Fissures, Fractures and Fault Lines

B) The conflicting fault lines within the Jewish Community

Any survey of social and class differences in Israel will reveal cleavages, multiple cleavages. But the groups and sub-groups that form are fluid. They shift over time. They grow or shrink as we move on. Thus, if we posit a gap between the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox in Israel versus the progressive elements in the Jewish religious population, where do we place the egalitarian Orthodox groups? These have been growing. In 2018, they performed approximately one thousand marriages. The next year it was 1800.i  

But in other areas we find both growth and shrinkage. There are now over 125 Reform or Conservative (Masorti) congregations in Israel. 8-10 Reform rabbis are ordained each year. There is a Reform rabbi as a member of the Knesset and the Environmental Minister is a Conservative who lives on a Conservative religious kibbutz. Progressive Orthodox rabbis conduct 400 conversions a year. More spectacularly, 12-13% of Jews in Israel (800,000) identify as Reform or Conservative. Their rabbis perform marriages, some even same-sex marriages, but those marriages are neither legal nor recognized by the state.ii The numbers who identify may be growing, but the percentage affiliated have been shrinking. This is a global pattern.

These figures are telling in another way. The majority have nothing or little to do with organized religion. Conservative and Reform Judaism are both in general decline. Larger shifts lie ahead. The younger generation is turning less and less to the sort of institutions and the forms of Judaism that were strong in the second half of the 20th century. As for Orthodoxy, as indicated above, in the words of Schiff, “There is no one thing called ‘Orthodoxy.’ Orthodoxy comprises a range of different types of observance. There are those who call themselves modern Orthodox; there are those who call themselves Hasidic; there are those who have more of a Yeshiva-type orientation. All these forms of Judaism, which are lumped together under the heading of Orthodoxy, are really quite distinct one from the other.”iii

Tears in the flesh of the body politic of the nation do not a crisis make. Instead, it is the very structural elements that lead to fractures and not just tears. And some are compound fractures that break through the flesh. Then, conflict becomes pervasive and society fractures; the result may be a failed state.

However, fractures are the result of falls. Fractures are the result of external blows. And these alone are insufficient to result in a failed state. Look at Ukraine as it fights its war with Putin. Its sense of identity and mission have both grown as the infrastructure is being blown to smithereens. In the case of Israel, there are even deeper problems than fissures or fractures. Israel has possibly been constructed on two very fundamentally different fault lines. There are deeper divides than rifts or fissures in the flesh of the body politic. The first potential fault line is the internal one, between and amongst Jews. The external one between Jews and Palestiniansmuch more clearly a fault line. (See next blog.)

Have fractures within the Jewish community revealed a deeper fault line. Or are the schisms just fractures, or not even fractures but simply deep fissures? After all, as great as the strains are within the Jewish polity, there have been no signs of civil war, few signs of even a fracture let alone a compound one. And that has to be a surprise. In almost any other country the strains and stress to which the Israeli polity has been subject to would have led to significant coercive pressure from the government side or militant dissent from the opposition. Or both!

But perhaps these appearances simply hide or disguise fault lines within the Jewish community. Let’s begin with the divisions within the religious community with which we began this section. One obvious division cannot be avoided. The vast majority of Jews, from the black hat ultra-Orthodox to the religiously more moderate knitted cap Israeli religious Jews, is almost 90% right-wing. Among the ultra-Orthodox can be found the most extreme racists in the country. The West Bank nationalist settler movement is dominated by the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. Liberal and left, including moderate or progressive religious Jews, as much as they have grown in numbers, long ago lost the battle for the hearts and minds of Jewish religious Israelis. Further, of the four parties in the current government (April 2023), three are religious, the Sephardic Shas Party, the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism Party and the third, Religious Zionism, a merger of three far-right parties that leans towards ultra-Orthodoxy.

If the religious members (about 7) of Likud, the largest party in the four-party coalition, are counted, then about half of the 64 seats of the current government are held by conservative and right-wing religious Jews. Yet they only constitute 17% of the population, 12% of which are Haredi. In contrast, Progressive religious Jews, as described in the opening paragraphs, make up the same percentage of the population as Haredi Jews. Yet they have no representation in Government. Does this suggest that the deeper division is ideological? Or is ideology merely an expression of a certain type of Jewish religion?

In the 2023 controversy over judicial “reform”, it is well to remember that in a state where there is no significant separation of church and state, it is the Supreme Court that has protected religious freedom and pluralism and enlarged the small separation of church and state. It should then be no surprise that Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox politicians have lined up on the side attacking the Supreme Court.  

In March 2021, the Supreme Court recognized non-Orthodox conversions for purposes of citizenship; this was viewed as a calamity for the Orthodox religious monopoly on conversion. The previous Bennett government instituted a radical overhaul of the rules governing kashrut certification. Previous court decisions allowed the state to pay part of the salaries of non-Orthodox rabbis. The court has ruled against gender segregation on public transportation. It is the Court that decided that any individual with at least one Jewish grandparent would be eligible to immigrate to Israel with a spouse and dependent children even if the spouse had no Jewish grandparent. Will the new government allow the new Tel Aviv light rail to operate on Shabbat? Will it “override” (if an override provision is passed) so-called “Utah” on-line civil marriages?

These are but a few of the legal and legislative issues that have aroused the ire of the Orthodox and especially ultra-Orthodox in Israel and pushed them to advocate an override provision with respect to Supreme Court rulings. Even these parties never expected the new government to propose the radical vast array of proposed changes beyond the override proposal to challenge the independence of the judiciary. Netanyahu has even committed his government to increased funding for Haredi schools and promised that funding would not be contingent on teaching core subjects that would enhance the ability of the ultra-Orthodox to gain employment in a modern economy.

But there is also a geographical divide in Israel between the orthodox Jewish community versus the progressive religious and secular Jewish communities. If one believes that the outpouring of strong and repeated protests against judicial “reform” is unprecedented, wait to see what happens if the Knesset passes a law preventing the new Tel Aviv light rail from operating on Friday evening and Saturday until sundown. Protests will immobilize government and become an initial clue that the religious divide between coastal Israel, Tel Aviv and Haifa (progressive and secular), and the interior of Israel, including Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem, might threaten to become a political one.

Ironically, this divide has an almost mirror reflection in the United States between red and blue states, but the opposite relationship between the majority progressive Jewish population of the United States. Netanyahu seems to have always been willing to sacrifice the relationship between Israel and diaspora Jews, mostly American, to his close relationship with the Republican Party in the US. In Israel, stats reveal the alignment of religious convictions with political ideology.

Issue                                                   Right                                   Centre                             Secular

Religious Beliefs                        51%                                     34%                                     15%

Kosher                                45%                                      17%                           No

There is another issue which overlaps the above divide – economic status. The majority of Israelis (54%) are Jews who escaped from Arab lands (Sephardic or Mizrachi), Iran, and Ethiopia. They parallel Blacks in the US, though Blacks have never achieved political control. But the most important overlap is that the greatest proportion of lower middle- and lower-class member of the Israeli polity belong to this cluster of “coloured” Israelis.

This is the mirror opposite of the U.S.  The darker skinned “minority” is the core base of support for Israel’s right-wing government but the key supporters of the Democratic Party in the US. However, in both Israel, this religious minority is deeply rooted in traditional values, but in Israel they align with the right and in the US with the left. This group in both countries belong largely to the lower and lower middle-income group. Thus, most the one-third of religious Jews and most of the one-third of traditional Jews support the political right. There is large overlap between colour, country of origin and landed status of one converging side versus the other large group of secular and middle and upper-class Ashkenazi Jews.

But the proof that there is no fracture let alone a fault line between the two groups is the rate of inter-marriage between the two groups – over 35% of infants are children of inter-married couples from both groups. This is a major difference with the US. However, there is very deep fissure and polarization between the two groups that is reflected in the difference between the protesters and government supporters.

As we shall see, this is a sharp contrast with the relationship of Jews and Palestinians.


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