Declaring War on Israel's Secular Public

The current struggle by religious Zionist rabbis against the integration of women in combat units is another sign of a radical process underway that aims to bring religion into every walk of life. | Opinion

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Women soldiers in the IDF.
Women soldiers in the IDF.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Jewish-American comedian Elon Gold explained in one of his shows why Jews have no need for a Christmas tree. If Jews had Christmas trees, he said, they would also have 1,000 rules and regulations governing them. The Talmud would have a “Tractate Tree,” and rabbis would have stormy arguments over exactly how the tree should be cut down, the best place to put it, the blessings one should say over it, and so forth.

Like all good comedians, Gold touched on one of the great shortcomings of Judaism: the endless rules and regulations of Jewish law, which some people in our country seek to apply to more and more areas of daily life. Those who see themselves as God’s agents on earth are trying to dictate rules of behavior to the entire public and to penetrate ever more deeply into more and more areas of life — education, commerce, culture, family, and now, the army as well.

By declaring war on the integration of women into combat units in the Israel Defense Forces, and encouraging their disciples to use refusal to serve in the armored corps as a tool to advance this struggle, religious Zionist rabbis have crossed a red line. The rabbis who object to women serving in tanks as combat soldiers are threatening Israel’s democratic character and seeking to further undermine equality among its citizens.

Views like those they are expressing today used to be heard only in private conversations. But the last remnants of shame have vanished, and they are trampling like wild bulls over every secular civic value with the goal of religionizing them. This time, with great chutzpah, these rabbis have chosen to insult young women who seek to contribute the state to the fullest extent of their ability. They are assailing these women even as their own daughters received full exemptions from military service, which only the bravest and most independent of them dare to violate.

The current struggle by religious Zionist rabbis is another sign of the fact that Israeli society is neck-deep in a radical process of religionization, whose purpose is to bring religion into every walk of life. If it isn’t stopped, it will ultimately affect the entire public’s family life, and especially women’s status and freedom.

While religious Zionism fiercely guards its own boundaries, sending its children to separate schools and promoting the establishment of towns and neighborhoods for religious people only, it doesn’t hesitate to insert its long arms into every area of secular life. Orthodox organizations that seek to inculcate Judaism operate in schools via religious girls doing civilian national service; diligent Knesset members try to insert Jewish law ever deeper into Israel’s law books; and the Chief Rabbinate dares to impose ever stricter requirements on the secular community, a large portion of which still (and wrongly) feels that it must turn to the rabbinate for marriage and divorce.

The rabbis and their emissaries are so determined to impose their own rules on the entire public that they’re overturning even the few achievements the nonreligious public has actually made, like the Civil Union Law. This law was meant to help people who, until it passed, couldn’t legally marry in Israel at all. But religious people have turned this, too, from an achievement into a mark of Cain.

To do so, they made use of their ultimate tool for labeling — the identity card. On the card’s “personal status” line, people who married under the Civil Union Law are registered as “partners in a civil union,” as if to make clear that they aren’t “one of us.”

Israel’s practice of registering the personal status of every citizen and resident has no parallel in other countries. Western countries aren’t interested in the personal status of their residents. They are interested in households, and they do record the number of people per household and the household’s income level, but they prefer not to get involved in labeling people according to their personal status.

But in Israel, a citizen’s personal status is registered because the religious establishment has an interest in distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews. That’s how it manages to control people’s ability to start a family as they please, to impose endless rules and to deprive anyone who doesn’t meet their religious standards of their rights.

In the rabbis’ view, secular people have no feelings. They aren’t discriminated against and aren’t offended, because religious people recognize only religious feelings. These feelings cause religious people to be offended by the statement “There is no God,” even as they don’t hesitate to insert their own religious interpretations into every walk of the secular community’s life.

The time has come for the religious establishment, its agents and its rabbis to get their hands off the life of the rest of the public. They should stop meddling in the options open to female IDF soldiers, labeling people by their personal status, trying to impose endless religious laws on people who don’t want them and being offended by all kinds of statements.

And most important of all, they should stop causing harm to everyone who doesn’t share their lifestyle. For if not, we’ll be left not only without a Christmas tree, but with a growing community that isn’t interested in any connection to Judaism, despite all the good it contains.

The author, an attorney, is the founder and CEO of the New Family organization

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