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Why the sudden fears of an Israeli civil war?

Thousands of Israeli protesters rally against the government's judicial overhaul bills, in Tel Aviv on Feb. 25, 2023.(Photo: Gili Yaari/Flash90)

If you think about it, secular Jews have lived peaceably side by side with religious Jews since the inception of the nation. They’ve shared the same neighborhoods, shops, and sidewalks, and have been civil and respectful to one another, despite a host of huge ideological differences between them.

So why do 58%, according to an article in the Jerusalem Post, fear there will be a civil war in Israel? It is exactly because, throughout Israel’s 75-year history, each group has recognized that forcing the other to adopt their position will not achieve any sincere or desired goal. Ironically, although the divide has always been massive between the secular and the religious, there was the unspoken understanding of a “live and let live” type of philosophy that has been responsible for keeping the peace and allowing for the co-existence of the two.

Take, for example, the area of Sheinkin Street near Tel Aviv’s trendy Carmel market. A visit to the area will reveal minimally-clad women, many sporting short shorts and midriff tops, alongside maximally-clad men, wearing full-length black coats and hats, even in the hottest of temperatures.

No one has any illusions that each of these societal sectors isn’t aware of the other’s presence, and, up until now, no one has thought too much about it since everyone viewed it as an accepted fact of diverse lifestyles in the big city. Now suddenly all that has changed. Why? And who is responsible?

What has changed in Israel that civil war has become a real fear?

Ever since a preponderance of extreme right-wing, ultra-Orthodox groups made their way into the present governmental coalition, these individuals, who are a mix of political ideologues and religiously intolerant of others, have decided that now is the time to foist their viewpoints on the entire nation, by turning their personal positions into law.

This is what has made all the difference, because, for the first time, there is a perceived threat to no longer allow Israelis to live as they have chosen, believe as they wish, and observe or fail to observe whatever they want, as it relates to the Jewish faith.

Despite years of an ultra-Orthodox presence within various government coalitions, this is the first time that although they don’t necessarily make up the coalition majority, they have, nonetheless, been granted the power to enact the laws they want, something which has always been blocked until now. Given the green light by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, these different religious parties are only too anxious to crack down on the “unfaithful,” who they see as being a threat to the perpetuation of Jewish character and expression in the homeland.

Consequently, these zealots have targeted such societal sectors as education, the military, the judiciary, the Interior Ministry, budgetary matters, and most everything else that can benefit the ultra-Orthodox while, at the same time, leaving out and disenfranchising the secular, who make up the overwhelming majority of the country.

Their idea of “the perfect Israel” would include new dress codes, strict observance of Shabbat, holidays, and full religious affiliation. It would also include a military where women no longer serve in combat units. In fact, women, as has been said by them, have a specifically designed place and function to which they should remain devoted. That would not include breaking any glass ceilings. 

In this world, only the “real faithful” would be granted the right to citizenship, and, if they had their way, children who only have one Jewish parent would probably not have equal rights and access to immigrate to Israel. As things stand right now, a child is only acknowledged as Jewish if the mother is Jewish. Paternal lines are immaterial, despite the biblical contradiction that recognizes the father’s heritage as opposed to that of the mother’s. 

The grandchild clause, which allows the grandchild of one Jewish grandparent to be eligible for immigration, would be swiftly removed from the Law of Return, and those from Russia, as well as Ukraine, who claim Jewish bloodlines, but who don’t necessarily follow Judaism, would not gain entrance despite the perilous situation of their war-torn countries.

In short, massive changes would be made to the only Jewish homeland in the world, making it a more exclusive and narrowly defined place where doors are open only to those who have “earned” the respect of the very religious.

Herein lies the reason for today’s bitter split of the Israeli people. The country has been effectively hijacked by a small but powerful group of ideologues who are only too anxious to put an end to the pluralistic and diverse population that has filled the country and made it into a place where everyone can feel welcome, no matter how observant or non-observant. It is no wonder that Israelis, suddenly, sense that a heavy cloud of coercion is hanging over their heads, and they don’t like it.

It’s one thing to stand on street corners and hand out religious literature, to cars waiting for the red light to turn green, but it’s another thing to legislate that no cars run, at all, on Shabbat. Lost to them is the fact that our people suffered, for millennia, by individuals who sought to force their religious persuasion upon us, to the point of exile or burning us at the stake. It didn’t work well then, and it won’t work well now.

People want to be free to make their own choices, to come to their own insights of faith, and to express themselves without fear of being lawbreakers who deserve punishment. It is those attributes that they believe are worth fighting to preserve, because, without them, everything is forced, contrived, and meaningless. 

This is what is responsible for the hundreds of thousands who pour into the streets and highways of Israel each weekend and now mid-week.

The more Israelis are pushed and browbeaten into a system that seeks to repress and strong-arm their will as well as take away their freedoms and choices, 58% of them will feel the intimidation of theocratic politicians who, ordinary citizens, believe are dragging us into a civil war, not of our making, but rather that of extreme actors who have not learned the sad lessons of their own history.

This article originally appeared in The Jerusalem Post, Aug. 3, 2023, and is reposted with permission.

A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.

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