Riots, Religiosity, and The Broken Bridge

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series The Rav Elon Scandal

Riots, Religiosity, and The Broken Bridge

My Israeli family had an unusual gift: they could always find a riot to stumble upon accidentally.

Back in 1994, when I was young and studying in Israel, my uncle and aunty* loved nothing more than to drive me back to Jerusalem after Shabbat (the Sabbath). They lived close to Tel Aviv, and would pile sundry relatives into the car with us to make the hour journey, have a coffee somewhere, and drop me off at the institute where I was studying.

These expeditions involved shoving a Middle Eastern pop cassette into the car’s deck and lots of raucous singing. We never listened to the news – which was perhaps why we were so often surprised by unrest. Why listen to depressing radio news of internal and external strife when you can wail with Sarit Hadad or feel your ears bleed to Ladino Romansa?

In between songs, my uncle would ask the same question every time: “What’s the best thing about Jerusalem?”

The others in the car would respond on cue: “The road out to Tel Aviv!”

This never stopped being funny. No elaboration was needed.

We all associated Jerusalem with stifling ultra-orthodox dominance and constant political tension.

Tel Aviv and her satellite cities, meanwhile, were where “real” Israelis lived – Israelis who served in the army, who struggled financially without generous state stipends for having a menagerie of children and studying Torah all day.

So when, one Saturday night, we arrived in Jerusalem, parked the car and made our way to the street with our favourite cafes, we naturally had no idea that a riot was in progress.

All previous demonstrations I’d seen till then were the result of left- or right-wing passions – political positions that – no matter how heatedly they opposed each other – still existed within the same broad framework. Whatever the ideologies, Zionism and democracy were integral to each side.

That night in Jerusalem, however, I saw a scene that existed beyond any familiar discourse.

Oil drums and stray pieces of news paper were set alight, and apart from my small family group and a few other hapless folk who hadn’t been listening to the news, the crowd was notable for its monolithic sameness: everyone was ultra-orthodox, everyone was male, and everyone was burning with a fury I hadn’t seen before.

Before and after that night, I would occasionally enjoy running through right-wing demonstrations, shouting left-wing slogans. Sometimes I would even wear the identifiable blue shirt of my far-left youth movement.

Everyone needs a hobby.

People might have shouted at me, but I don’t remember that. I do remember quizzical looks, and occasional amusement, and I remember feeling safe enough to be so, “brave.”

The only time I miscalculated was in an area in which a high percentage of the men had done time in prison, and even there, nothing too awful happened.

This riot was different. There was no temptation to attract attention of any sort.

The roar from the crowd shouted in unison, “Death to the Arabs.”

This was confusing at the time: I’d assumed that because the ultra-orthodox were non- or anti-Zionists that they wouldn’t harbour genocidal feelings towards Arabs. It was my first lesson that Zionism was not the problem.

My aunty is a woman for whom speaking loudly is a way of life.

Even in the depths of despair, she is voluble and humorous. That she spoke quietly and seriously in my ear that night made my every hair stand on end: “When I say run, run. Don’t ask questions, don’t say anything. They won’t care if they kill you when they start running.”

It was this tacit assumption among my family that our lives were not worth much to the rioters that left an indelible mark.

For all their bluster and love of verbal biffo, there is a sense among the general Israeli population that the country comprises a highly dysfunctional extended family that requires the citizens to look out for each other’s welfare.

That night, I understood that this feeling was not universal.

My memory of the “exciting” portion of the evening is hazy. There were police water cannon, we ran a bit. My hand was sore for a while after my aunty had released it from her grip.

The fear we felt that night coloured all my future experiences with what the family referred to as, “the religious.”

In reality, not all orthodox Jews were wholesale rejectionists of modernity and the state of Israel.

The orthodox Religious Zionists never fell under my family’s definition of “religious” and it was easy to understand why. While their politics and religiosity may not have reflected our beliefs, we never felt separated from them. It was possible to have long, heated, but ultimately good-natured discussions with them. They saw themselves as Israeli, and they saw us as Israeli. They may not have approved of our eating habits or Sabbath breaking ways, but they never gave us the impression that they thought we weren’t Jews.

The ultra-orthodox – the people my family meant by the term “religious,” referred to us as Israeli “goyim” – non-Jews.

On a tour of one of the ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods in Jerusalem that year, I was spat on by someone. I’d taken care to dress “modestly” as instructed, but I was still obviously a secular Jew who was bringing the tone of the neighbourhood down.

And what a strange neighbourhood it was. 18th century Poland/Hungarian village life had been transplanted into the Middle East and somehow this represented the ultimate in Jewish authenticity.

The news regularly reported stories of wayward secular cars accidentally straying into ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods on the Sabbath. These cars were soundly stoned by the enraged devout.

Those of us living outside Jerusalem, however, generally preferred not to think about he issue at all – until it was our car that was lost on a Sabbath in Jerusalem.

Tel Aviv and her surrounds were our turf, and on our turf, we could do as we pleased – in theory.

A few years later, I’d caught the last mini-bus home. It was a short ride well within Tel Aviv city limits. The mini-bus was packed and the only seat available was next to an ultra-orthodox man.

My first thought was, “I wonder if he’s lost.”

And then the shouting began: “Don’t let her on! I won’t sit next to her. She has to get off, NOW!”

In this man’s mind, his modesty would have been thoroughly compromised by sitting next to a woman; so obviously, I would have to walk.

The mini-bus erupted. Men and women screamed at this man in unison, “GO BACK TO JERUSALEM! This is Tel Aviv. You don’t like it? Get out yourself!”

Eventually, the mini-bus driver, a pursuer of peace, told the man to come sit next to him. I was ensconced among my secular brethren and we all glowed a little from our victory.

In hindsight, I understand how hollow this victory was – how such minor triumphs actually obscure the reality of ultra-orthodox domination of the country and how very illusory the “freedom” of Tel Aviv is.

I may have been able to catch that bus, but there are many other buses now – state subsidised – that enforce segregation between the sexes.

In the august tradition of Jim Crow America, women are relegated to the back of these busses. Should they object, they will be met by a number of forms of intimidation and ultimately forced from the bus should they remain obdurate.

The ultra-orthodox control personal status law in the country.

Should two Jews not wish to be married by a rabbi – and not be subject to archaic divorce laws that profoundly discriminate against women – they have to go overseas to wed.

Should a Jew and a non-Jew, or a Jew and a Jew not recognised as Jewish by the ultra-orthodox wish to marry, again, overseas marriage is the only option.

And now, the ultra-orthodox are looking to entrench their power to determine who is a Jew further and they are able to do this – to disenfranchise the entirety of non-Orthodox Jewry – because of Israel’s catastrophic electoral system that sees minor parties granted massively disproportionate power.

The tensions between the vast majority of Israelis, who are irreligious and the ultra-orthodox are cyclical. There hasn’t yet been a concerted and sustained effort to wrest control of personal status from the ultra-orthodox, and changes to the political system are due to arrive with the Messiah.

In Australia, it’s easy to have a, “live and let live” attitude towards the ultra-orthodox. Their life choices have no impact on the three quarters of Australian Jews who are not religious.

Israel is different. The nature of ultra-orthodoxy is to encroach on the lives and freedoms of the general citizenry.

When Rabbi Elon worked at bridging the religious/secular divide, his starting point was as a proud Israeli who never sought to deny the Jewishness of secular Israel. His agenda was not to turn Israel into a theocratic state that squeezed out all religious diversity.

The tragedy of his departure was that he was one of the few people able to converse with both sides. Secular people loved him, and most orthodox recognised his immense learning.

That this bridge is gone makes mediation between the sides seem as impossible as it was before Rabbi Elon appeared on the scene.

Yaron, who studied under Rabbi Elon will write about the Rabbi’s strategies and successes and will ask whether the fall of the man necessitates the destruction of his message.

* they were not actually my uncle and aunty but more distant relatives who, with their enormous extended family, “adopted” me.

Series Navigation«The Rabbi Elon Sex Abuse Scandal: The Personal,The Political & The Dangers of CharismaThe Bridge Builder – By Yaron Gottlieb»
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12 Responses to “Riots, Religiosity, and The Broken Bridge”

  1. Fred says:

    Awesome essay. You write very well Alex.

    ps. I hate SARIT HADAD!

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  2. melina smith says:

    Silly Comment….going off on a tangent beware!!

    Ofra’s “im in alu” that song is a classic alex for me…you have very good taste! wow

    Her bio is quite sad and how her life turned out is a story in itself…


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    • Alex Fein says:

      Melina, have you ever heard her “original” version of the song? It’s still very overproduced and in a way, westernised, but it’s much cleaner than the 80s techno version. I love em both :)

  3. Fred says:

    what do you think of Yehuda Poliker? YOM SHISHI AT YODAAT!

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    • Alex Fein says:

      I listened to a bit of Poliker back in the 90s but didn’t get into him too much. He was very dark – lots of Holocaust themes, I seem to remember. His family was Greek and I think a lot of them were wiped out. For obvious reasons its rare to have oriental music deal with the Holocaust, but the Greeks straddle both sectors.

  4. Fred says:

    hmmm, wow it seems you know more about him than I do….lol
    His group BENZIN had some of the greatest Israeli Rock songs – but shoot me i can’t remember the names!

    “the greeks straddle both sectors” – yes it is a very interesting point… next time I see you I’ll bring you a film I have that I know you’ll love called TRIUMPH OF THE SPIRIT (assuming you haven’t seen it) – a true account of a Greek Jew during the Holocaust. It’s a must watch!

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  5. melina smith says:

    Alex, will certainly do!!


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  6. jenny batesman says:

    Speaking of the Greek-Jewish connection my greek friend was comparing the Seders we saw on face-book with the orthodox Easter celebrations and the great thing about social networking and blogs like this, is that through discussions like your blog, music and culture we can all share via the internet and are connected!!

    Thanks to all those mothers, aunties and members of the community who expose their lives to us through your wonderful celebrations!

    It’s sometimes weird to have so much of the personal become public but to those that go there, please note there is a serious sociological aspect to it all that the experts will write about both good and bad.

    In the mean-time, I’m enjoying it!!

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  7. Morry says:

    I’m sitting here listening to Rita’s haunting and stirring “Tiftach Chalon” as I catch up here a little. I also like some of Eyal Golan’s work … and so very many others. Still love the old stuff like the amazing army Lahakot … an entire culture that has died on the vine.

    As to Israel, in its essence the article is great, and a fun read … it’s the generalisations I have a problem with, some wholly inappropriate. Take “Israel’s catastrophic electoral system that sees minor parties granted massively disproportionate power”. This actually has nothing to do with Israel but is a failing of every democracy, where an election is so close that minor parties get disproportionate power. We see that in our own Senate with two independents holding everyone else to account, we see it throughout Europe, and we just saw it in the Tasmanian elections, where the Greens, gleaning a mere 10% of the vote, will be able to make huge demands because they now hold the balance of power. Democracy’s quirky failing, not Israel’s.

    Then there’s the term “ultra-orthodox”, a term covering a large variety of people, with the Charedim, who hate the Jewish state with a passion at one end, and the zionistic Chabad at the other. These simply cannot ne lumped into one basket. The one is a huge contributor to Israel’s spiritual life, the other I would happily see deported.

    Thanks to a very enlightened mayor, Abba Chushi, Haifa has virtually no conflicts for a very long time. Busses run on Shabbat, and shops are open. Abba Chushi introduced a wonderful compromise solution called “Hastatus Kvo” … a staus quo was established that everybody lives with and avoids conflict. That’s undoubtedly because the very large Haifa ultra-Orthodox population is not Charedi, and therefore open to compromise.

    The marriage issues are all true, but could be far more readily understood by reducing it to the fact that Israel has no civil marriage as an institution, so anybody wishing to marry civilly marries overseas. I haven’t seen any surveys taken, but am inclined to believe that the majority of Israelis are comfortable with this, as the concept of what it means to be a Jewish state hinges on these issues to a large degree. Clearly it’s very different to simply being part of a tiny Jewish minority in Australia.

    The simple truth is that the sum total of the orthodox (the religious), of all persuasions makes up no more than 20% of the Jewish voters. Should the secular population really require change, it is as easy as voting it in. But with the plethora of single issue parties in Israel, I have yet to see one that advocates the removal of religious “oppression”, much less one that has actually gotten anywhere in gathering votes (a mere 1% of signatures will get you a party).

    It’s worth remembering that when you talk of “secular” in Israel, you actually speak of people most of whom have kiddush on Friday night, have a seder for Pesach, build a succah on Succot, dress up for Purim and eat largely kosher. The Hashomer Hatzair -Bund antireligious end of the spectrum is just as small, if not smaller than than the religious.

    It’s worth remembering that the troublemakers are the anti-Zionist Charedim, not the religious per se. They are centred in Jerusalem, which is why Jerusalem has always been the hub of problems. These are people so obsessed that they will stone an ambulance rushing to save a life on Yom Kippur or Shabbat. In my books, beyond an accident of birth, they’re not really Jewish, despite the black hat and payes. There is nothing Jewish about the teaching of violence, hate and murder.

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    • Alex Fein says:

      Hi Morry.
      1) Chabad is *not* Zionist. That they are not actively anti-Zionist sets them apart from many other ultra orthodox. That they do not spit on secular folks does not remove from them the ultra-orthodox tag. They are very very distinct fromt the *non*-ultraorthodox religious Zionists.
      2) Haifa hass been a mixed city since the state’s inception with the Jewish secular character predominating and cannot be compared in any meaningful way to Jerusalem. Even so, Jerusalem is far from the only place in which ultra-orthodoxy is endemic. Bnei-Brak, for example is a considerable city that resembles a Jewish Iran.
      3) Nor is the Australian electoral system comparable to the Israeli. The term, “proportional representation” is highjly misleading as a marker of similarity. The Knesset is unicameral, the Oz parikliament is bicameral. The Oz lower house – decideed on *prefertential* voting – determines the government, NOT the proportional rep Senate. Just as importantly, the distance between the beliefs of Oz “extreme” parties and the beliefs of thje majority of the population is tiny compared to the massive gulf between ultra-orthodox parties who so often hold the balance of power, and the vast majority of Israelis. If you can find a single respected Israeli commentator prepared to defend the current system I’d be pleased to see it. I do not believe such a beast exists. Every single Israeli I ve spoken to or whose writing I’ve read agrees that their system is a blight.
      4) You are quite wrong about there not having been secularist movements specifically established to dismantle the ultra-orthodox stranglehold. That such movements/parties failed was always due to internal issues and the failures of individuals within them. They always gathered massive popular support – ie Shinui, early 2000s – precisely because most Israelis feel otherwise powerless against interests that are so far from their own. You are quite wrong – and the polls bore this out – that average Israelis are uninterested in a wholesale secularisation of their ountry personal status law. they do get discouraged and apathetic when things don’t work out, but to mistake this for *support* fopr ultra-orthodox hegemony is a grave error.

  8. Morry says:

    Hi Alex, saying that most democracies find themselves, at some time or another, at the mercy of a minority party that is unrepresentative (as I did), is a far cry from claiming synonimity of electoral systems between Israel and Australia … I’m really neither that stupid nor that silly. But I had hoped that you would have agreed that minority parties holding the balance of power is not unique to Israel, which is all I did say on that particular issue. It is a fundamental flaw of most democracies.


    Minority governments in Australia: A feature of many minority governments in Australia since 1989 is that they have been based on a written accord, charter or parliamentary agreement, setting out the conditions under which the political arrangements are to operate, at least in relation to no confidence motions and supply bills. Further, as a condition for their support of a minority government, minor party or Independent Members of Parliament often require the inclusion of certain reform measures in these charters or agreements. Another innovation on this minority government theme is the inclusion in Cabinet of minor party or Independent Members in ‘loose coalition’ with a major party, again subject to a written statement of the terms and conditions for such involvement. [2.1]

    It clearly stipulates that minor parties in Australia will support a Minority Government in exchange for “certain reform measures” and “inclusion in Cabinet” … pretty much where Israel finds itself so often. Concessions are not a feature solely of “Israel’s catastrophic electoral system”. It is actually an undesirable and unrepresentative feature of all hung parliaments the world over.

    When you talk of Chabad, do you mean as a world body, or in Israel? In my experience, Chabad in Israel is very supportive of the state, and Yeshivot Hesder tend to be of that persuasion. Perhaps your experience is different, or perhaps you’ve seen research that says otherwise. It’s not something I’m adament about, as it, and most of the other things I said, are very subjective, and I don’t mind being proven wrong.

    My major point is that parties like Shinui have not attracted huge followings, and Shinui did benefit from exactly that disproportionate power of coalition dealing that you complain about. They got the Education portfolio, and, in my opinion, Shulamit Aloni, as Education Minister, pretty much destroyed Israeli education by removing Jewish content … but again, that’s my opinion, but one I’d be happy to support in any debate.

    You say “That such movements/parties failed was always due to internal issues and the failures of individuals within them” … actually the “internal issues” always came in the wake of the failure. With a secular population of over 80% the expectation was a huge groundswell of support, and “failure” was considered impossible, so it was put down to poor leadership, and the challenges began.

    If 15 years in Israel taught me nothing else, it did teach me that the secular, amongst whom I number myself, will always bitch about religious excesses, but would never want to see the religious input gone, as the feeling is that they are integral to a “Jewish state”. Ben Gurion, a very secular Socialist Zionist, recognised this. He was in the blessed position of having a (rare today) absolute majority government, but still insisted on including the religious parties in government. Perhaps those were ideal times from Israel’s perpective … the religious included, but knowing they weren’t really needed for a government to survive is very different to any minority party with a stranglehold.

    Back here in Australia, I think it all might begin to look very familiar should the Greens ever hold the balance of power … I don’t think most Australians share their ideological positions, but again, just an opinion.

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