We just returned from Israel, which as usual we found scintillating — not only for the warmth of friends, family and colleagues who live there and for the country’s striking colors and contrasts, but for the internal and international controversies in which the tiny nation appears to be eternally embroiled.
While the world wonders aloud whether Israel should attack Iran — certainly the overriding existential, strategic and political policy concern — the people in the street are preoccupied with the everyday bustle and passions that dominate their personal lives.
In the Holy Land, plus a change, plus le meme chose. Haifa remains as lovely as usual. The carefully planned urban landscapes of large modern townships such as Modi’in and Maale Adumim are beginning to blossom. Ancient Jerusalem boasts a sparkling new light rail system.
But the country’s ultra-religious communities are feeling their oats, increasingly showing a nasty side to anyone who will pay attention. It’s not just petty xenophobia on display, but an essentially selfish fundamentalism that defies both common sense and religious principles. Some things don’t change, but grow to excess.
In December, an 8-year-old school girl in Beit Shemesh was spat upon and cursed at by Haredim — or, to be precise, a smaller fringe group called the sikrikim — who claim female students should dress more modestly. The abusive harassment started in the beginning of the school year.
When first featured on a weekend news magazine in December, the story ignited already simmering national sentiment about more radical Haredim imposing their ways on others — relegating women to the rear of public buses, separate sidewalks, health clinic waiting rooms divided by gender, even trying to erase images of women from public billboards.
The average Israeli is mortified, believing anyone who spits at girls or women should be thrown in jail, if not out of the country.
Scarcely more sympathy is shown for the civic and religious authorities (read police and rabbis) who appear to shy away from engaging the malcontents, in the process endorsing their breaches of the peace. Although Beit Shemesh’s Orthodox leadership condemned the violence, there remains a widespread feeling that the radicals are condoned by a cloak of Haredi silence.
Of Israel’s 700,000 Haredim, only several hundred are sikrikim, but the popular perception around the world paints them all with negative brush strokes. Likewise, in Israel they are largely viewed as social parasites who don’t pay taxes, don’t serve in the military and don’t participate in any other form of national service — but unapologetically take welfare checks and accept various state benefits.
We couldn’t help but notice the contrasting values between them and Marylanders we encountered upon our return to BWI Airport. About 25 volunteers from “Operation Welcome Home MD” were waiting at the arrival gate, together with a few dozen teary-eyed families, to greet uniformed American soldiers (male and female) returning from Afghanistan.
That’s the way to treat fellow citizens, especially those who defend us — with cheers, hugs and handshakes.
Kenneth Lasson teaches civil liberties and international human rights at the University of Baltimore School of Law.