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Modernity and Tradition Clash in Israel

26 September 2017 Articles News & Analysis


Are the Jews primarily an ethnic group or a religious group? Even the Israelis are not quite sure.

by Gaius Marcius


The Israeli Supreme Court stoked tensions between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews this month by revoking military exemptions that allowed religious Jews to avoid breaking Old Testament law. Modern military service in Israel involves working on the Sabbath and contact between the sexes that the ultra-Orthodox consider forbidden. Secular Jews resent subsidizing the Orthodox, since military service is almost universally mandatory in Israel. Some Orthodox Jews serve in special segregated units that balance religious observance and service to the state, but secularists still consider this an affront to progressive values.

The divide between the different Jewish factions is a fundamental disagreement over the nature of the state. The ultra-Orthodox believe that their exemptions are merited because they consider Torah study on par with military service as a contribution to the state. In their eyes, Israel without orthodoxy would not be a Jewish state in any meaningful sense. Secularists believe that the material well-being of Israel is essential as a refuge for ethnic Jews from around the world. This puts the Israeli government in a difficult situation in regard to the Orthodox Jews. Israel wants every citizen, including Orthodox, to have allegiance to the state and to express that through military service. However, it does not want to alienate the Orthodox, who have a disproportionately large number of children, thus aiding the Jews in the demographic race against Israeli Arabs and surrounding Muslims.

The picture is further complicated because the Israeli government shifts its support from the secularists to the Orthodox depending on which coalition of parties are in power at any given time.  Just months before the Supreme Court ended the military exemptions, the Israeli Cabinet cancelled a proposal for co-ed prayer areas at the Western Wall, angering secularists and feminists but maintaining a tradition valued by the Orthodox. For now, the practice of giving with one hand and taking away with the other has kept a delicate balance between the rivals. Israel will eventually have to move in one direction or the other; if demographic trends hold the Orthodox will be 29% of the population by 2050. Their ideas will be more influential in the state, but there will not be enough secularists to keep the military fighting forever without major reforms and increased participation from the Orthodox.