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Rise of the Radical Rabbis: Jewish Extremists Pose Strategic Threat to Israel's Liberal Values

By James Sunshine Posted: 02/09/2012
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In 2011, a Middle Eastern religious leader, Elyakim Levanon, announced that believers were better off facing a firing squad than listening to women sing. A year earlier, this same man banned women from taking part in the democratic process. Last November, a follower of Levanon spat on an 8-year-old girl walking with her mother to school for wearing immodest clothing.

One would naturally expect such decrees from Mullahs, Ayatollahs and fanatics in Iran. But no. This happened in democratic Israel and both men were ultra-orthodox, or Haredi, Jews.

The Haredi community, once a small community, comprising no more than 3 percent of the national population, has more than doubled in thirty years and may, with the generous help of tax payers, double still within the next decade. The majority of Haredi males do not work or serve in the army; instead, they study at the Yeshiva and receive government welfare.

The average Israeli adult will have two or three children; Haredi adults have as many as seven to ten. According to Israel’s own Central Bureau of Statistics, roughly one fifth of Israelis between 18 and 35 identify as ultra-orthodox. These Haredi children do not receive basic courses in math and science. Instead, their learning is isolated to Torah study, insuring that they will be as dependent on the patronage and handouts dolled out by the Rabbis as their parents are.

In recent months, Jews have woken up to discover that Haredi extremists have slowly begun a process that will eliminate Israel’s status as the most gender neutral society that exists in the Middle East. Even in the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods, women used to be allowed some degree of freedom. But now the practice of forcing women to pray, walk and ride buses separately are rigorously enforced, even in observantly mixed neighborhoods, by rabbinically ordained modesty patrols.

The practices are sexist, cruel, undemocratic and, most importantly, not Jewish. Yet, liberal Israel has let it happen without a fight.

Liberal societies have always found it difficult to identify where to draw the line, and to determine that any behavior is unacceptable. In many ways, this is a good thing for the individual. It protects him or her from being harassed because they pray or dress in a certain way.

But tolerance in excess permits the development of parallel, illiberal values. What can only be described as criminal activity is subsidized, literally and figuratively, by an overly tolerant state dedicated to preserving national unity as well as the dignity of particular communities, even when it comes at the detriment of others.

In recent years, we have woken up to the fact that fundamentalists plague secular Christians and Muslims communities alike. The vast majority of Jews, meanwhile, have slept. They have slept while men like Rabbi Levanon preach to a growing number of yeshiva students about their superiority in the eyes of God, the dangers of making an honest living and the threats posed by 8-year-old girls.

But no religion is immune to the forces of religious fanaticism, even one that was once dominated by members who could easily be labeled as anti-religious.

Most of us have looked towards the uncertain resolution of Iran’s nuclear program when predicting Israel’s fate. But Israel’s enemies are not the Mullahs in Tehran. Nor does it come from the men with black hats who are corrupting the religion they so fervently observe, or the degenerate, radical rabbis who lead them.

Israel’s fate is put into question by the secular liberals in the society who are quietly permitting their own destruction. The secular Israelis who seem unable or unwilling to simply say “no, that’s wrong,” or give strength to the rational Haredi, harm themselves by their own silence.

Unless liberal societies draw a line, they risk being taken over by liberal groups. Whether they wear a keffiyeh, a cross or a black hat, religious extremists all pose a serious and unacceptable threat to any society they are present within. The Muslim world has had experience with these fanatics, in the deaths of their citizens, all in the name of establishing a Caliphate governed by a harsh form of Sharia. Israel, today, is discovering just how hard it is to stop a unified and dedicated cult.

While the Haredi extremists may not be blowing up busses, they are still corrupting the state and the religion. Every day Israelis, who know it is wrong, yet still condone the assault of 8-year-old girls, delay in enforcing limits on the zealots, who would see a Rabbinical Theocracy grow stronger, bolder and more numerous.

Former Editorials Editor James Sunshine is a College junior from Boca Raton, Fla.

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