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Faith and Democracy in Israel
May 17, 2013
Dear Friend of Israel,
The world’s attention has once again been focused on Israel – but not because of the threat of terrorism or war. For years, a Jewish women’s group, Women of the Wall, has been fighting for the right to pray at the Western Wall while wearing the traditional prayer shawl and phylacteries (small leather boxes containing parchment inscribed with biblical passages). Certain ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups have strongly opposed changing the law that prohibits women from doing so.
Faith is at the heart of the Jewish state, but Israel is also a nation governed by democratic institutions. And so the Women of the Wall took the issue to court – and won. They conducted a prayer service last week, and the same policemen who earlier would have been obligated to arrest them now protected the group of praying women from a crowd of ultra-Orthodox Jews who attempted to disrupt the women by shouting at them and pelting them with rocks and debris.
This conflict surely highlights a cultural divide in Israeli society. But this larger issue should not obscure the fact that throwing rocks and hurling abuse is despicable and wholly unacceptable. Such behavior might be expected in a totalitarian state like Iran or Saudi Arabia, but it has no place in free, democratic Israel, which has always championed religious freedom and women’s rights. The incident was made even worse because it occurred at Judaism’s holiest site. Jerusalem’s police chief expressed the feelings of many when he said it was “painful and a pity to see the Western Wall become a field of battle instead of a holy place of prayer.”
The fact is, many religions – Christianity, Islam, and, Judaism among them – are grappling with questions about the degree to which they can and should accommodate modernity while still remaining true to their fundamental tenets. Sometimes those questions are discussed, and argued heatedly, in public. And, yes, there are those who chose to demean the sanctity of Judaism’s holiest site and shame themselves by jeering, spitting, and screaming at the women seeking to pray at the Wall last week. But this is an exception. In Israel this discussion, though often contentious and heated, is generally carried on with civility, and certainly without resorting to violence and physical harassment.
Critics of Israel have been quick to say that the events last week at the Western Wall show that Israel, like the countries that surround it, is in danger of being taken over by religious extremists bent on enforcing their beliefs upon others. But the Jewish state bears little resemblance to its neighbors. It is blessed with robust democratic traditions and institutions that are sadly absent in the Arab world. There, and in other countries governed by the harsh dictates of radical Islam, deeply discriminatory measures are not only tolerated, but written into law and enforced by the state – including measures that drastically restrict women’s rights.
Perhaps this issue is so heated because it touches on Israel’s unique dual character: it is a democratic state and it is a Jewish state. Unlike many democracies, there is a specific religious belief and practice at the core of Israel’s existence. But unlike many religious states, Israel respects freedom of religion for all, and is not headed by a dogmatic dictator handing down harsh punishments for those who waver from strict religious observance. This duality can lead to conflict – as we have seen with the gender issue at the Western Wall in recent weeks – but it is one of Israel’s unique strengths and a source of pride. As long as we can keep both in balance, engaging in civil debate while remembering we are people of faith who must respect all of God’s children, then I am confident that, with God’s guidance, Israel will become a stronger and healthier country, and continue to be the “light unto the nations” that it has been since its founding.
With prayers for shalom, peace,