Israel Turns on Itself

In last week's ultra-Orthodox riots, the world watched the Jewish state, exhausted by conflict, slowing tearing itself apart.


On their own terms, the recent riots in Jerusalem make no sense.

Doctors discover that a woman from a small, anti-Zionist ultra-Orthodox sect, probably suffering from Münchausen by proxy syndrome, has been starving her 3-year-old, who has dwindled down to an emaciated 15 pounds. Social workers scoop up the kid and place him in intensive care at Hadassah hospital, and police scoop up the mother and put her in jail.

And then all hell breaks loose. A rabbi of the sect declares the event a blood libel, comparing the police to Cossacks. Immediately, young men in black robes and fur hats take to the streets, setting bus stops and dumpsters ablaze, pelting police with stones, and decrying the doctors of Hadassah as latter-day Josef Mengeles. Someone sets aflame the government welfare and social services building in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Me’ah Shearim; others enter the building, smashing computer screens as they go. In the first three days after the toddler is taken for treatment, dozens more are sent to the hospital with wounds from stones and broken glass, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of city property are burned or smashed.

In response, the new, secular mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, announces that he will suspend all social services to ultra-orthodox neighborhoods that, being among the poorest in the city, rely on them as a bulwark against Third World kinds of hunger and homelessness. The secular press — Ha’aretz, Yediot Ahronoth, and Ma’ariv — prints op-eds portraying the ultra-orthodox as child-abusing hooligans. Yediot devotes pages to the story, adding as a sidebar an item about a delegation of ultra-orthodox Jews from the United States visiting Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, offering him moral and political support in his fight against the Zionists.

None of this adds up. Tragedies of mental illness and child abuse are everywhere, and it’s not surprising — not to social workers and not to rabbis — to find a case of it among the ultra-Orthodox. There’s no reason to expect it to become a referendum on religious-secular relations in Israel’s capital. Nor, really, is there any reason to expect that ultra-Orthodox street violence would be met by collective punishment, answering thugs by threatening entire neighborhoods with penury. Nor is there any reason to link the riots to the widespread secular suspicion that underneath all the ultra-Orthodox wool and fur are traitors, that the black clothes cover but fail to hide jet-black hearts.

For these events to make any sense, one must put them into broader context. Tensions between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews in Jerusalem have been mounting for months. November’s municipal election replaced the affable ultra-Orthodox mayor, Uri Lupolianski, with Barkat, a combative, secular high-tech millionaire. In the spring, Barkat ordered that a municipal parking lot not far from the Old City be opened for business on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, inflaming some ultra-Orthodox leaders who saw it as a violation of the “status quo,” or long-standing modus vivendi concerning religious observance in the city. Protests, sometimes more peaceful, sometimes less, have materialized each Saturday since, as the new mayor-tried to negotiate a compromise involving opening a different lot, farther from the likely path of any ultra-Orthodox Jews. Then in June, Jerusalem hosted its largest ever gay pride march, which further angered rabbis and their flocks. Seen against this backdrop, last week’s riots were about much more than one case of putative child abuse; the starved kid, it becomes clear, only turned a longer-simmering potion of frustration and anger into a boiling rage.

But this broader view still leaves the basic question unanswered. None of what’s happened in Jerusalem since November threatens the lifestyle of the city’s ultra-Orthodox Jews or diminishes their autonomy. Speak to any ultra-Orthodox politician in Jerusalem, and he’ll tell you that the last election was a fluke — the result of disharmony among ultra-Orthodox factions, each straining for a bigger piece of what they all see as a bigger-than-ever pie, rather than the result of increased secular power in the city — and that it is unlikely ever to repeat itself. For ultra-Orthodox politicians, as for their constituents, Barkat is an interregnum between God-fearing administrations. Most political scientists agree, basing their views on a cold analysis of population figures: Thanks to their high birthrates and to a slow but steady secular exodus from the city over the past decade, the ultra-Orthodox are well on their way to being the majority of the city’s voters. As a product of this trend, the “status quo,” which has actually never been static, has over the past years been shifting slowly toward the ultra-Orthodox, who now have greater independence in school curricula, more control of locally allocated funds, and greater say in every aspect of city government, than they could have imagined a decade ago. More immediately, whether the parking garage is open or closed has almost no practical affect on ultra-Orthodox life in Jerusalem. The gay pride march has less impact still, throwing into relief the fact that homosexuality has a public presence in the city for only a single day each year, in stark contrast to Tel Aviv, with its openly gay politicians, clubs, magazines, and celebrities. The significance of the last few months’ conflicts is almost entirely symbolic. So what makes these symbols so important?

To understand that, one has to see the recent riots in a still broader context. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and secular leaders alike broadcast animal assurance: a full, tempered confidence that their way of seeing the world is singular in its virtue. But behind the bluster, both communities feel themselves as embattled and endangered. Ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel are collapsing under the weight of their successes. Dismissed by Israel’s founding generations as the last vestiges of a dying way of life, the ultra-Orthodox have grown enormously in numbers and in political power in Israel over the 61 years since the state was established. They have negotiated for themselves broad exemption from army service, mandatory for everyone else, and a series of entitlements that allow most ultra-Orthodox men to receive a small stipend for studying in religious academies for as long as they wish to do so. As a result, Israeli ultra-Orthodox males probably spend more time in formal study than any other class of humans ever has in the history of the planet. But small stipends do not easily support large families, and over time the ultra-Orthodox have become Israel’s economic underclass, as each generation exceeds the poverty of the last. Families of a dozen live in 600-square-foot apartments, stretching their government handouts with canned goods from charitable food pantries. They have become perpetual objects of scorn for secular Israelis, who resent bankrolling their indolence. For Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, the best of times are the worst of times. Torah study thrives and children go to school in thrice-patched pants with an ache in their belly. Something has to give.

Secular Israelis, for their part, live in perpetual dismay over the fact that their successes have never led them to where they expected to arrive. Their parents’ generation, and that of their parents, expected to be vindicated, that the value and truth of the ideology they embraced would be confirmed by the society they built. After Zionists produced the Good Society, they reasoned, no one could doubt that Zionism itself is a social good. And for some time, it seemed that this formula had proven itself to be Israel’s self-image, broadly, as the country passed through two phases.

In the first phase, Israel saw itself as a model of state-building, the only country in the world in which voluntarist socialist communities — kibbutzim — thrived, producing not only a plurality of the country’s food, but providing in extraordinary numbers charismatic leaders in government and the army. Even beyond the green lawns and gates of the kibbutzim (which accounted, after all, for only a bit over 3 percent of the country’s population), economists determined that Israel was the country with the smallest “socioeconomic gap” in the world; the difference in income between the richest and poorest 10 percent was smaller than anywhere else. Israel had undertaken and succeeded in massive development projects. The country had absorbed several times its population in immigrants, many poor, and many refugees arriving from dreadful circumstances. Israel reversed the regional trend towards desertification, reclaiming tens of thousands of acres of arid land for productive agriculture. Israelis became agricultural advisors through much of Africa, helping to spark a short-lived but significant increase in African agricultural production. And of course, Israel had assembled an army and airforce recognized for its effectiveness and creativity. Generals like Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin became international celebrities and found themselves dining at the tables of princes and starlets.

No one holds a heroic view of Israel anymore, not abroad and not here. Today’s kibbutzim are not a source of national pride. In the past decade, dozens of them have “privatized,” dividing up what was common property (it took a Supreme Court ruling to stop kibbutzim from selling to developers valuable government-owned lands that had been lent to them for agriculture). Israel’s social gap is now considered among the greatest in the developed world. The most recent wave of immigrants, from the former Soviet Union, are largely disgruntled, and surveys suggest that a large percentage of them are not even Jews. Several of Israel’s large development projects have caused great harm to the local environment. Israelis are unwelcome in African capitals. They are mostly unwelcome anywhere. And most important of all, Israel’s military excellence has been tested in a 20-year misadventure occupying southern Lebanon, and in laboriously maintaining the peace in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The disastrous last war in Lebanon, and the wrenching recent war in Gaza, won support by most Israelis, and censure by some, but together they have left little doubt that the country’s army is not heroic in the sense that it once was.

For all these reasons, to be a secular Israeli in 2009 is a demoralizing and demoralized affair. We are tired: tired of the Palestinians, tired of the bombs, tired of U.N. and EU condemnations, tired of having so much of our daily wages taxed to buy guns and missiles, tired of the army reserves, tired of being hated, tired of going to bed and waking up to reports of kids — Jewish kids, Palestinian kids — watching their parents die or dying in their parents’ arms. We are tired of our lives and tired of ourselves.

For two communities in crisis, riots like those that set Jerusalem aflame last week are a welcome relief. Many ultra-Orthodox find in their city’s secular government — its social services, police, and mayor — an external source of their malaise. Locating the cause of their suffering outside their own unsustainable way of life, and attributing it to the malevolence of Jewish Cossacks or Jewish Nazis, ultra-Orthodox leaders defer reflection about the real causes of their distress.

Something similar accounts for the harsh and totalizing reaction that so many secular Israelis have had to the past week’s events, finding all ultra-Orthodox guilty, first of heartless acceptance of child abuse, and then of wild hooliganism, adding up to a cultural identity of primitive and traitorous barbarism. For such a view of the ultra-Orthodox does wonders for the self-image of secular Israelis. Now more than before, we need the ultra-Orthodox torching bus shelters and shattering computers. These sorts of ultra-Orthodox, and they alone, serve as a token of the continued relevance of the secular Zionist program, at a time when this claim to relevance is no longer evident, certainly in Europe and the United States, but also increasingly within the borders of Israel itself. Nir Barkat, a mayor with little charisma who has failed to distinguish himself in his first year in office, appears principled and virtuous only when he is staring down a rabble of rabbis.

The riots will pass. As I write, the child remains under constant attention at Hadassah hospital, where he has gained one third again of his body weight. Under court order, his mother was released from jail to house arrest, and will receive immediate psychiatric care. Both will drop from the headlines.

Still, it won’t be long before new headlines come, in the ultra-Orthodox press screaming of cruel and godless authorities goosestepping into Meah Shearim to brutishly break up yiddershe families, and in the secular press of religious zombies slavishly following their rabbis’ orders to torture their kids into mindless obedience. These headlines will come, and rocks will be thrown and trash bins will be set ablaze, because ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis are locked in a macabre pas de deux that serves each group as it tries to negotiate its own depressing reality. For ultra-Orthodox and secular Israelis, decrying loudly the vicious vice of the other is one of the few ways each can still locate virtue in themselves.

Noah Efron teaches at Bar-Ilan University and is senior fellow at the think tank Shaharit.