Monday, February 11, 2013

On close analysis, An Israeli Spectrum

Yair Lapid’s recent electoral success once again brought world attention to the religious/secular divide in Israel.  Some of the articles and news reports painted a rather polar picture of Israeli societies – black versus white; in this case, ultra orthodox against non-religious.

This image is clearly not accurate.  More specifically, Israeli Jewish society runs through the whole spectrum of attitudes and practices in regards to the Judaism.  On the farthest end are ultra-orthodox groups, a small minority actually, who reject the existence of the Jewish state on ideological/religious grounds, the Satmar.  If honesty counts, they also don’t accept money directly from the government.  Most ultra-orthodox (Haridim) accept the concept of a modern Israel and are very effective in getting the government to pay for its special needs, i.e. special schools (yeshivot), child allowances, etc.  While these groups accept the idea of the government, they believe that they are serving the country by praying and studying, i.e. the strength of Israel is in its faith, not its army or economy.  They isolate their members from secular and even less religious people to maintain their way of life.

Traditionally, the largest religious group in modern Israel was has been religious Zionists, who not only accepted the Jewish state but embraced and built it.  They work, serve in the army, and study Torah.  Many make some compromises with the Halacha, but consider themselves observant Jews.  A high percentage of officers and business leaders come from this group.  Another large sector is more secular Jews that follow some rules of the religion, either out of belief or tradition, but are not visibly religious until you visit their homes.  This large group of Israelis generally does not mix milk and meat and avoids tref (unkosher) food, at least in their homes. 

The most secular groups either ignore religious rules or flaunt them.  The difference is between eating a cheese burger because it is tasty or because it is not kosher.  The latter is much rarer, but growing in numbers. 

Therefore, Israel is not a clearly split along religious lines.  The majority of the population, including most religious Jews, supports mandatory army or civil service for everybody.  On the other hand, whether the trains should run on Shabbat is a much more controversial matter.  Jewish Israeli society is not a black and white picture, but a Technicolor drama. 

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