The past year has been characterized by unremitting instances of religious radicalization across Israel. Gender-segregated buses, the growing denunciation of female singers in the IDF and elsewhere, and haredi extremism and violence in Beit Shemesh were just some of the stories making headlines in recent months.
Segments of Israel’s religious and haredi community, partly emboldened by growing clout and partly fearful of the “dangers” lurking in the secular world, appeared to go further than ever before in trying to impose increasingly radical views on their own public and on society at large.
Yet now they are paying a painful price for their boldness.
As often happens in the Middle East, Israel’s radicalizing haredim have failed to gauge their true power while miscalculating the strength of their rivals. After all, Israel’s secular majority still holds most of the political clout in the country, while also dominating key institutions such as the Supreme Court.
Feeling they have been pushed into a corner, Israel’s seculars are now hitting back, thereby accelerating a process that could significantly shake up the Jewish state’s delicate social fabric.
The opening shot was journalist Yair Lapid’s foray into politics. An avowed secularist, Lapid is expected to follow in the footsteps of his late father, who led the ultra-secularist Shinui party to unprecedented success nearly a decade ago. While commentators have noted that Lapid is unlikely to change the Left-Right balance of power in the next Knesset, he may very well change the secularist-religious equilibrium.
Should Lapid and Yisrael Beiteinu maintain their current strength in the polls, together with Likud they are slated to win roughly 60 Knesset seats, thereby creating a strong basis for a largely secularist coalition. The implications of such eventuality for the haredi community could be devastating.
Time for new compromise
Meanwhile, the High Court of Justice has just annulled the Tal Law, signaling that the longtime practice of granting Israel’s haredim an exemption from military service is at peril. The issue has long been on the backburner and would have likely not been pushed to the fore had Israel’s seculars not been shaken up by what appear to be haredi attempts to change the country’s character.
Most recently, the city of Tel Aviv has decided to seek a permit for public transportation on Shabbat, thereby aiming to change a tradition that carries deep significance for the county’s religious community. The timing of this move is not coincidental, and more than anything else marks a form of “secular revenge,” with the super-secularist Tel Aviv taking aim at the religious soft underbelly.
Despite the negative implications of the above developments for Israel’s social cohesiveness, the latest shakeups may in fact be a blessing in disguise. A deep, incisive assessment of Israel’s Jewish character is long overdue and is seen by many as the most important issue threatening the state’s future.
While a compromise between religious and secular Israelis is unavoidable if the two groups wish to maintain some semblance of coexistence, the nature of such conciliation may have to be significantly different than the status quo that has prevailed here for many years.
Let us hope that both sides will be wise enough to focus on the common interest, rather than on their fundamental (yet bridgeable) differences. Otherwise, the events of the past year will only serve as a prelude to the inevitable disintegration of the world’s only Jewish state.