jewish state as a right-wing, religious, racist project, continues. The latest storyline describes ultra-Orthodox Israelis – known in Hebrew as haredim – as medieval Neanderthals rapidly converting Israel into an Iran-style theocracy. This popular caricature encourages those liberals seeking excuses to stop supporting Israel. The appalling images of bearded, black-hatted zealots spitting on eight-year-olds, forcing women to the back of public buses, and parading their children with yellow stars in protest, are all being read as tea leaves predicting Israel’s imminent degeneration into Haredistan. But what if the opposite is true? Haredi rampages seem more like impotent attempts to build a firewall against modernity than harbingers of conquest.

Change is coming to a community defined by its rejection of change. Haredim are joining Israeli society. Haredi vocational programs are proliferating, as government generosity wanes. Over 3000 haredi soldiers have now served in Israel’s army, including a combat-ready unit. Many haredi women, who increasingly are highly educated and working, are demanding more respect while continuing to maintain gender distinctions. The debate about television and internet usage is intensifying, as modern popular culture seeps into the society, which is not hermetically sealed.

While haredi triumphalists emphasize their high birthrate, the outflow of the last two centuries since the Enlightenment continues. Though statistics are elusive, communal anxiety abounds about the apostates. Most haredim, while denying the hemorrhaging, have close relatives who are no longer haredi. The deserters are numerous enough to have inspired a television drama series: Simanei She’eilah (question marks), which tracks the stories of haredi runaways living in a Tel Aviv halfway house, debuted last year.

The Zaka organization provides the most dramatic – and inspiring – example of haredi engagement with Israeli society. Zaka became famous during the second intifada, dispatching ultra-Orthodox crews who cleaned up the spilled blood and pieces of flesh strewn about after bombings. Their reverence and thoroughness impressed normally hostile secular Israelis. Zaka’s heroism, along with the suicide bombings in haredi neighborhoods, reminded all Israelis of their shared destiny. Today, more than 1500 Zaka volunteers nationwide serve in ambulances and participate in search and rescue operations. A Zaka team in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake worked through the Sabbath, saving lives.

One haredi friend, with two sons who served in the army, warns that articles praising Zaka volunteers and haredi soldiers often tout them as the “good” haredim for doing what haredim usually don’t do. “Note the many good deeds done by haredim doing what they normally do, too,” he urges, emphasizing the community’s charitable spirit and elaborate self-help networks. These spawned two leading social service organizations that serve all Israelis: Yad Eliezer established soup kitchens and distributed relief supplies during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, while Yad Sarah’s nationwide network assists the disabled, the elderly, and the housebound.

In the popular media, in both Israel and abroad, images of rock-throwing, gender-segregating, yellow-star-wearing extremists obscure these good works – and a more accurate picture. Noah Efron, a Bar Ilan University philosopher and historian, has explored the ingrained prejudice and popular revulsion against haredim. “The Jewish fight against ultra-Orthodoxy is part of a long-running struggle about what legitimately counts as Jewish,” Professor Efron says. “The modern forms of Judaism have so won the day that this need to continue fighting the battle seems neurotic.” Nevertheless, emphasizing the bad behavior of haredi Jews – who epitomize the stereotypical Jew – makes modern Jews and non-Jews feel better, less judged, suggesting that “these ostensibly superior Jews are actually inferior,” Efron says. “We continually prove our own probity to ourselves by proving the depravity of those people.”

More broadly, these stories provoke secular Westerners’ condescension toward religious people. Reading many of the American and European blogs about the haredi tensions this winter, Efron has been “stunned” by “the depths of the hatred and the crassness of the arguments. The attacks reflect a toxic mix of old style anti-Semitism and contemporary anti-Zionism, with a new style modern anti-anything-that-is-not-secular-liberal-and-Western added.”

Haredim – and their leaders – are, of course, partly responsible for the broad anger against them. Many lack civic spirit. Few serve in the army. The separation of women often entails inequality. Their politicians exploit Israel’s fragmented coalition-governing system. A culture of lawlessness has grown in many communities, and their holier-than-thou attitude toward fellow citizens rankles.

Nevertheless, even in Bet Shemesh, the town where the haredi men spat on the eight-year-old schoolgirl, the true story is more complex than headlines suggest. “Haredi residents are furious at the recent developments and resent that they are being blamed for the acts of a tiny minority,” the haredi paper, HaModia reported. This doesn’t excuse haredi leaders: In a hierarchical community that grants rabbis so much power, the rabbis must do a better job of restraining the bullies. But as Rabbi Yeshaya Ehrenreich, a member of the Beit Shemesh City Council, told the newspaper, “The haredim who live in the same neighborhoods as these [fringe elements] suffer more than anyone else.”

In Bet Shemesh and elsewhere, the fight often pits ultra-Orthodox against modern Orthodox, not necessarily religious versus secular. Rachel Azaria is a young activist who surprised everyone by winning a seat on Jerusalem’s City Council in the last election. She has fought gender segregation on buses and the banning of female images from bus ads, while working to make the Western Wall welcoming to all visitors and not the world’s largest outdoor haredi synagogue. A religious woman, the mother of three young children, Azaria insists she is not anti-haredi, and that many haredim have encouraged her. “I am the address for haredim,” she explains, “because I am willing to get my hands dirty.” She adds: “I want to affirm to the haredim that they are a part of us – we are all here to stay.”

Statistical projections warning of haredi hordes overwhelming “normal” Israel stoke the media hysteria. But statistical trends are not historical facts. In researching his 2003 book Real Jews: Secular Versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, Professor Efron traced these Chicken Little statistical warnings to the 1960s. “It has become a staple media trope,” Efron says, “with some predicting the tipping point in 10 years time, others seven, sometimes 15. It should have happened in 1970, then again, and again, but never did.” And while demographers insist that now the threat is real, the steady, underpublicized exit from the community may provide the counter that the million-person Russian immigration provided a decade ago. This attrition accounts for the mirror-image standoff. Haredi and non-haredi Israelis both feel embattled, threatened by the other, and abused by the other’s advantages.

This political dynamic, rooted in the 1990s, persists. Most histories of the haredim in Israel emphasize Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s initial deal to exempt a few Torah scholars from military duty. Two other moments were also critical. The counter-revolution of 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud broke the Labor Party’s 29-year political monopoly, fragmented the Israeli political market, boosting the haredim. During the 1990s, demagogues in the ultra-Orthodox party Shas and the anti-ultra-Orthodox party Shinui both discovered the political benefits of battling each other. The result has been growing polarization – and a feeling among the haredim that they are a despised minority, whose standing is resented and imperiled.

The recent spate of spats may be a good sign. Constructive reform sometimes begins with seemingly destructive clashes. Rachel Azaria and other activists no longer feel alone. They believe Israelis are now addressing this issue, which requires visionary leadership. The experience of the 1990s suggest that demagoguery and demonization will not help. What’s needed is statesmanship with a soft touch, a rarity in Israel’s dyspeptic political culture. The right accommodation with the haredim will balance values that are frequently in tension for Americans too. It is difficult reconciling majority rule with minority rights, freedom of religion with equality for women, group prerogatives with individual autonomy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could secure a second term with a more solid majority if he produced a new civic covenant between haredim and Israeli society. But Netanyahu will have to stop acting like a Chicago alderman and start acting like a national leader. Rather than tending his coalition above all else, he must take risks. He should leverage the generous subsidies the haredim currently enjoy to force the rabbis to control the bullies and accept more responsibilities as Israeli citizens. Needed reforms include teaching a core curriculum of general subjects in schools that receive state funding, limiting the number of army exemptions, and increasing vocational training. In return, Netanyahu should pass legislation guaranteeing haredim a separate school system and particular exemptions, so their every benefit is not perennially in doubt. And Netanyahu must move all Israelis beyond classical Zionism’s monolithic, tanned, bronzed secular “New Jews” finding unity in uniformity; today’s multicultural Israelis should celebrate diversity while sharing common civic commitments.

Just as particular historical forces shaped this haredi moment, a new covenant can foster a healthier relationship. Israelis await such wise governance, in this realm and many others.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.