Lines in the sand.

Photographer: THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Israel's Culture War Is Getting Ugly

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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Measured against a tempestuous U.S. election season and a failed Turkish coup, Israel (for a change) seems quiet and stable. Bolstered by coalition agreements with the religious right, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems politically secure. For now, at least, elections are not on the Israeli horizon and the borders are quiet.

Mostly out of international view, however, Israel is in the grips of a renewed battle between an increasingly hard-line, anti-Western and extremist rabbinate, arrayed against Israeli liberal society, the army and even American Jews. The long-simmering battle resurfaced this month when a rabbinic court rejected a woman’s conversion that had been overseen by the widely respected New York Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. (Lookstein was the same rabbi who accepted and then declined an invitation to deliver the invocation at the Republican National Convention.)

Despite protests by many moderate personalities, including the long-time Jewish human rights activist Natan Sharansky, the religious courts refused to back down, highlighting their disregard for how foreign Jews and much of Israeli society perceive them.

Then the army announced the nomination of Colonel Eyal Karim for the position of Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Defense Forces. The choice quickly aroused widespread disgust, even among many in the religious community. Karim, it turned out, had referred to homosexuals as “sick.” He said that the reason women cannot give testimony in certain court cases is that they are “sentimental” by inclination. Karim had also intimated that soldiers could legitimately rape women during war and that wounded terrorists should be killed, a subject particularly sensitive in Israel due to the ongoing trial of Sergeant Elor Azaria, who is now being tried for shooting a neutralized terrorist in Hebron.

Despite the outcry, the IDF chief of staff, Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, decided to proceed with Karim’s nomination. The reason, many believe, is that Karim was already perceived as weak, and having a weak IDF chief rabbi enables Eisenkot to chip away at the IDF rabbinate’s authority.

Two weeks ago, LGBT activists cancelled the gay pride parade in the Negev city of Beer Sheva after the Supreme Court sided with religious authorities who insisted that having the parade along the main boulevard would “cause damage” to the religious community. Though the court actually ruled based on security considerations (police claimed that they could not protect participants given the widespread opposition to the event), the significant social fact was that religious opponents of the parade had succeeded in blocking it. (In contrast, last week’s Jerusalem gay pride parade proceeded as scheduled, attracting some 25,000 people.)

Then another firebrand rabbi joined the fray. Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, a leader of a yeshiva academy in the West Bank town of Eli, gave a lecture in which he insisted that gays are “perverts,” that Reform Judaism is a variety of Christianity, and that the IDF has veered away from the state’s values. Reaction to Levinstein’s harangue was immediate. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, himself a member of the religious community, assailed the cruelty of Levinstein’s language. The army reprimanded Levinstein and forbade him from teaching many of the army groups he formally addressed. Rabbi Benny Lau of Jerusalem (a cousin of the chief rabbi), perhaps the leading voice of modern Orthodoxy in Israel, denounced Levinstein and posted a 15-minute video “takedown” on YouTube.

As some were excoriating him, another group of 250 rabbis came to Levinstein’s defense.

Other examples abound. What Israel is facing, noted Haaretz and others, is a “culture war” between extremist rabbis and some of the IDF’s liberal generals. Former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who recently departed Netanyahu’s government, pointed to what he termed a dangerous tendency towards national religious radicalization.

The extremism stems from many factors. Many of Israel’s rabbis have no secular education to speak of; neither Karim nor Levinstein, for example, have university degrees. They are as parochial as one can be in a modern society like Israel’s, at times oblivious to the fact that some sorts of discourse are no longer accepted in the western world. Many of these rabbis also live in communities that are likely to be dismantled if and when a peace agreement is reached with the Palestinians to hand over parts of the West Bank. That imparts a sense of dread that leads them to see much of the rest of Israeli society as their nemesis, along with an American Jewish community that overwhelmingly favors Israeli territorial accommodation.

What may seem a matter of a few rogue rabbis is actually an existential issue for Israel. When religious leaders like Rabbis Lau and Lookstein, human rights activists like Sharansky, religious political leaders like Bennett and future candidates for prime minister like Ya’alon all decry the extremism, lines in the sand are being drawn.

What Israelis have to decide is whether they are ready — under the leadership of those moderate figures — to wage the painful social and political battle with the religious right now.

They can defer the conflict, but then they risk the possibility that the Israeli society that emerges will be one that most American Jews will find undeserving of their support. Even more dangerous, those in the secular and moderate religious camps could find themselves in an unrecognizable country, and with peace nowhere in sight, might begin to ask themselves whether a society so ugly is one in which they want to raise their children.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net