Opinion |

The ultra-Orthodox Paradox

I am prepared to accept Mendelblit’s distinction between Bnei Brak and Hod Hasharon. The question is why the government seeks to impose Bnei Brak on Hod Hasharon

Asher Maoz
Asher Maoz
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Bnei Barak, a street scene.
Bnei Barak, a street scene.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Asher Maoz
Asher Maoz

The exclusion of women is once again on the agenda. This time it’s due to a discussion Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked and Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit held with a number of MKs, following a report that Mendelblit had told ultra-Orthodox lawmakers he planned to soften the Justice Ministry’s enforcement policy in this area.

Although he stressed there had been no change in the ministry’s policy, Mendelblit told Interior Minister Arye Dery, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Habayit Hayehudi) and MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism), “There’s a large public that must be respected,” and that the enforcement must be balanced. To clarify, Mendelblit noted that “Bnei Brak is not Hod Hasharon” and “We are seeking solutions with understanding and by agreement.”

Unlike some of my colleagues, I find this approach acceptable. A liberal policy proves itself by its ability to include populations whose way of life is illiberal. But even so, there is still the question of limits and reservations.

To illustrate this, I will take an example presented by MK Rachel Azaria (Kulanu) on gender segregation at public libraries in Jerusalem, such that “Divorced women can’t take their children to the library.” Shaked’s response was nothing short of jaw-dropping. After noting that she saw no need for separation in libraries, she reportedly asked, “What’s the problem with having a day for men, a day for women and three mixed days?”

I don’t get what there is to understand here. There is no place for gender-based exclusion in state or municipal institutions. Furthermore, even tolerance for a different lifestyle to that practiced by most of us should have limits.

Even a tolerant regime cannot agree to a blatant policy of discrimination against and exclusion of a section of the population, on the grounds that this section is concerned with exclusion and offense. Aside from the fact it’s doubtful whether the excluded group can freely express its will, there are certain basic principles upon which we cannot compromise.

Here we must consider the worrisome development that has started in the religious-Zionist community, one that is becoming increasingly stringent, erecting boundaries and restrictions. To illustrate this, it’s enough to see old pictures of the Western Wall in which pious women and God-fearing yeshiva students prayed together. The truth is, this was the result of a prohibition imposed by the administration on erecting a mehitza (partition), but the issue didn’t lead to the exclusion of women. And today? Not only is there a mehitza, but it has become higher over the years – so that the mothers, grandmothers and sisters of a boy having his bar mitzvah at the Kotel cannot feel part of the event.

There is also the matter of Haredim moving into secular areas and their efforts to change the existing residents’ way of life. One example is Jerusalem’s Bar-Ilan Street – an area that was once secular, but where the spread of the ultra-Orthodox population led to a demand to close the road to traffic on Shabbat and holidays.

An even more blatant example is Beit Shemesh. In the past it was like all other Israeli towns, with a population that was partly traditional and partly secular. There were no major conflicts between residents until it was flooded with Haredim, who are trying to impose – by force if necessary – their extreme way of life on others, including excluding women in the public square and enforcing a dress code.

I am prepared to accept Mendelblit’s distinction between Bnei Brak and Hod Hasharon. The question is why the government, including its justice minister, seeks to impose Bnei Brak on Hod Hasharon. How come what is permitted in Bnei Brak is forbidden for Hod Hasharon? Why does the government seek to impose the so-called supermarket bill on secular communities, depositing the key to the stores in the hands of a Haredi interior minister? Our attorney general should know that non-Haredi communities also have “a large population that must be respected.”

And since we began with the Western Wall, let us end with it. The Kotel belongs to all Jews, irrespective of their worldview or lifestyle. Nevertheless, non-Orthodox Jews are blocked from praying in its plaza in accordance with their customs. After a struggle lasting three decades, a committee headed by then-Cabinet Secretary Mendelblit recommended a compromise. This compromise was adopted by the cabinet in June 2016. Barely two months passed and pressure from the ultra-Orthodox “street” led the Haredi parties to withdraw from it, saying they’d pull out of the government if it weren’t canceled.

As is customary in these parts, another committee was set up to suggest “the steps needed to resolve the difficulties, in accordance with the solution proposed.” The “solution” was that 18 months after the government adopted the Kotel compromise the cabinet adopted a resolution freezing its previous one.

We could say, then, that even when the non-Orthodox streams retreat from Bnei Brak to Hod Hasharon, Bnei Brak still pursues them there.

Prof. Asher Maoz is dean of the law school at the Peres Academic Center and a member of the International Consortium on Law and Religion Studies.

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