Ph.D. Octopus

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Jewish “Culture Wars” in Israel and America

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by David

Barack Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage has brought talk of American “culture wars” back to center stage. As my friend and fellow US intellectual historian Andrew Hartman has written, the culture wars never really went away. Indeed, the Occupy Wall Street movement merely opened up another front on that battlefield, uniting economic and cultural forces in new and profound ways. Issues of gay rights, abortion access, and immigration restriction mingled with questions over government size and spending, healthcare reform, and military policy, even as numerous members of both “sides” seemed to be acting against their economic interests.

In addition to these thoroughly American culture wars, however, another set of culture wars looms, one that may be even more bitterly contested, and more complex, than the American version. I’m talking about the Jewish culture wars which are currently taking place in both the United States and Israel.

The Washington Post has already called attention to Israeli version, which has made headlines with Israel’s new national unity government coalition which includes the ruling right-wing Likud Party and its chief rival, the “centrist” Kadima. Though the pretext for this alliance is to deal with the Iranian threat, the first order of business for the new government is domestic, namely the question of whether Israel’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) citizens should be drafted into military service. About 10% of Israel’s population, most haredi men do not serve in the military, and instead are exempted from the draft to study Jewish texts at religious schools known as yeshivas. Both Likud and Kadima, though in many ways right-leaning, are secular oriented parties. Even Israel’s conservative Prime Minister Binyamin “Bibi” Netanyahu seems intent on at the very least conscripting the haredim into some form of national service, if not directly to the military.

This issue extends beyond the religious Jewish community. Aside from the Druze and some Bedouins, Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel do not serve in the military. A change to the law of military conscription may very well also affect them.  As Yossi Klein Halevi writes, “some form of national service is essential in strengthening the Arab case for equality in a society whose Jewish men devote three years to the nation’s defense and then continue in reserve duty into their forties.” Ironically, the bringing together of Israel’s right-wing and centrist parties might achieve some progressive reform at the level of Israeli citizenship and move the country in a more inclusive, secular direction.

This clash of religious versus secular Jews in some ways mirrors the domestic American Jewish struggle over US policy towards Israel and the Middle East. Here in the US, there is a conservative Jewish establishment, represented by AIPAC and much of the institutional, organized Jewish community, that advocates unfaltering support of the Israeli government, and an aggressive policy towards Iran and anyone else deemed a threat to Israel, including numerous Palestinian factions. On the other side, liberal Jews have formed organizations like J-Street in an effort to advance a more dovish policy towards Iran, along with encouraging the resumption of peace talks among Israelis and Palestinians.

In the United States, it’s not clear where these two sides of this divide would fall on the Israeli domestic debate over military service. It’s possible that both American sides of this dispute would likely endorse any Israeli government attempts to draft haredim and Palestinian Israelis into national service, the AIPAC supporters because of their hawkishness, the J-Street crowd because of its negotiation-oriented strategy. Yet I could also see some religious Zionists in America – Jewish and Christian, arguing that the haredim play an important role in Israeli/Jewish life by studying and praying. The battle lines, if there are to be any, have not yet been drawn.

And there is still another front of the American Jewish culture wars that has been making headlines, this time within the haredi community. Recently, horrifying stories have emerged from the haredi neighbourhoods in Brooklyn, NY about how child molesters are being protected, or turned over to religious authorities rather than secular police. This NY Times piece contains this stunning quote from haredi Brooklynite Pearl Engeleman:

“There is no nice way of saying it. Our community protects molesters. Other than that, we are wonderful.”

I haven’t taken a survey, but my suspicion is that the overwhelming majority of non-haredi American Jews, from the most secular to the Modern Orthodox, are horrified by this situation, and would want the secular police to be involved immediately. This scandal brings to mind the shameful way that the Catholic Church has protected priests guilty of committing sexual abuse on young boys. To complicate this picture, however, these most religious American Jews tend to be anti-Zionist, believing that divine rather than human hands should govern the Jewish return to Palestine. In this way, and perhaps only this way, their political views differ fundamentally from fundamentalist Christians.
And so this case brings to mind another fissure in the American Jewish community, that is, the religious/secular divide. More and more, the Orthodox Jewish community is starting to vote like their more religious Christian counterparts, that is to say, Republican, as opposed to the overwhelming majority of more secular Jews, who vote Democrat. With the question of same sex marriage, this division has become even more apparent. The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, the governing body of the Modern Orthodox movement in the United States, recently issued a statement expressing “disappointment” in President Obama’s endorsement of legal recognition for same-sex marriages. This is a position that I’m certain a majority of American Jews would disagree with.
Thus, we have various fault lines in the Jewish culture wars, ranging from Israel to the United States, where different degrees of religiosity exist on multiple “sides” of the battlefield. In both countries, though the religious are in the minority, they hold powerful institutional levers that can influence government policy. And like the American culture wars, the stakes are very high, and the struggle is likely to continue for many years to come.

Written by David Weinfeld

May 14, 2012 at 10:39

Posted in culture, Israel, Jews, religion

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  1. […] Jewish Culture Wars in Israel and America. […]

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