By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Is Israeli democracy in danger?

I have been in Israel for a few days to present the report of a committee I chaired for the Israeli Ministry of Higher Education on Israeli university public-policy degree programs. It's an interesting time to be in Israel -- there has been increasing worry expressed (not the least in the US and other foreign media) about recent incidents involving ultra-orthodox religious groups in Israel that, many fear, threaten Israel's status as a nation that values equality and respect for others.

Among the incidents that have aroused concern have been an effort by ultra-orthodox Jews who run certain bus routes that go through ultra-orthodox neighborhoods to segregate men and women on the buses, an incident where ultra-orthodox soldiers walked out when women soldiers participated in singing in an army music concert, and so-called "price tag" (as in "there will be a price to be paid for") attacks on Israeli soldiers in retaliation for the government dismantling an unauthorized West Bank settlement.

In a column in the right-of-center English-language daily The Jerusalem Post, Jeff Barak, the paper's former editor, recounted with real unease having received a brochure from his health insurance plan about steps to take to detect breast cancer, a form of cancer more common among Jews. Due to pressure from the ultra-orthodox, the brochure distributed by this health plan omitted the word "breast" from its discussion, referring to the illness as "the special woman's cancer" and omitting any images of the process for a self-examination to avoid showing any pictures of breasts. "This creeping haredization ["haredi" is the name for the ultra-orthodox] of everyday life is dangerous, in this particular case literally," Barak wrote. "The sane, secular majority has to make a stand, just as it has done over the issue of women soldiers singing in IDF [Israel Defense Forces] ceremonies, to ensure that we don't descend into the fundamentalistd depths like Iran."
There have been fears expressed about the future of Israeli democracy, but the degree of public opposition to many of these events is a sign that democracy in Israel is still vibrant. In secular-dominated Tel Aviv (center of Israel's high tech industry, and a city with an active gay community), I saw outside the newly constructed City Theater -- a striking white edifice that builds on the white-color, old Bauhaus architecture of the city's early years in the 1920's -- a group of Hasidic Jews lightiing an enormous, 20-foot candleabra for Hanukkah, actually using a sort of weird-looking electrical hoist to get the candle-lighter to the top of the candles.

As the Hasidic Jews, with baby carriages in tow, were singing Hanukkah songs, a stylishly dressed 40-something woman came up to the front of the crowd and yelled, "Will there be a place for woman at the table?" I asked an Israeli friend if he was worried by these developments. He said yes of course he was worried, but he added that Americans should be more worried about the situation in our politics and economy.

Posted on Dec 22, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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