Of course, the issue of residential segregation in Israel comes up mostly between Arabs and Jews. And the fact is that it is the pattern but not the law. Arabs are a communal group with tight bonds among the generations. These bonds are often frayed—and often more than frayed—by what are sometimes multi-generational feuds. But there are in Galilee and on the northern coast, certainly around Jerusalem and Haifa, hundreds of thousands of Israeli Arabs (some call themselves Palestinians but don’t for a moment want to live in “Palestine”) who are relatively prosperous, work hard, live under benign rule that guarantees them generous social services (exactly like those provided to Jews and Druze) and have the protection of a civil liberties state. Generally, however, Jews live among Jews, Muslims among Muslims, Christian Arabs among Christian Arabs, Druze among Druze, Circassians among Circassians, Samaritans among Samaritans, and tribes of Bedouin roaming with their own tribe and with no one else. The Old City of Jerusalem has been divided for many centuries into the Armenian Quarter, the Christian Quarter, the Muslim Quarter and the Jewish Quarter. It is a mixed society but not exactly a plural society. Walk down King David Street from the Jaffa Gate.
This is the general pattern in Israel. But there are exceptions. Haifa is a relatively integrated city of Jews and Christians. I’ve myself lived twice in the Jaffa neighborhood of Tel Aviv with a rich mixture of non-religious Jews, Muslim Arabs and Christian Arabs of nearly all persuasions. It is also a peaceful mixture with, however, a sub-stratum of resentment because the prosperous are buying up from the poor (both Arabs and Jews) run-down block upon block and turning them into very chic houses and ever more chic eateries.
But now Safed, which is actually a gorgeous walled city with ancient roots and rich history. It is situated at the highest elevation in the country and its past follows the history of the land itself: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Ottoman, British, Jewish again. Here was the Kabbalist movement (you know the one that has attracted Madonna) founded by, among others, Joseph Caro, an ancestor of the sculptor Anthony Caro. The truth is that Safed is still wrapped in mystery. And one of the mysteries is how the holy city, also a center of Hassidism and especially of the slightly mad but poetic strain founded by Reb Nahman of Bratzlav who, born in 1772, died in 1810. The movement he started has not yet found a successor. But in Safed his leaderless acolytes still pursue a life of Jewish ecstasy.
Strange, then, that mean-streak Jewishness has also sunk deep roots in Safed. So it is not a new phenomenon. The phenomenon has a leader, Safed’s chief rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, who has been dueling with Arabs for a long time.
His latest and most vicious prank came about after the announcement that a new medical school would be established in the city. It was correctly assumed that this institution, planned for Safed by Bar Ilan University and the educational authorities of the country, would increase the number of Arab students in Safed and surroundings. Right now there are 200 Arab families in the city of 35,000 people. This terrifies Rabbi Eliyahu and the 50 other rabbis who have backed his stand, which also provoked a letter by dozens of rebbitzin, wives of rabbis who do not usually make any noise, warning young women to beware of young Arab men. This bigotry is ugly and particularly ugly in the context of Jewish history. It is pre-Nazi and proto-Nazi.
It has provoked outrage among many Israeli Jews, shamed by the audacity of the ultra-religious whose spirituality has, in any case, been put to doubt by the general corruption of the orthodox rabbinate which is all that counts in Israel: on marriage, divorce, certification of kosher food and restaurants, suitability to be buried in Jewish cemeteries, etc. Most people don’t know that the vesting of matters of personal status into the hands of the various religious establishments was a quid pro quo given by the Zionists to the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches to keep them from waging a war against partition. Jewish concerns about freedom from the rabbis were less than an afterthought since David Ben Gurion actually believed that ultra-orthodoxy among the Jews would disappear. How wrong he was.
About 12 to 14 percent of the Israeli population are ultra-orthodox or haredi or “those who tremble before God.” They are divided between people of eastern extraction—descending from the Spanish exile in Greece and Turkey or from the Arab countries and Iran and called Sephardi, the Iranians erroneously—and those of European extraction and called Ashkenazi. The latter group is divided into two types: the Hassidim (some more or less joyous, like the followers of the now deceased old man looking down on you from billboards nearly anywhere, some severe, all obsessed with the separation of the sexes and afraid of modernity) and the Mitnagdim or “the opponents,” which they are quite haughty about being. They are, by the way, normally quite learned. There are significant theological issues among the groups. No one aside from the followers seems to care about theology. What perturbs the outsiders, including the modern “live and let live” orthodox, is the coercion that the tremblers are always trying to impose on every Jew in the Jewish state. Indeed, it’s my guess that the ordinary Jewish citizen of Israel worries more about what the Haredi will try to impose on him or deprive him of than about the Arabs and their intentions.
That is because the ultra-orthodox have concrete impositions in mind for the non-orthodox. It may range from trying to keep a public parking lot or many public parking lots closed on the Sabbath to preventing a secular neighbor from playing his CDs on Saturday. I am, for my sins, president of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. When I informed the office of the former mayor Uri Lupianski that the J.S.O. under the baton of Leon Botstein would perform Dvorak’s Requiem, he asked whether there were female singers in the chorus, in which he would not come. Well, that’s not so bad because the only people deprived were those who felt they were fulfilling a religious injunction. In any case, the Haredim are always trying to foist on non-believers behavior patterns to which they have no affinity or loyalty. Right now in Jerusalem they are trying to impose on the city’s bus system gender separation. It reminds me of my visit to Saudi Arabia when, in Jeddah, the same prince who told me that “a black face begins a black day” pointed to a line of women in their burkhas actually slithering against walls of the street and said “those are unidentified black objects. Ha, ha, ha.” I have not begun to touch the humiliations the ultra-religious impose on their own...and which they aspire to impose on their children. Whatever the law says, the yeshivot or religious high schools are not much more intellectual than the madrassas of Pakistan.
So what is the attitude of the general Jewish population to their tormentors? There was a fascinating story by Jonah Mandel in Tuesday’s Jerusalem Post. It was headlined “Most Jewish Israelis in favor of Haredim living separately, study finds.” Significantly, a majority (61 percent) of the Haredim themselves agreed or agreed to some extent with the proposition.
The study was conducted by the Geocartography Research Institute. The reason that Prof. Avi Degani, the president of the institute, deduced for 43 percent of Jewish Israelis opposing the scheme is that it would necessitate “the allocation of national funds to create an expensive separation for a small minority which is highly non-productive, and would demand state support of (Haredi) cities formed.”
In 1999 the ultra-religious population was 545,000. The figure estimated for 2022 is 1,018,535.