Before I begin, I would like to preface with a few points. First, I do not support the extremist religious elements in Beit Shemesh, as they have been recently discussed in the Israeli and international media. And yes, I would call those engaging in the behavior as covered by Israeli Channel 2 (and translated by +972’s Ami Kaufman) as “extremist.” They do not represent all of Beit Shemesh’s inhabitants, nor of course all who follow Orthodox Judaism, ultra or non-ultra. Second, I wholeheartedly object to the treatment of women in a manner that is any less than equal to that of men. “Separate but equal” — a phrase used to justify the segregation of blacks from whites in the southern United States in the 1960s — has already proven to be an ineffective means of public life and policy. Third, I am not a religiously observant Jew, though I do have a small handful of friends who became “ba’alei tschuva,” or “masters of repentance,” the Jewish equivalent (if you will) of “born again.” Some are actually American Jews who grew up in Conservative-movement homes, then sought out “more” and got it from the Orthodox world. One now lives in Beit Shemesh. Fourth, I am a proud contributor to +972, a forum for wide-ranging perspectives on wide-ranging issues. That said, rather than regurgitating what most of our readers would expect, I’d like to present a perspective that is different, both for the sake of argument and for reflection.
Engagement, not disengagement
It is very easy and rather convenient for those of us living outside of “that” world to condemn what is happening in it. We see men who “dress funny” and “look strange” and we dismiss their values as unenlightened. And we do so even without trying to understand them, without actually speaking their language. I don’t mean the actual language (usually Yiddish and sometimes Hebrew), but rather the context in which their world is based, the framework in which they educating their youth, the vocabulary with which they raise their children, the religious customs that shape their days. We approach our criticisms of their ways from the comfort of our own seats, from the confines of our own discourse. And what is the result? “They” — those who come from within that world — reject all of our criticisms because they are condemnations that come from the outside. “They can’t possibly understand us,” they fight back. The net gain of such confrontation is usually zero, proving this an ineffective means of engagement, or perhaps intentional, non-constructive antagonism. For many in Israel (and many readers on +972), this approach is absolutely fine and quite convenient. The ultra-Orthodox are an easy target. But what are we really achieving? Do we really think they will suddenly wake up and change their ways? It’s naive at minimum and condescending at most. If we are ever to get these people on board with our causes, we have to engage them in an actively product manner.
Disengagement can be both off-putting, and can eventually backfire. In 2000, when I ran for student government at university, I was part of a coalition of students that believed in an all-inclusive approach to school governance. We branched out to a number of people who held perspectives different than ours. It was a liberal arts university, and each of us in this coalition could be described as politically-left, just like the slate we ran against. But there was one big difference: the other slate was considered “militant.” Many students dismissed their ways as “radical,” as their approach often rejected anyone that didn’t confirm to their views. And they were painted as the party that rejected engagement. While in office, this political group organized a rally called “Take Back the Night.” Its aim was to raise awareness of rape and the general insecurity felt by women on campus. Naturally, the university’s largest women’s organization — the Panhellenic Association (essentially, the umbrella body representing all of the sororities) — tried to participate. Its request was rejected and its leaders were blamed for the problems. They were told sorority girls were the reason there is rape in the first place. Finally, after days of negotiations, the young women from the sororities were allowed to join the event. But upon arrival, they were forced to march in the back, and effectively humiliated. Yes, I understand those organizing the event — the people my coalition was running against — were fueled by anger, many of them victims of social injustices. But in trying to change the world, they chose to confront it instead of engage with it, and their efforts repeatedly proved ineffective. I’m not suggesting one should pander to others, nor lower his or her values. I’m simply reiterating something my friend Alan taught me years ago: if you are ever going to convince someone you are right, you have to convince them you are right from where they are sitting, not from where are you sitting. Criticism of the ultra-Orthodox behavior is more significant and relevant when it comes from within. And if one understands the subtle nuance of that world, one will see that discourse is now happening. It is a conservation that, in my opinion, is much more relevant to change than the disengaged attacks from the outside.
Take a look in the mirror
We must reflect and recognize the flaws in our own ways. We criticize a culture that gawks at women walking down a gender-segregated sidewalk, yet ignore the objectification of women on our own sidewalks in Milan, Paris and New York. We dismiss as restrictive the garments “their” women wear, and make no notice of the “liberating” fashion worn by “our” women. Yes, this is a conflict of values, and we can’t deny the shortcomings of our own world approach. It is repeatedly a criticism from “their” world, and one with a certain degree of validity. So their strict adherence comes from a mainstream religion, while ours comes from capitalism. Are both not coercive belief systems? And while “their” ways have lasted — and been tested — for thousands of years, can we say the same about “ours?” Before you dismiss the analogies, there is a point: we must look at ourselves, in our own language, before we look at others.
One more note about language
Earlier this year, I spent a few weeks in Afghanistan. I was working with a young cameraman who was ethnically Uzbek and Muslim. Somehow the issues of women’s rights came up and he told me that in Islam, women have more rights than men. Intrigued by his logic, I asked him to explain. He said that in Islamic culture, women have the right not to work, whereas men must work. The more I argued back, the more I realized that our languages to broach the subject were totally different. He wouldn’t be able to convince me, just as much as I wouldn’t be able to convince him.
The blame game
For years, Israelis have united behind external threats. They repeatedly cast their votes for security hawks who have promoted a military culture, both domestically and internationally, and have exploited that image – that sense of fear – for their own gains. Even if all of the Israel’s perceived threats are valid and based on truth, that doesn’t give the government carte blanche to delay the inevitable. And as the general public allows them to go on and on, for too long, without demanding that successive governments provide immediate (even if one-sided solutions, the victim is domestic, social issues. The tail is wagged by using a key word – “Iran” or “Hezbollah” or “Gaza” – and every other issue becomes secondary or ignored.
Promoting external threats is a tool utilized by governments to unite and placate their populations. You may recall that before the “Second Intifada” began in September 2000, there were talks in Israel about a civil war, a split between the religious and secular over one hot, sticking point: whether or not El Al, the national carrier, should be allowed to operate on the Jewish Sabbath. (It was not and is still not permitted to do so.) So the Palestinian uprising begins, and voila, domestic tensions disappear. The people are united.
But as these conflicts persist, internal strife continues to simmer beneath the surface. We blame the politicians, but forget to blame the people who repeatedly put those politicians in office. I’m reminded of last summer’s housing demonstrations across the country, and my conversations with some of the protesters. They seemed surprised when I suggested that years of electing consecutive conservative politicians – based on security credentials – has resulted in those politicians bringing with them conservative fiscal policies. Really? People didn’t see that one coming? The same can be said of this current situation. The government is allowed to focus national attention on external matters, all the while allowing domestic priorities. Only, one day, the water comes to a boil, as we’ve seen recently in Beit Shemesh. No doubt this domestic crisis will go away, likely unresolved. But only when an external crisis presents itself, or more realistically, is presented to us.