What does it mean to be a Jewish and democratic state? This question came to light with the story of Na’ama Margolis.
Na’ama, an 8-year-old modern Orthodox girl, was the victim of an offense by a small radical haredi (ultra-Orthodox) group called the Sicricim (Latin: Sicarii, the dagger man). Na’ama made aliyah from the United States to Israel with her family and lives in the city of Beit Shemesh — the house of the sun. A group of Sicricim, an anti-Zionist group considered by many to be the most extreme and violent group of Neturei Karta (a radical anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox community), spat on Na’ama and cursed her, calling her a slut and a prostitute, because her dress code did not fit their definition of modesty. The disgraceful and disgusting attack took place in the middle of the day, several yards away from Na’ama’s school.
“They want me to dress like a haredi girl; they want me to give them my school,” Na’ama told reporters, with tears in her eyes. Na’ama’s story goes beyond the specific personal case. It raises big questions about the challenges and tensions of being a Jewish and democratic state. The attack was strongly condemned by both secular and haredi leaders, including the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Yet many of Israel’s secular citizens, who make up more than 80 percent of the Jews living in Israel, feel this is not enough. “I’ve been pushed out of my neighborhood in Jerusalem by this haredi takeover,” a good friend who is an Israeli journalist told me.
The issue began in the days of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, when the modern state of Israel was born. Facing the stress of the War of Independence on one hand and the challenge of absorbing approximately 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands, the prime minister did whatever he could to create unity in the Jewish community in the young and fragile state. He made the historic status quo agreement with the haredi parties. Per this agreement, Shabbat would be the day of rest in Israel; kashrut would be observed in the kitchens of official institutions; family laws concerning marriage and divorce would be conducted in rabbinical courts; and there would be no civil marriage. In the area of education, full autonomy was granted to the different Jewish denominations, with minimum standards stipulated in fields such as Hebrew, Jewish history, science, etc. This agreement was followed by the Torato Omanuto (his Torah is his practice) agreement, which exempts haredi men who choose to devote their lives to Torah study from military service (which is otherwise mandatory).
In those days, the haredi population was relatively small and Ben-Gurion thought it would be appropriate for a Jewish state to allow haredi men to focus on Torah study. As time went by, the haredi group grew bigger and stronger; it is now between 5 percent and 10 percent of Israel’s population. The tension increases as the argument about what is Jewish and what are Jewish values enters real day-to-day life, when democratic, modern and liberal values of the Israeli secular majority collide with the extremely conservative shtetl-style values of the haredi sector. The conflict between the will of the majority to live according to their perspectives of Judaism and human rights, and the democratic requirement to protect the rights of minorities, as well as to maintain the unique identity of a Jewish nation, is reaching a boiling point. The future is not clear; something will have to change. The future face of the Jewish and democratic state of Israel will be defined in the coming days. Can we and should we, in the United States, have a say in designing it?
To learn more about this issue, join our free discussion program, “Faces of Israel,” on Wednesday, Jan. 25 at 6:30 p.m. at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.
Guy Gelbart is Tucson’s community shaliach (emissary from Israel) and director of the Weintraub Israel center.