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Wednesday, July 08, 2009

A rant delayed

You may recall two related items from my birthday list that went as follows:

5.  I love spotting religious Jews in Tel Aviv.
6.  I love spotting secular Jews in Jerusalem, too.  Maybe more so. 

When I wrote those two things I was focused on the tensions in Jerusalem between the Haredi population and the city government that was trying to keep a parking lot open to accommodate secular tourists who want to visit the capital on Shabbat.

Personally, I have a big problem with Jews enforcing religious observance upon other Jews.  That having been said, I have an equally big problem with Jews in the only Jewish country in the world being forced to violate Jewish law (i.e. work on the sabbath, eat non-kosher food, etc.).

Clearly it is impossible to create a societal norm where no Jew will have to work on the sabbath if businesses are routinely open on that day. 

Yes, one can argue that it is a matter of free choice and employees can opt to work on shabbat or not according to their personal beliefs.  But we all know that in a free market economy, employers can bring pressures to bear on employees to work when they might otherwise not want to... and employees faced with a choice of adhering to religious law or meeting their family's financial needs may opt for the immediate reward rather than the eternal one.

Where it is less cut and dried is in matters that deal with the 'character' of particular neighborhoods and the right of religious and secular people to feel 'at home' in the neighborhoods where they live. 

This cuts to the heart of what I meant in those two lines above.  I firmly believe that while a strictly religious or non-religious neighborhood might seem desirable from the standpoint of avoiding conflict between people with diverging priorities... it is a recipe for national dis-chord.

You see, it is human nature for a person to be at home with whatever lifestyle choices one makes for him/herself.  However, this means that those who make different lifestyle choices are naturally going to be viewed in a negative way.  But if those 'different people' are friends, or even acquaintances that you see every day, it is harder to think ill of them than if they are strangers living in another neighborhood or town.

This goes back to one of my favorite analogies about driving:

Pretty much everyone thinks they are a good driver (or at least above average).  So as a result we all consider those who zip past us on the highway 'maniacs', and those in front of us impeding our progress are 'idiots'.  The same goes for politics and religion.  We are so completely sure of the choices we make in these areas, that we quite naturally view the choices made by others as suspect (often in the extreme).

So while there have always been communities in Israel that were exclusively religious or exclusively secular, the majority of urban and suburban neighborhoods were mixed to some extent... even if they may lean predominantly one way or the other.

But in the wake of the sabbath protests in Jerusalem over the opening of a tourist parking lot, there was also a recent news article that probably went largely un-noticed by most.  It was about the predominantly secular community of Ramat Aviv getting up in arms over the recent influx of religious Jews, and the perception that this would somehow force religious observance upon them and their children.

The contentions in this case are summed up in these quotes from the article:

Over the past few years, Chabad [Lubavitch] members have begun renovating public buildings and institutions in Ramat Aviv. A movie theater was converted into a kollel. Billionaire Lev Leviev, who is observant and owns the Ramat Aviv Mall, ensured it would be closed on Shabbat. And a center belonging to the Histadrut Labor Federation now functions as a Chabad kindergarten..

These changes have raised concern with the city's secular residents, with a single issue at the center of the debate: the character of the neighborhood.

The ultra-Orthodox "come with [a] purpose, they are well organized, and they have a target - the secular Israeli public," MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) tells The Jerusalem Post.

"I'm not against someone who is religious, as long as they don't force their practices on me," says Dani Borten, a superintendent at the Alliance High School in Ramat Aviv, speaking on his own behalf, not the school's. "Now, in the neighborhood, I can see tensions starting. If we don't do something, there will be problems."
Tel Aviv-Jaffa council member Tamar Zandberg (Meretz) says there is no demand in the neighborhood for the facilities that the haredi community has opened. "What they are doing is definitely part of a bigger purpose," she says.
In another time and place these accusations would have been accompanied by loaded phrases like 'block busting'  and 'those people'.  But from what I can gather, the primary concern among many secular residents of Ramat Aviv is that they and their children will be subject to pressures to become more religious (as if such a thing were possible). 
One example cited in the article is the practice of Lubavitch of setting up tables near the schools and shopping centers and encouraging passers by to put on Tefillin.
What they fail to recognize is that nobody is forcing people to put on tefillin, any more than secular kids handing out flyers for a club or non-kosher restaurant are forcing religious people to attend.  It may make some uncomfortable to be confronted with religious Jews encouraging religious observance... but how is that different from the influence that immodestly clad secular people have on religious communities?  Is a glimpse of a bare belly or a bit of cleavage going to force religious kids away from observance?  It shouldn't.
To be sure, the siren call of 'the other' cuts both ways in an open society.  People are constantly 'switching sides'... choosing to become more or less observant based on the things they experience in their daily lives.  Not only does the grass often seem greener in someone else's yard... but young adults are especially prone to changing paths in order to exert their independenc and/or piss off their parents. 
So yes, I could see why parents of both camps would be worried about the influence that might come from close proximity to 'the others'.
But one can't simultaneously complain about religious Jews sequestering themselves in ghettos where the secular folks are not welcome, and also complain when the Religious people come out of their ghettos and try to move into secular areas... bringing with them the basic educational and religious facilities they need in order to feel at home.
I have a lot more to say on the subject, but I'm curious to see how some of you feel about this topic.
[As always, I would caution everyone to be sensitive to the diversity of people who read this blog and who might want to participate in the discussion.]

Posted by David Bogner on July 8, 2009 | Permalink


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Not the same. The secular residents of RA are reacting to what they see going on in Jerusalem. 'Those people' have proven themselves - for many years - as wanting to enforce their way of life onto others. RA residents want to be free to wear what they like and drive when they want without fear of harassment. They do not want to force the religious to become secular.
The religious zealots, on the other hand, clearly want to force others to conform to their modes of behaviour.

Posted by: cyberdov | Jul 8, 2009 3:37:24 PM

There was a case in the late '90's involving the building of a Chabad School in Rehovot on a parcel across a large street from a new, secular, neighbourhood. Planning permission had been given long before the new apartment blocks went up, and there had been a sign announcing the project on the site for years. Am Chofshi took the case to the High Court to stop the school. The same High Court that has no problem with Jews and Arabs living together took judicial notice from the bench that secular and religious Jews cannot live in the same neighbourhood.

Posted by: The Observer | Jul 8, 2009 4:14:27 PM

cyberdov... Color me disappointed. I'll have to go back and see if maybe my sense of your past comments was wrong, but I had been under the impression that you were a fairly reasonable person. Did you not read my last line? By saying 'those people' you are painting the entire religious community with a very broad brush (something I admit have occasionally done to both the secular and religious as well). But the residents of Mea Shearim are not Lubavitchers (for the most part), and I think you are sorely mistaken if you think that there are no zealots among the secular community. Just read the underlying invective in the two comments attributed to Meretz members in the article I quoted. Please feel free to take a second pass at this topic, but try to use some judgement and restraint if you do.

The Observer... Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. This is one of the reasons I am so in favor of mixed neighborhoods and the various populations in Israel knowing one another on a personal level rather than as 'those people'. Bare midriffs and tefillin never killed anyone... but the same can't be said for intolerance.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jul 8, 2009 5:02:14 PM

Bare midriffs and tefillin never killed anyone... but the same can't be said for intolerance.

As we are rapidly approaching the 3 weeks (period between 17th Tammuz and the 9th of Av commemorating the destruction of the first and second Temples), it bears repeating that it was sinat chinam (baseless hatred) which caused the destruction of our Temple and led to our exile....

I'm just sayin'....

Posted by: zahava | Jul 8, 2009 5:12:18 PM

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court was right. Integration of the diametrically opposed groups is impossible in Israel; modern, secularist lifestyles inevitably create resentment among the ultra-orthodox, and vice versa. In the twenties, Ben Gurion organized a rally in Warsaw, and the placards read "A Death-Blow to Orthodoxy!" And the riots in Jerusalem about Sabbath observance, which were preceded by riots about autopsies and archeological digs, emphasize the adamant unwillingness of that group to "live and let live." The only hope for Israel is communities like yours, but I don't know if the soil of the Middle East can nurture that exotic plant called tolerance. I look forward to one of your readers proposing something that will lift this gloomy cloud.

Posted by: Barzilai | Jul 8, 2009 5:13:39 PM

Ahh, but does seeing religious Jews move in causes secular ones the same anguish as seeing violations of Shabbos causes to Orthodox Jews? Somehow I do not think so.

Posted by: Henya | Jul 8, 2009 5:45:28 PM

As usual, the media blows this issue way out of proportion. The vast majority of secular Israelis have no problem living in the same neighborhood as the Haredim. I'm secular, and I've been living in a "mixed" neighborhood in Jerusalem for the last 7 years. I've never had any problems with my Haredi neighbors on religious grounds. Most of them are very friendly and generous people, and the issues that have come up are much more banal (and much less interesting to see on 8pm news), such as parking space, paying the gardener and dealing with barking dogs.

On the other hand I've never felt the need to drive around the neighborhood or make noise on the shabbat. Not out of "religious coercion" but out of courtesy and respect. It's a very small price to pay for good relations with ones neighbors, and for people who are unwilling to make such minimal compromises, I'd suggest that the problem lies with them and not with the Haredim. Of the many problems that exist in this city, the supposed conflict between the secular and the religious is the one that bothers me the least. In fact, if it wasn't for the media I wouldn't even be aware that such a problem exists.

Posted by: Avi | Jul 8, 2009 6:29:31 PM

Your driving analogy brings to mind my oft-repeated explanation of the "three levels of religious observance." I almost always get a puzzled look when I explain that there are three and only three. And then I explain.

Holding my hand up high, I say "there are the fanatics." Lowering my hand, I add "and then there are the heretics." Finally, placing my hand at a medium height, I note "and then there's YOU -- exactly at the right level of observance."



Posted by: Drew | Jul 8, 2009 6:32:48 PM

In a perfect world, freedom of choice and tolerance would carry the day. Some (most?) people like living amongst others that look & act similarly; others don't. Extremists on both sides want homogeneity. Tensions often arise when there is a perception the "the other," whether religious or secular, is actively evangelizing or flaunting.

Posted by: Ari | Jul 8, 2009 6:34:14 PM

But we all know that in a free market economy, employers can bring pressures to bear on employees to work when they might otherwise not want to... and employees faced with a choice of adhering to religious law or meeting their family's financial needs may opt for the immediate reward rather than the eternal one.
Do you realize that were it not for the words about religion, you would sound like a French socialist? :-)
Maybe I need to explain that at th emoment French MPs are debating whether shops should be open or not on Sundays. As A jew I like the fact that I can buy food on Sunday mornings but (as a Jew again) I understand the need for a day of rest.
To go back to your topic, French Lubavitchers (I don't know any others) make me cringe and are not exactly the most tolerant of people, even (particularly ?) towards their fellow Jews.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Jul 8, 2009 7:13:31 PM

I wonder if the cyberdovs outnumber the Avis and Aris in Jerusalem.
Avi, what concessions do you think a secular Jew ought to make to not offend his Ultra neighbors? Would you discourage a daughter from dressing in a halter top going for a walk? Would you make a barbecue on Tisha Ba'av? I'm not asking in a confrontational way. I just wonder what you do to make your neighborhood a friendly place to live and what you would consider kefiyah datit, religious compulsion.

Posted by: Barzilai | Jul 8, 2009 8:00:01 PM

As is so often true, I see this as a macro vs micro issue; how I think the world should be vs how I live my life.

For instance, I think that antibiotics are over prescribed and we're headed for an era of drug-resistant super bugs. But if I have strep, or my kid has an ear infection, I want antibiotics and I want them now.

Similarly for mixed vs homogeneous neighborhoods. I believe that the Israeli practise of separating ourselves into like-thinking communities is terribly destructive - chareidim there, chilonim there, Ethiopians there, Russians there, ad infinitum.

But when my family made aliyah we deliberately chose to move to Efrat because of that homogeneity - Efrat is a "grown-up" community, it's not a community in transition. It is what it is, unlike towns like Bet Shemesh and Modiin which are still developing - and are thus experiencing the tensions of different interest groups pushing for their point of view.

Chareidim wishing to impose right-wing norms on us don't move to Efrat; nor do chilonim who want to develop a non-observant culture here. We are what we are.

It was extremely appealing to us to move to a town with a strong, healthy, and dominant dati leumi outlook, particularly since we came from a small town (in terms of an observant Jewish community) where constant struggles over philosophy led to three Orthodox minyans in a town that can really only support one.

So do I think Israelis should live in mixed neighborhoods? Yes, absolutely. Was I willing to raise my children in such a community? Nope, not something I'm willing to do. So where does that leave us?

Posted by: Andy Levy-Stevenson | Jul 8, 2009 8:28:54 PM

Once upon a time, I (female) shared a Jerusalem apartment with two (male) flatmates. The common elements of the apartment (kitchen, dining room, living room) were Shabbat-friendly. The kitchen was kosher and included a Shabbat urn (purchased by me, the most secular of the trio). The TV and lights remained off on Shabbat. However, what someone did in their own room - work on their computer or listen to music using earphones, for example - was their affair. We equitably divided Pesach cleaning, and no one kept tabs on the other people to see if they went to shul or ate in non-kosher restaurants. We shared a respect for and familiarity with Jewish tradition and a willingness to make this work.

Very few of our friends and colleagues could wrap their heads around the way the apartment functioned. The religious could not imagine men and women in the same apartment; the secular could not imagine keeping the lights and the TV off and not cooking on Shabbat.

Which is a lengthy preamble to saying that it seems to me that positive religious-secular relations can happen on a small scale. I doubt they can work for an entire country, particularly where religion is inextricably bound with politics.

Posted by: Mich | Jul 8, 2009 9:06:43 PM

@Henya - you wrote: "does seeing religious Jews move in causes secular ones the same anguish as seeing violations of Shabbos causes to Orthodox Jews? Somehow I do not think so."

I'm curious: why don't you think so? In both cases a group feels that its way of life has been threatened, and that if they allow this violation then life will never be the same and things will only get worse. I may not see either group's feelings as valid, but I have no reason to doubt the depth of emotion or the intensity of the anger.

Posted by: Mich | Jul 8, 2009 9:17:49 PM

When I visited Israel three years ago, I spent a Shabbos at a (Dati Leumi) friend's house in Modiin. When I asked what caused them to move there, as opposed to various other cities in Israel, my friend cited the homogeneity of the city's inhabitants. "I may be shomer shabbat," he said, "but I want my kids to know that most chilonim are good people too."

Hopefully, that's the sentiment that will prevail over the next few years. On both sides of the religious spectrum.

Posted by: psachya | Jul 8, 2009 10:08:53 PM

psachya... I think you (or your friend) meant heterogeneity.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jul 8, 2009 10:22:34 PM

I have a rather indelicate question for Andy, and it doesn't really belong on this thread, but I've nowhere else to put it for now. Andy, where is the "second best" place (after Efrat) using the criteria you mentioned for your family (or mine, as we are likely quite similar)?

[It's indelicate because I am, in essence, asking about where a like minded person might choose to live if Israel c"v decides to hand Efrat to the Arabs someday]

Posted by: Mark | Jul 8, 2009 11:52:12 PM

Barzilai: Avi, what concessions do you think a secular Jew ought to make to not offend his Ultra neighbors? Would you discourage a daughter from dressing in a halter top going for a walk? Would you make a barbecue on Tisha Ba'av?

First of all, I'm not saying what secular Jews should or should not do. What I am saying is that I believe that most secular Jews share some measure of respect and understanding of the Orthodox way of life, and this allows them to coexist peacefully with the Haredim. From personal experience it is not really that hard, and requires just a minimal amount of consideration and goodwill for ones neighbors. As for people who make barbecues on tisha baav and others who enjoy making provocations to spite the Haredim, they are the ones making the news (literally and figuratively), with the help of the fanatics on the other side. They would probably find it intolerable to live where I live. But they are the minority, and their business with the Haredim is their own. It does not reflect the reality of day to day life in Jerusalem.

I cannot honestly answer your second question (which is a difficult one) because I do not have a daughter. But I believe that in this issue, just like in everything else, it wouldn't be very difficult to find some sort of resolution, as long as one is inclined to search for a resolution instead of searching for conflict.

Posted by: Avi | Jul 9, 2009 12:57:25 AM

Trep -
Right you are! That's what happens when I try using words of more than three syllables. My bad. :S

Posted by: psachya | Jul 9, 2009 4:27:12 AM

Avi, thanks. I think that's what civilized society most requires: an inclination
"to search for a resolution instead of searching for conflict."

Posted by: Barzilai | Jul 9, 2009 5:57:05 PM

There's an irony in unwillingness of the less observant to accept the results of their lifestyle. By having fewer children, their classrooms and schools empty out. It's not financially viable to support empty schools. Religious people have more children, overcrowding their schools. Why build more buildings when there are empty ones. So secular schools must consolidate.
It's called supply and demand, a western freedom. To oppose it is to be totalitarian...

Posted by: Batya from Shiloh | Jul 10, 2009 12:59:38 PM

As an American, just replace the word Black for Chabad and see how this story reads. The secular Jews are the ones with the irrational fears here - and what are they so afraid of? That they can't dress immodesty on the street? That they might have to be considerate of someone else's feelings? You've got to be kidding? Talk about pathetic!

Posted by: nr | Jul 10, 2009 9:32:20 PM

@Batya from Shiloh - One could phrase it differently: there's an irony in the unwillingness of the more observant to accept the results of their lifestyle. By having more children, they overcrowd their classrooms, then expect to receive ready-made buildings from the secular population as a solution.

Empty schools can be converted to community or senior centers. They can also torn down and the land re-zoned for residential or commercial use, or even a much needed green space. Just because a building was once a school does not mean it has to remain so forever and ever.

Posted by: Mich | Jul 10, 2009 9:33:40 PM

Mich ... Maybe I'm missing something, but I don't get your last comment. Having children is everyone's right. We pay taxes so that our children can have a quality education. Last time I checked there was no limit placed on the number of children a family can have. If a school system is overcrowded it is incumbent on the municipality to ensure that proper facilities are provided. If the religious schools are bursting at the seams and the secular ones are empty, that is the result of personal choices and the municipalities can be forgiven for allocating resources where they are needed. That, after all, is their job.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jul 12, 2009 12:21:23 AM

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