Haredim versus the Secular (RELS 348)

Forget Hamas and Iran. This may be Israel’s most pressing problem” by Rick Westhead, Toronto Star, 1 December 2012 discusses the ethnic and territorial struggle between the secular peoples and the Haredim, the Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel. The Haredim wish to maintain Pure Judaism, “keeping life as it was during the late 19th century”, meaning rejection of the modern world and implementing Halacha, a Jewish version of Sharia Law. Haredim seminary students are exempt from military duty and receive government stipends. Haredim possess strong influence over Israel’s public sphere with extremely strict rules for women. “The Feminists of Zion” by Allison Kaplan Sommer and Dahlia Lithwick, tells the story of Nili Philipp of Israel. She used to frequent Haredim neighbourhoods but now finds them threatening and violent. Schoolgirls, including Philipp’s daughter, are aggressively harassed by Haredi men daily. Zionism was a beacon for gender equality, but current Haredism questions the “justness of a model that allows gender equality to be a negotiable issue”. Their rapidly growing numbers allow the Haredim to gain increasing political influence, with Ultra-Orthodox parties being the “fulcrum of every single government coalition from 2006 to 2013”. Haredim believe secular Israelis need to adjust because, “in 20 years we will be a different country, closer to God and it will be for the better.”

Uwe-Siemon Netto’s book, Duc: Triumph of the Absurd: A Reporters’ Love for the Abandoned People, discusses how Western journalism and media often “further[s] specific interests and supports the status-quo”. Sexual objectification of women is relentless and serves capitalist markets in the West. Haredim’s spiritual mandate involves rejecting these Western images of women and taking women out of the public sphere in general. Essentially, their spirituality has undertaken a political agenda. The Haredim’s growing political influence has place a stronghold over women’s bodies in a guise that is religious. It is upsetting to see women’s bodies and lives being micromanaged and how often gender equality is the inverse of religious fundamentalist movements.

It bothers me how frequently battles occur between the secular and the religious. I feel that people should have the ability to choose how they live. However, it is equally unnerving how the Haredim are imposing their beliefs, especially gender inequality, in such a forceful way. Many Israelis want to strike a balance where everyone can live the life they desire. However, circumstances are making this possibility very difficult. Rabbi Levi Shmotkin says, “it is not a clash of east versus west…it is about how to harness religion and the relationship with God and reconcile it with the world.” I believe a common ground between the secular and religious can be reached; one that does not involve aggressive religio-political power plays with women being a part of the battleground.

– K



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