Ultra-orthodox reflection of Israeli politics

Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox community, like the government, believes they are exempt from having to justify their behaviour.

ultra orthodox israel
Israeli authorities and the ultra-orthodox community share similar attitudes and tactics, the author says [GALLO/GETTY]

Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain – Since late 2011, the conflict between the secular and the ultra-religious segments of Israeli society has reached a boiling point over the issue of women’s rights.

Among the seemingly bizarre recent events, highlighting a growing societal rift, we may single out the controversy over female singing in the Israeli army, deemed to offend the sensibilities of religious soldiers; demands for gender segregation on public buses and forced removal of female passengers from their seats; harassment of an eight-year old girl on the pretext of her being “provocatively” dressed; a credit card company pulling ads that featured women’s faces from billboards in Jerusalem in response to the threat, by ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) believers, to burn buses and bus stops, where such ads were featured; a conference on fertility and Jewish law, whose organisers prevented female professionals from speaking out and offering their point of view… and the list goes on.

Critical responses to these events either explicitly state or simply assume that religious fanatics are nothing but fringe elements far outside the mainstream of the Israeli society, elements attempting to “highjack” the public sphere and “corrupt” its democratic core. One adherent of this approach is the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, who, last month, called upon Israeli citizens to protest en masse against the growing influence of Haredi extremists and to reclaim their civic freedoms.

Israelis rally against gender segregation

Yet, given the overall political context, within which the concerted ultra-Orthodox onslaught is taking place, it is doubtful, to say the least, that this radicalisation is an aberration, a mere exception to the rule of peaceful coexistence. I would argue that in its belligerent, uncompromising stance on women, the conduct of the ultra-religious faction actually reflects the unadorned image of the Israeli politics and society as a whole.

Dialogue: impossible

The rabbis, who are intent to institute religious dictate at the level of the entire state, have had good teachers and fine examples to imitate; most recently, they have learned from the conduct of Netanyahu’s government that adopted an overtly bullying stance both toward the Palestinians and toward the international community, triggering diplomatic crisis with Turkey and, even, with the United States.

Rejection of dialogue in foreign affairs cannot help but affect the way intra-societal tensions are dealt with: in both cases, blackmail, intimidation of opponents and display of brute force become the preferred tactics at the expense of the political process par excellence.

Just as the Israeli government refuses to consider Palestinian representatives as partners in a dialogue and, instead, continues to dictate the rules of the game through military occupation, so religious leaders do not regard members of the secular civil society as worthy of engagement and moral consideration. At best, this attitude spells out absolute disrespect for the rights of others; at worst, its cost is measured in the loss of human lives.

What is the common denominator, underlying the imperviousness of Israeli political and religious leaders to a meaningful discussion?

In the first place, it is the fervent and unshakeable belief, characteristic of all fanatics, in the possession of the ultimate truth. Haredim can dispense with public debate because, from their perspective, the truth they hold is absolute, grounded as it is in the word of God. Anyone who disobeys divinely mandated Law is, according to them, subject to severe punishment, which does not preclude elaborate curses or death sentences.

The current extremist government can do away with political dialogue for a very similar reason, namely, that its idea of the state is based on certain eternal, unquestionable truths – enshrined in the doctrines of Zionism – forever closed for discussion. Such political metaphysics is a powerful tool for the creation of social consensus, as much as a justification for dealing harsh punishments to its opponents, including the shootings and killings of protesters in the occupied Palestinian territories.

‘Ultimate truth’?

A “holier than thou” attitude prevails both in the Israeli political mindset and in the religious imaginary of ultra-Orthodox Jews. While, in the first case, it makes earnest diplomacy all but impossible, in the second case, this attitude threatens the very possibility of a coherent civil society. The drama of the present situation, however, is that, despite their symbiotic arrangement, the two “eternal truths” logically negate one another.

The politics of the right-wing government depends, at once, on the identification of the external enemy, with whom there is nothing to discuss, and the consolidation of the heterogeneous population within the state against this foe. Religious extremism, conversely, creates a set of tears in the socio-political fabric, thereby endangering the project of the Israeli “hawks”.

The Orthodox community, like the Israeli government, believes it possesses the ‘ultimate truth’ which exempts them from having to explain or justify their behaviour, beliefs or actions [GALLO/GETTY]

Perhaps, the contradiction lies in the self-definition of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state”, and all signs point at the fact that time has come for it to make a choice between these two adjectives. For the country’s political leaders, this description means that only Jews can benefit from the advantages of democracy, often at the expense of non-Jewish minorities. But, from the vantage point of the ultra-Orthodox, secular Jews are not Jewish enough and, therefore, should be treated the way the political establishment treats Palestinians, which is to say, with disdain, dictating the conditions of their existence.   

Regardless of these frictions, the overlaps between the current political doctrine and religious extremism in Israel are remarkable. Most blatantly, both resort to the tactic of inversion, portraying aggressors as victims and victims as aggressors.

Political authorities use the historical victimisation of European Jews as the ultimate argument for the continued occupation of an entire nation, while dismissing any criticism as an expression of anti-Semitism. December 31 protests in Jerusalem saw ultra-Orthodox Jews wearing prison uniforms and yellow Stars of David in a clear reference to the Nazi concentration camps. It is the height of cynicism (not to mention Nietzschean ressentiment) to don the appearance of a sufferer after harassing and insulting non-religious girls and women for the way they dress and choose their seats on a public bus.

Faced with the onslaught of a rapidly growing and belligerent religious minority, the Israeli authorities are forced to see, as though in a mirror, a faithful reflection of their own conduct. The attitudes and the tactics of the two groups are almost identical. Contempt toward others and the ensuing unwillingness to engage in dialogue; belief in eternal truths and self-righteousness; pretence of victimhood as a cover for aggression – all these are the refracted images of Israeli politics on the contemporary ultra-Orthodox scene.

Before decrying the extremism of religious zealots, Israeli politicians should take a closer look at themselves in the mirror this “small minority” (to cite Peres) holds before them. The mirror suspended from the Wall they call “Segregation Fence”.

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is the author of The Event of the Thing: Derrida’s Post-Deconstructive Realism (2009), Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt (2010) and numerous articles in phenomenology, political philosophy, and environmental thought. Most recently, he co-edited, with Patricia Vieira, the collection Existential Utopia: New Perspectives on Utopian Thought (2011). His website is michaelmarder.org.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.