Didn't We Get Carried Away?

The ultra-Orthodox are not the only enemies of enlightenment and freedom around, and it's doubtful they're the most dangerous. But they're a convenient and easy punching bag.

As expected, the campaign against the ultra-Orthodox, all of them, went beyond all proportion. But we can relax: The scandal of the week will quickly die down. The trendy word "exclusion" will return to its obscurity, Beit Shemesh will go back to being remote and anonymous, and the moment in the spotlight of the temporary heroes will end - the girl who was spat at and the woman who sat in the front of the bus.

The signs next to the Toldot Aharon Synagogue will return to their place on Chazon Ish Street, the ultra-Orthodox woman will return to her usual lifestyle, which seems dark and dismal to most people, and we'll all be preoccupied with the next scandal. Maybe it's better that way.

It was an artificial fuss: The signs had been there for years until the television cameras captured them. The spitting incident was shameful, but the scandal was overdone. A fatal bullet to the head of a Palestinian girl in the West Bank never created such a stir. The fury that erupted on Monday in Beit Shemesh, with one policeman injured and two ultra-Orthodox men arrested, broke out only because the media showed up.

This incident too will be forgotten. I was there. Eggs splattered around me, and the ultra-Orthodox shouted "Nazi, Nazi" at me, too. Still, I didn't get angry at them or hate them. The secular population attacked them with raging and sweeping hatred, and they reacted with similar emotions.

So what's left to do? Beit Shemesh is becoming more ultra-Orthodox. It's the right of the ultra-Orthodox to settle there and live as they wish, as long as they don't force their lifestyle on the secular and don't hurt them. In the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, I got the impression there are many people who just want to be left alone. I met quite a few people there who spoke very confidentially, fearfully and logically; they expressed a wish to live together in harmony.

They too are the victims of the violence and terror of a handful of extremists, and these extremists, and only they, are the ones who must be dealt with. Lumping all ultra-Orthodox people together, stirring up the basest instincts against them, is no less deplorable than stirring up hatred of the secular population. And it will lead to the radicalization of the ultra-Orthodox camp and unite them against the secular community. This won't benefit anyone.

Perhaps also Israel is becoming more religiously observant. This of course is bad news that threatens every freedom-seeking secular person, but this trend can't be stopped by force. The ultra-Orthodox have the right to live everywhere, in Ramat Aviv or in Beit Shemesh. The secular majority must fight to preserve its way of life, but not to change the nature of the ultra-Orthodox's lives, which in any case won't be possible to change by force.

Contrary to what the secular public likes to think, not everything is black in the lives of the ultra-Orthodox, just as not everything is white and shiny in the lives of the secular. As long as the ultra-Orthodox don't harm anyone, their way of life must be respected. Unlike the settlers, for example, who by their way of life and residency in the territories are hurting an entire people (and hardly anyone speaks out against them), most ultra-Orthodox people don't hurt a fly. Let them pray, separate themselves, speak a different language, and dress and act differently. This must be accepted.

Israel is now in the middle of a culture war, maybe even a war over religion, as part of its long way to shaping its society and creating its identity. The results of this war will be fateful; at the end, we'll find out if we have a secular or religious society here; democratic, theocratic or fascist; Western or other. All these questions are still far from being decided.

Unfortunately, the ultra-Orthodox are not the only enemies of enlightenment and freedom around, and it's doubtful they're the most dangerous. But they're a convenient and easy punching bag. No anti-democratic legislation promoted by the party of enlightenment, Kadima, ever prompted the hatred, anger and fear prompted by the pathetic sign on Chazon Ish Street. Yet those bills threaten Israel and its character immeasurably more than the sign calling for women to cross to the other side of the street.

There should perhaps be a campaign against the sign, in the modest proportions warranted, but it's a marginal battle. The problem is that Israel is abandoning the important fights and the more dangerous arenas. In its public space, which even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is coming forward to protect, there are far more threatening dangers percolating and no chorus of protest against them.