How ‘Jewish’ should Israel be?

Fears that one brand of Judaism is being forced on the country is dominating the public conversation.

People enjoy themselves along the shore of the Mediterranean Sea during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha at a beach in Tel Aviv
The worry that the ultra orthodox could be forcing their own brand of Judaism on the country worries some [Reuters]

On a Saturday Tel Aviv, Israel’s most liberal coastal city, has the holiday vibe down pat.

It stirs gently as I arrive late morning, couples and families take a walk and dogs enjoy a run around in their very own section of the local park.

Others head down to the beach. No businesses are open other than coffee shops and grocery shops.

For the most part, Tel Aviv is respecting the observance of Shabbat, a weekly religious holiday that begins on Friday night and ends as dusk falls on a Saturday.

At Tel Aviv port, once used for shipping, but now a chic little area bustling with fashion stores and food joints, the relaxed atmosphere belies the fact that this is actually a political battlefield. 

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Israeli ultra-orthodox and right-wing religious parties feel that the few shops that open on the Shabbat are a threat to the Jewish way of life and to the Jewish identity of Israel.

In Jerusalem, in one of the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods the Ashkenazi, Jewish identity is deeply embedded.

A majority of the men wear the heavy black suits and wide brim hats associated with their brand of Judaism. The women are equally distinct in long skirts and headscarves wrapped tight.

It’s a stark contrast to the beach and sportswear of Tel Aviv on a Saturday morning. 

It’s here I meet one of the most powerful Rabbis in the country.

Rabbi Yitzhak GoldKnopf is large man with a bright white beard that almost touches his chest. He sits at the intersection between various Ultra Orthodox organisations and runs the powerful Committee to Observe Shabbos, an organisation dedicated to the Jewish day of rest.

In 2006, his organisation successfully lobbied to get the El Al airline to restrict services on the Shabbat.

Today it’s not planes that are on his mind, but shops and trains. The Israeli government has carried out train maintenance work on a Saturday. They say it’s crucial for safety and doesn’t inconvenience passengers. 

Not good enough, says the larger than life Rabbi.

“The government of Israel is a symbol of the country. No one can desecrate Shabbat, not the prime minister or the ministers. No work at all should be done.”

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His words carry weight. The ruling coalition relies on the support of various ultra orthodox parties to stay in power. A fact he is not shy of using.

He tells me: “If our demands are not met we will quit the government.”

Back in Tel Aviv, his words have sent shock waves through the city.

Mickey Gitzin is a member of Be Free Israel, an organisation dedicated to and promoting liberal values.

We sit in his local park as midday approaches and talk. He is fearful of the religious right wing in his country.

I ask him if he feels under pressure in Israel.

“Of course I think if this country goes more and more religious we won’t be able to live here.”

He gestures towards the people in the park.

“I mean look at this park, people feel free to do whatever they want at the weekend.”

If that changes, people will leave. The worry that the Ultra-Orthodox could be forcing their own brand of Judaism on the country is dominating chat shows on radio and in opinion columns in newspapers.

This is as much a political struggle as it is a religious one. The ultra-orthodox and religious parties have become a powerful force in Israel and are using that power to blur the distinction between religion and state.

That separation, along with maintaining a Jewish identity, has always been an issue in IsraelBut now, once fringe parties feel like they have enough support to tip the balance in their favour for a strict religious state. 

Follow Imran Khan on Twitter @ajimran

Source: Al Jazeera