Before We Preach to Israelis Living Abroad

Kamal Subhi, formerly on the faculty of Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University, recently joined other clerics in warning that if the Saudi ban on women driving is lifted, mixing of genders will increase and that, in turn, will encourage premarital relations. If women are allowed to drive, he said, in 10 years’ time the kingdom will have no virgins left. “The virgin dearth,” I guess we could call it. In Europe – and I’m not making this up – a Muslim cleric ruled that women should not touch or be proximate to bananas and cucumbers, in order to avoid “sexual thoughts.” Their fathers or husbands should chop them before they eat them, he suggested. Ouch.

It’s tempting to laugh, of course, to point to the absurdity that can result when a religious tradition develops thoroughly unfettered by any contact with or influence from the outside world, guided by clerics with the narrowest intellectual training imaginable. But before we point with derision to Saudi Arabia and some dark corners of Europe, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to look around and remind ourselves of what’s unfolding right here at home.

Israel, our perky start-up nation, now has another credit of which to boast. We have our very own Rosa Parks. Her name is Tania Rosenblit; she’s the young woman who refused to move to the back of the bus when instructed to do so by haredi passengers on a bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem. It’s almost 2012 – practically 99 years since Rosa Parks was born. But parts of the Jewish state are still struggling to enter the 20th century, which, of course, ended over a decade ago.

Thankfully, and none too soon, Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yona Metzger, rushed to condemn the segregation of men and women on public buses. “We [the ultra-Orthodox] don’t have the authority to force our ideas on others,” he asserted. “This state does not belong to the haredi community.”

Ah, so there’s the problem. The issue is not that it’s wrong to relegate women to the back of the bus (why don’t the men go to the back of the bus and let the women sit up front if they’re so worried?) or that the segregation of men and women on buses is absurd (does insurmountable temptation really lurk at every stop?) but simply because the haredim don’t (yet?) have the political power they need to enforce this. Metzger’s concern was only tactical – the haredim were over-reaching. Not a word about the shamefulness of a society in which men and women cannot respectfully and properly occupy the same public space or how similar to Saudi Arabia we seem intent on becoming. Will there be a separate section on the bus for women carrying uncut fruit?

Buses are far from the full extent of it, of course. Now we learn that the Karmiel Employment Bureau has assigned different days for men and women seeking unemployment compensation. But lest we worry that this is fundamentalism-creep, rest assured, it’s only an administrative nicety. It is “more convenient” for men and women to use the office’s services on different days, the office explained to Ynet. “It prevents stress and chaos in the waiting room and is more aesthetic.” Aesthetic? How’s that, exactly?

And let’s not forget the still-simmering controversy over women singing at army ceremonies. Since halachic rulings are apparently immutable, Israel’s noble political leaders are resorting to – what else? – technology. That, after all, is where we Israelis shine. Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar has a brilliant solution: he simply puts his fingers in his ears when women sing at army events. (I would pay for a photograph of that.)

Not to be outdone, and perhaps in order not to offend those singing young women (who are actually in the army serving their country – yes, some people still do that, apparently) who might find the sight of the state’s chief rabbi with his fingers stuck in his ears somewhat disconcerting or even offensive, Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev has a much better idea: religious men should simply use earplugs when women sing. Brilliant. One only hopes that they remember to remove them before heading into battle. I’m told that being able to hear your commander can increase effectiveness in combat. Unless you had no intention of obeying his orders in the first place, I guess.

And we have, infinitely worse, the burning of mosques, vicious and violent attacks on Israeli soldiers by radicalized settlers and an emerging national debate as to whether (or when) the army is going to have to start shooting them. And our government? It’s tiptoeing around, doing nothing and saying little, its only genuine concern that the coalition not be weakened.

AH, THE joys of Jewish sovereignty, the nobility of Jewish independence. A.D. Gordon, Ahad Ha’am, Ze’ev Jabotinsky and David Ben-Gurion may have all disagreed in life, but now they have one thing in common – they are undoubtedly turning in their graves. That, by the way, was the real absurdity of those much-discussed ads begging Israelis abroad to come home. Those pot-shots at Jewish life in America (gratuitous and simplistic, a bit offensive and not entirely wrong) utterly missed the point – maybe those Israelis live in America because what’s unfolding in Israel is so thoroughly unappealing to them. Maybe they’ve noticed that back “home” in Israel the pockets of outrage against all of this violence and medievalism are tiny, virtually muted.

It’s Hanukka, our collective reminder that in an era of darkness, Jews struggle to create more light. Do those of us unafraid of cucumbers or mixed buses, those of us who believe that women serving their country ought to be able to sing, those of us who are ashamed of a country that takes only the feeblest action against Jews who do to mosques what anti- Semites did to our synagogues not that long ago, possess the courage of which this holiday is a reminder? Will we, like the Maccabees, take our country back before it’s too late?

It’s hard to know. So far, it seems we are so desperately afraid of our external enemies that we’ll support at all costs a government that just watches as the country rots from within.

At moments like this, it’s hard not to think about the Altalena affair. Tragic though it was, it was the defining moment at which Ben-Gurion made it clear to all that there would be one central authority in the Jewish state. Those who sought to subvert it would be treated in accordance with what they were – threats to the state’s very existence. One prays that some progress can be made here without the use of force. But if it cannot, it’s worth remembering that we once had a prime minister who knew what had to be done.

But then, of course, it’s been a very long time since we’ve had a leader with that character, that confidence, those deeply held commitments. These days, with Hanukka reminding us of the enormous power of convictions, it would be nice to have some leadership with any principles at all.

About Daniel Gordis

Dr. Daniel Gordis is Senior Vice President and the Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. The author of numerous books on Jewish thought and currents in Israel, and a recent winner of the National Jewish Book Award, Dr. Gordis was the founding dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism.

19 Comments on "Before We Preach to Israelis Living Abroad"

  • Betty Ann says

    Then again, I’m not so sure I’d use the Maccabees as a shining example of the fight for religious pluralism!

  • David Sager says

    Dear Daniel, The abolitionists and the white support for civil rights, always knew that they were supporting and fighting for people who wanted their support and fought themselves for the same rights. In Israel I am not sure that orthodox women are supporting the movement to allow them to sit on the bus where they want, sing at army ceremonies etc. They will need to rise up on their own, or at least show some serious mobilization, to get the government to act.
    I think that if the orthodox women did organize and start to fight, that it would ignite a wave of support throughout the Israeli secular community that make it impossible for any government not to move on the issue. As to the violence against Mosques it is appalling and embarrassing that the most forceful action is not taken and the most unconditional condemnation not made by the government in these cases.

    David Sager
    Highland Park

  • Barry Berger says

    Dear Professor Gordis (Daniel),

    Many of us would see your article as “required reading” and as reflecting our own views and concerns. Thank you!

    The question of course, is what to do about it? You allude to the need for leadership, but I wonder if you see any such person or party on the horizon with whom we could rally? The interim goal might be to have a coalition of political parties that represent “sane Zionism” without the need or pressure to include fringe elements whether of the religious bent or other.

    Your essay raises, albeit indirectly, the more general question of what we mean by a “Jewish State of Israel”. Indeed, you have addressed this issue in the past. I believe this dialogue is the crux of the dilemma, and encompasses all that you raise in your current essay.

    In earlier phases of our history, the concept of a Jewish State was intuitively understood, if not defined. We have lost the meaning … and for some, even the ideal.

    Even sadder, some don’t even understand the question, and reply in knee jerk fashion that the raison d’être of a Jewish State of Israel is simply to “keep Jews safe”. Objectively, there are safer repositories for “Jewish genes” than Israel.

    Until we internalize the real meanings of “Jewish State” , our spiritual link to Israel, and indeed, to the Jewish People is fragile (at best) …even debatable (at worst). Certainly, this overall issue is central to the headline and to the specific points raised in your JP essay, “Before We Preach to Israelis Living Abroad.”

    Thank you (as always) for your important work.


    Barry Berger (Barry)
    Kiryat Tivon

  • Laurie Siegel says

    Ill take my cukes and bananas uncut too and I’ll sit next to you on the bus Danny! Yesher koach great article love to you and Batsheva

  • Shoel says

    If you had me at “hello”, Daniel, you lost me at “Altalena”. Not only is the “Golden Cannon” (as Ben Gurion called the tool he used to give substance to “that character, that confidence, those deeply held commitments”) not an acceptable model for a democracy, but the characterization of the whole affair as a response to subversion and to a threat to the state’s existence is a misreading of history. In the same Jerusalem Post edition as this column, Sarah Honig gives pre-state examples of Ben Gurion and his colleagues enforcing their deeply held commitments. A half hour sitdown with Ms. Honig on the events leading up to the sinking of the Altalena may be helpful.

  • Joan Florsheim says

    Danny, This article is brilliant, as always, but even more so. It is good to see the realistic observations about the negatives in a country you and I love with all of our hearts,

  • Thanks so much for this article. I was thinking of the recent colloquium discussion and greatly appreciate your thoughtful input there and here.


  • Danny,

    A terrific article! However, as Betty Ann notes above, much as I love Chanukah, I have heard (and I am no expert) that the Maccabees were more like the Taliban than the Freedom Riders during the US Civil Rights movement.

    Shabbat Shalom!


  • You write: “… it’s hard not to think about the Altalena affair. Tragic though it was, it was the defining moment at which Ben-Gurion made it clear to all that there would be one central authority in the Jewish state.”

    That is a mischaracterization of the event. What it did define was B-G’s willigness, again, to use force to achieve power. His reps met Begin and other Irgun leaders, concluded an agreement and then B-G turned in around. You have displayed a total misunderstanding of the affair and contribute to the mythology of B-G preventing a putsch. The tragedy was B-G’s manipulation and treachery.

  • Stephen Hoffman says


    This is an excellent article, which shows that all those who are proud zionists, should stand up to the values of Pluralism, which make Israel a light upon the nations. If we don’t Israel will become a theocracy like a lot of the rest of the Middle East and this is surely nobody in Israel wants.

    Some ideas to how Israel’s pluralistic society can be protected.

    1. Civil Marriages, Gay Marriages and those from non-orthodox backgrounds to be recognised
    2. Stop the Grunis law being passed- so the Supreme Court can do its job upholidng the Israeli Declaration of independence.
    3. Reform of the welfare system-so that Ultra orthodox are encouraged to work harder and serve in the army.
    4. More dialogue- putting people like Rabbi Michael Melchior in charge of this as he has the necessary level of support from both communities.
    5. Those who are involved in price tag attacks should be dealt with seriously as common criminals.
    6. Reform of the Tal Millitary law that breeds resentment.
    7. Creation of cross-judaism schools-similar to J-coss in the UK.
    8. Abandonment of the PR Political System which gives minority extremist groups far too much power to hold governments to ransom as part of the folly of coalition governments.
    9. Simply don’t include extremist parties like National Union in a coalition.

  • Sheila Novitz says

    Oh, wow. Thank you again, Daniel Gordis, for a brilliant article. I read a lot about Israel, but still have no true idea of the internal problems.

    “… as the country rots from within.” This is terrifying. I have always believed that, come what may, we will all pull together, that our niggling and sometimes ridiculous differences will not stand in the way of our behaving as a cohesive whole – especially in the face of world-wide ancient enmity against us.

    If we cannot remain close together as Jewish people, will we do the job all by ourselves that our enemies are trying so desperately to do? Will we destroy ourselves? I can’t even understand how this can be happening. I believe we are a smart, intelligent people. We have shown this for thousands of years, by the mere fact of our survival. This extreme religiosity, this fanatical hatred leading to destruction of others’ houses of worship, this utterly stupid separation of sexes – Is this US? These are not the Jewish people with whom I grew up, who formed warm and loving communities in spite of differences, after WWII.

    “… as the country rots from within” will stay with me tonight as I lie awake.

  • Rabbi Raphael Kanter says

    I may disagree with Danny Gordis on many things but at least his critiques, scathing as they can be, do not let Israel off easy. This is what needed to be said.

    Yasher Koach.

    Rafi Kanter

  • bobby says

    Dr. Gordis, your observations are necessary and important to the survival of Israel. And I’m sure it took courage to speak so publicly. But beware, those whom you criticize may decide that you are outside the tent, that is how legitimate criticism is dealt with these days.

  • stephen says


    This is the trouble with the Orthodox-it’s not enough they believe what they believe but they wish to have all believe as they do. What they can’t get right away they will get by increments. The fact that they had “The women of the wall” banned from doing their davening as they wished because it was distracting certainly was an indication fo that.
    How is it you’re so pious and devout in your prayers and yet you allow yourself to be distracted.
    I finished reading your excellent book “Saving Israel” and was dismayed to find out how much the younger Jews don’t know about our faith.
    I remember the story of the guy explaining he was leaving Judaism because it didn’t have the answers he wanted. The rabbi asked Ah you know the Talmud? No was the response. “Ah you know the Torah asked the Rabbi. “No” was the response. Ah said the Rabbi how can you reject what you don’t know? So yes we need to educate the youth well but not to force religious practice on anybody.

  • Sally Abrams says

    Dr. Gordis-

    Have you considered entering Israeli politics yourself? You should. Really. Your brand of thinking is desperately needed.

  • Stan Newman says

    Amazing article. And now we have the incident of an 8 year old ORTHODOX girl being spit on for dressing “immodestly” Taliban without guns. However we can’t paint all the Haredim & Hassidim with one brush. What we need are members of THAT community standing up. Doesn’t the Talmud say something about every man learning a skill in order to earn a living? Hasher Koach, Rabbi Doctor.

  • Shimona says

    “If women are allowed to drive, he said, in 10 years’ time the kingdom will have no virgins left. “The virgin dearth,” I guess we could call it.”

    I can understand his concern, can’t you? The supply of willing suicide bombers would surely dry up;-)

  • Marc Friedman says

    Dear Daniel:

    I am a little purturbed that you have fallen into the anti-Israel, anti-religious, anti-semitic style of writing. Your usualy clear thinking has disappeared behind your obvious bias just like the Europeans when they write about us.

    I am an American college educated haredi Jew living in Jerusalem. I may be lenient in certain areas and I may be strict in others, but in either case I try and understand where the other is coming from. Kol Isha, a woman’s voice, is a serious halachic issue. You want to be lenient? Fine. But to force others? How can you wonder why I do not want to send my children into the army considering what is going on? You dare stand on the side of insensitivity when we are talking about a woman on a bus or the poor female singing soldiers-but what of the boy who was brought up not to hear woman singing? Can you not find it in yourself to be sensitive towards him? Or will you endorse the army’s ruling to make his presence manditory? For shame!
    Do you really mean to tell me that I cannot put in ear plugs, I cannot put fingers in my ears, I cannot leave, I must stay and live like you want me to? Who is being oppressive here? Who is imposing what upon whom?

    And what is wrong with separate seating if people want it? Why does that irk you so? I did not make a big deal out of anything, but when we met at a wedding teh other week-I did not tell you of how uncomfortable I was with teh mixed dancing that was going on-I made a choice to attend the wedding. But can you not allow that others think and feel differently than you?

    You used to.

  • mk says

    Funny… I don’t know about the rest of this article, but I’ve been living in Karmiel for years, and the Employment office is most certainly not separate. You hardly even notice the haredi community here.

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