Over the last several years there have been increasing clashes in Israel between the general population and the Ultra-Orthodox leadership: over sex segregation on buses, ethnic prejudice in Orthodox schools (Ashkenazim refusing to let their children study with Sephardim), draft dodging, and more. Views expressed have been getting harsher and harsher — and since the present government has been said to “boycott” the Ultra-Orthodox — some people, including many leftists, have begun to wonder if the backlash against them is not exaggerated, and if perhaps Israelis should be more respectful of Ultra-Orthodox culture and more multicultural.
In my opinion, there is no exaggeration at all. Even the claims of the current government “boycotting” the Ultra-Orthodox are ridiculous. Let there be no misunderstanding: I do not support the current government. However, the Prime Minister, as the head of the largest party, has the right to choose his partners. Choosing not to include the Ultra-Orthodox in the coalition is as legitimate as choosing not to invite the left-wing parties, or the Arab parties, or any other party; none of them questions his right to do so — except the Ultra-Orthodox.
It has also been said that one should respect the “right” of the Orthodox not to allow women to sit in the front of buses or be party representatives. Not so: any systematic exclusion, whether on the basis of gender, or ethnic origin, religion, or sexual preference is simply prejudice — and illegal. It is a violation of the principles on which Israel was founded, of Israeli law, and of interenational agreements.
In response to my appeal to the National Election Committee that Ultra-Orthodox parties prohibiting women’s participation disqualifies them from elections, Haredi representatives said that women were not interested in political parties. If that is so, I responded, why is such a
prohibition necessary? Similarly, attempts to ban women from sitting in the front seats of buses led the leadership to claim that women are not interested in sitting in the front of buses; why then whenever I dared to sit in the front section, did women immediately join me? Fortunately, in this case the Supreme Court intervened.
In the municipality, the Ultra-Orthodox demand, and often get, special budgets. There are budgets for education and then budgets for Ultra-Orthodox education; budgets for cultural events and then budgets for Ultra-Orthodox events, even budgets for sports activities and budgets for Ultra-Orthodox sports activities. The Ultra-Orthodox say that they have special demands and the municipality has to meet them. But while the Ultra-Orthodox are free to come to all of the general activities, there is no reciprocation; I was recently banned from attending an Ultra-Orthodox event that cost almost 200,000 USD to the city (and am currently suing the organizers). What is ours is theirs, and what is theirs is also (only) theirs.
Moreover, the Ultra-Orthodox leadership seeks to present their demands as legitimate because seeing to the needs of the general population is “anti-religious coercion” as if it were on balance with their religious coercion. Thus, for example, demanding that cultural centers be open on the Sabbath is “anti-religious”. Yet there is no parallel: many Israelis want to enjoy their Saturdays outside of their homes – but do not force religious people to join them. No secular person would consider forbidding a religious one to go to a synagogue. There is no reason why the religious should forbid us to go out. This issue is now being put to the test as Meretz and other parties are challenging a decision to forbid the new “Cinema City” theater in Jerusalem from being open on Saturdays.
There is a rapidly growing number of fronts for conflict with the Ultra-religious, so much so that some people have begun to feel uncomfortable. They are concerned that the Ultra-Orthodox is a battered minority. Not so: the Ultra-Orthdox leadership refuses to recognize rights that are essential to a liberal democracy, and there should be no compromise on these.