“The list of controversies grows weekly,” Ethan Bronner and Isabel Kershner, filing from Jerusalem, write in The New York Times. “Organizers of a conference last week on women’s health and Jewish law barred women from speaking from the podium, leading at least eight speakers to cancel; ultra-Orthodox men spit on an eight-year-old girl whom they deemed immodestly dressed; the chief rabbi of the air force resigned his post because the army declined to excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers perform; protesters depicted the Jerusalem police commander as Hitler on posters because he instructed public bus lines with mixed-sex seating to drive through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods; vandals blacked out women’s faces on Jerusalem billboards.” And a distinguished professor of pediatrics whose book won an award from the Ministry of Health was instructed that she could not sit with her husband at the ceremony and that a male colleague would accept her prize for her because women were forbidden from the stage. Bronner’s and Kershner’s report provoked widespread revulsion. Revulsion was followed by apologetics, as it was pointed out (by the press spokesman of the Israeli Embassy, for example, in a letter to the Times) that “the vast majority of Israeli women ... enjoy full and equal rights unrivalled anywhere in the Middle East—indeed, in most of the world.” That is true, and not at all trivial. But the spirit of criticism must not desist. Like all liberal societies, Israeli society contains anti-liberal elements, and these anti-liberal elements, both religious and secular, have become increasingly prominent, and increasingly wanton, and increasingly sickening, recently. This anti-liberalism cannot be conspiratorially imputed to foreigners or enemies: Jews are doing this to Jews. The odious misogyny of the ultra-Orthodox is certainly not typical of Israeli life, from which the ultra-Orthodox have anyway seceded (except to exploit the welfare system, which magically makes practical men out of zealots); but more needs to be said. There has occurred a renascence of Jewish fanaticism in the Netanyahu years.
THE ORIGINS OF the inflammation may be located in religion and in politics. “Discrimination against women goes against the tradition of the Bible and the principles of Judaism,” Benjamin Netanyahu, who is plainly disgusted by these developments, asserted last week. Alas, he errs. There is no equality between men and women in traditional Judaism, in theory and in practice. The enfranchisement of women in Jewish religious life has been accomplished by movements and institutions that have broken with the inherited understandings or (these are the really valiant ones) have striven to stay with the canonical authorities and interpret them to meet the needs of the individual and the community without betraying the principles of the tradition, somehow mixing decency with fidelity; and there has been some progress, though it catches hell. In Judaism, commentary has always been the most common expression of originality, which is how Jewish law has evolved. I am not referring to the ultra-Orthodox, of course, though there are distinctions to be made even among them: some haredi rabbis, including the greatest one of all, have shown glimmers of compassion for women and tried to mitigate their doctrinal contempt for secular Jews. (It is a heavy lift. “Only one who believes in the God of Israel and in the Torah of Israel is entitled to be called by the name ‘Jew,’” an extremist rabbi declared in the 1920s; and in 1987, working with such an exclusivist standard, a haredi publicist announced that the Jewish population in the world was roughly one million. Our worst enemies never eliminated so many of us.) The real challenge for traditional Judaism, in Israel and in America, is that the problem of the ultra-Orthodox is increasingly the problem of the Orthodox. In recent decades we have witnessed what one scholar has called the haredization of Orthodox Judaism. It is a miserable sight. The evidence for the surrender to the radicals is everywhere, but it is most obvious in the continued obeisance of the Orthodox rabbinate to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the most poisonous and illegitimate institution in the Jewish world, which has been taken over by haredi forces. (The Chief Rabbi condemned some haredi violence last week. In the deathless words of another contemporary originalist, whoop-de-damn-doo.) Anyway, all this is beside the point. The debate must not be about the place of women, or unbelievers, in Judaism. The debate must be about the place of Judaism in Israel. No rabbis have the authority to settle that question. The secular space that defines a democratic polity exceeds their hoary reach. That is the blessed rupture that they will never undo. It cannot be argued or spat away.
BUT ISRAELI POLITICS is open to these closers. The perverse system awards large influence to small parties, which means that the long-term interest of the state often conflicts with the short-term interest of its politicians. There is no constitution. (Thousands of years of Jewish jurisprudence, and no constitution!) And nobody ever suffered political damage by pandering to obscurantism and folk religion. That is how gender segregation came to some of the public sphere of a secular state; and how the Ministry of the Interior fell into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood—excuse me, I mean Shas—and now allows the Chief Rabbinate, in its most recent display of cruelty, to control the definition of religious identity in its policy toward conversions throughout the Jewish world. Elsewhere in the vile orbit of radical Judaism certain rabbis have issued racist anti-Arab rulings and even speculated about the circumstances in which Jewish law would justify the preemptive murder of non-Jewish children. But the religious ultras are not the only ones who are wild. Extremist settlers have resorted to violence against Palestinians and mosques, and also attacked an Israeli army base. And in the Knesset secular patriots propose bills that would outlaw foreign funding to, and oppressively tax, human-rights NGOs, and would tighten libel laws so as to impede Israel’s deliciously free press. All these developments differ in many respects, but the pattern is hard not to see. There are fevers on the right, anti-democratic fevers. These are the excrescences of Benjamin Netanyahu’s base. The prime minister has not translated personal disgust into political disgust. The outrage is not that these forces have gone too far, but that they have gone anywhere at all.
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the February 16, 2011 issue of the magazine.