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A call to support the Orthodox majority opposing extremism

In the struggle within the Orthodox Jewish community between reactionaries who use Judaism as a weapon against democracy, and modernists whose worldview is based on integrating the two, the reactionaries have been the dominant voice – but the silent majority is starting to raise its own.

By Rachel Liel

It cannot be easy to be a modern Orthodox Jew in Israel today, not when leading voices in the community are calling for Israel to reject the modern, democratic world.

The latest such declaration came from Benny Katsover, an “elder statesman” of the West Bank settler movement. “The main role of Israeli democracy now is to disappear. Israeli democracy has finished its role, and it must disassemble and give way to Judaism,” Katsover told a publication of the Chabad movement’s messianic wing. His statements were reprinted prominently in the popular right-wing Orthodox website kipa.co.il.

Katsover was immediately seconded by a far more influential figure within the Orthodox community, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, the rabbi of the Samaria region. “It is clear to everyone that Israeli democracy is bankrupt,” he told kipa.co.il. “The vision of a halachic state (ruled by Jewish law) is one of the things we believe will come about in the future, may it be in our lifetime, and put this country right.”

Contending that most Supreme Court judges are “far from the spirit of ‘grandfather Israel’ and halacha,” (Jewish law) Levanon went to say that until democracy gives way to halacha, “Part of fulfilling the vision of the halachic state is to work toward fixing the Supreme Court and appointing more judges who are suitable and close to Jewish tradition.”

Surprising? It shouldn’t be. At the end of 2009, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, the key figure behind moves in the Knesset to change the make-up of the Supreme Court, said: “Step by step, we will bestow upon the citizens of Israel the law of the Torah, and we will turn halacha into the binding law of the nation.” Neeman was speaking at a Jerusalem conference on halacha attended by many of the country’s most revered rabbis, and was warmly applauded.

All this is chilling enough for secular or nominally religious people to hear. But for modern Orthodox Jews who are trying to live simultaneously in their community and the wider world, such words must be especially intimidating.

There are so many Orthodox Jews who are also dismayed by these calls to dismantle democracy and institute halachic law. There are so many organizations made up of Orthodox Jews who shudder at the idea of imposing their religious beliefs on Israeli society, and who are fighting the efforts by Orthodox extremists to do so.

In his interview, Katsover also claimed that the campaign against the ultra-Orthodox drive to exclude women from the public sphere was a plot by the Left to “incite” against Judaism. “The leftist activists prepare well-timed campaigns against anything that smacks of holiness… The media campaigns over insignificant issues in order to undermine Jewish identity,” he said.

This would be news to the family of eight-year-old Na’ama Margolese of Beit Shemesh, who was traumatized by ultra-Orthodox fanatics and became the symbol of the movement against the exclusion and intimidation of women in public. The Margoleses are a modern Orthodox family. Orot, the girls’ school attended by Na’ama that is the object of the Beit Shemesh fanatics’ fury, is a public (state-supported) religious school.

Furthermore, a glance at a video that recently went viral – a “flash mob” of some 200 Beit Shemesh women dancing to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” – shows that many of the dancers’ heads are covered. The flash mob’s organizers were a team of Orthodox, traditional and secular Beit Shemesh women.

There is a struggle going on within the Orthodox Jewish community, a struggle between reactionaries who use Judaism as a weapon against democracy, and modernists whose worldview is based on integrating the two.

For too long, the reactionaries have been the dominant voice of Orthodox Jewry in Israel, and they’re becoming more and more extreme. However, the silent majority in the community is beginning to assert itself, to stand up to intimidation, to raise its voice.

They are fighting for democracy in Israel with great bravery against very powerful forces. They deserve the notice, admiration and support of all Israelis.

Rachel Liel is the Director of the New Israel Fund, Jerusalem office

Disclaimer: In 2011, +972 received a grant that was administered through the American branch of the NIF.

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    1. Richard Witty

      There are dissenters within the movements that you cited as well.

      Habad has a surprising feminist element. One chabad rebettzin told a gathering that zi attended recently, that per Torah, in the messianic age, the women will be the leaders of the society.

      Although Torah is often quoted as being permanently the land of the Jews, it also states that land acquired without consent is stolen land and NOT suitable for shrines, even prayer.

      Sadly, Torah invocations are selected for personal or collective personal advantage.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Richard Witty

      Please resist the urge to declare all ultra-orthodox as reactionaries.

      Some are callous bastards. Some are the most compassionate on the planet.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Raanan Isseroff

      Dear Rachel,
      Orthodox Judaism is about as close to real democracy as you will get!!

      Forgive me, but your article has a few holes in it- (Or as the Russians say: “There is here, a leaky roof”)

      The problem here is simply, who is calling WHOM extreme.

      There are those in Israel who hide their disgusting (and perhaps illegal) actions of giving away the Jewish Land from under its owners feet to those who hate them and seek Jewish genocide.

      They hide this treachery by cloaking it in a garment they call “Peace”. A new never heard before definition of what “Peace” is.

      Well the Germans also had their “Peace Plan” too with the Jewish people. Today’s version is not too dissimilar in many respects…

      Then when citizens of a country get upset that they are legally being run off their land by a government gone mad, they are labeled by that government:

      Give me a break!

      Wasn’t it only a few short years ago that those who call others “extreme” were themselves advocating settling the Jewish Land of Israel?
      “Chalutz!” Didn’t most of them fight in 1948? 1956? 1967? Were they all “Extreme”?
      Are they all normal and we were crazy?

      Or is it that we were all on the same side at one time and now, today they have other ideas?

      Wasn’t Israel touted as: “The new Jewish Homeland”?

      Why is it that only now, when it is suddenly convenient to be cozier to the needs of America to the detriment of Israel’s citizenry, that because they choose to abandon their own campaigns based on safety for Jews and very real military concerns, so those who still patriotically follow the original path are now labeled “extreme”? (religious or not-)

      Nor does this label of extreme seem to apply to religious people, but anyone who opposes the new path?

      We are talking about legally acquired Israeli land. Forget G-d given for the moment. We are talking about Land bought from the Turks (there were never Palestinians) or won in wars in which Israel was attacked and the land was gained through acts of war which Israel did not initiate.

      As a newspaper in Israel ran the headline “Today, we are all settlers”, when they discovered Israel had made secret agreements to give away Jerusalem. Leaders in Jerusalem who had been on the “bash the settlers” side, suddenly to their dismay became: “Settlers”!

      Soon, it will be people in Tel Aviv and Haifa who will be called “extreme” and “Settlers” for cruelly opposing their governments charitable giveaway of their bought and paid-for land and homes to genocidal Arab Terrorists.

      There is another point. And that has nothing to do with Biblical claims, wars which gave us land (that we did not start) or land that we legally bought, much of it many years before 1948 or even 1920.

      That is, that today, Jews live in an area surrounded by fanatically genocidal cultures and countries. Countries led by leaders whose governments were trained by Nazi’s fleeing Germany after World War II.

      Countries who don’t hide their disgust for Jews and who have lived for centuries warring with each other over small philosophical differences within the Muslim religion that set them violently at odds with other.

      Now they are fellow Muslims.
      Jews however are a step lower than this.
      Further, Arab Nationalists have not hidden their genocidal intent even though Israeli peacemakers would like to sweep these “trifling differences” under the carpet. There is no “doubt” that this is the case. No military person will ever tell you otherwise.

      Every Jew ever put into their hands has been mutilated in the most horrible ways. The horrible mutilation (I am not sure if you are aware so I will avoid being explicit) of Mrs. Gavriel Holtzberg made even the coroner who examined her almost vomit.

      The cultures that surround Israel are people who routinely sexually torture their own. When they get hold of a Jew however…

      How can we expect as a Jewish nation to ever expect anything better from such people?

      So the real issue according to Jewish law is one of SAFETY. Is it now “fanatic” and “extreme” to advocate for Jewish safety?

      Would you, living during the Holocaust have called any Jew in Europe extreme for trying to defend his right to be alive?

      Israel today is not much different.
      There is no other place for Jews to go in the Middle East and there is no country that will make them feel welcome. Even America does not want a flood of Israel’s 5 million Jews as refugees. They don’t even want the few Israeli’s that manage to get visas to come here-

      Each inch of Land given brings enemy cannons and missiles ever closer. In October of last year it was shown how the enemy now has missile reach as over 60 Ketyusha’s and Grad missiles were fired on Israel from Gaza.

      This of itself plus Harvard studies prove that peace talks themselves for exchanges of land only bring more terror. In fact the talks themselves are used by Israel’s enemies to bring more military closer to Israel as each new “peaceful” border is established.

      Who ever heard of 2 countries making peace and then the other side moves its armies up to the now peaceful border?

      What if Canada would tomorrow put tanks and station troops on the American border?

      I submit that the word “extreme” is not the correct word here. “protesting” unfair acts of a government against its citizens can never be called “Extreme”. In America to label protest against violations of basic human rights and be called “extreme” would be called by ACLU and ADL: “Discrimination”.

      As such, there are many laws to protect against suppression of basic human rights that simply do not seem to apply in Israel today. Not even for it’s own Jewish citizens in the supposedly “Democratic” state of Israel…

      So perhaps Israel is not as Democratic as it appears to be…? And if it is not a democracy and perhaps borders on something of a dictatorship, so then your argument of “extremism” cannot apply.

      Plus there are other points such as Orthodox are simply NOT a minority in Israel today. (I challenge you to prove this point, as the Dept of Statistics has published figures that state otherwise)

      As such, Orthodox Jews should rightfully expect that Jewish laws are a norm for Israel. As even the name: “the Land of Israel” proves it is a Jewish land. The foundation for which is Jewish law. As such, people advocating for Jewish law to be the law of the land is actually the highest form of Democracy!

      You are correct in saying that “imposition” is not right IF the majority of Israelis are not religious. However today, this is simply not the case (These are not secret numbers despite what newspapers claim that religious are a minority without ever quoting a source).

      So the word “imposing” is not correct.
      All the very best,
      Raanan Isseroff
      New York

      Reply to Comment
    4. R Katsov would take one look at me and decide I was a kindred spirit — beard, payot, kipa schor, bekeshe… until I spoke, and told him that I march in Pride parades. There is a tendency, as Richard Witty says, to lump all haredim together. My great-grandfather was a named rebbe in Krakow (the Charker) and seems to have himself been a chasid of either Belz or Gur. I’ve been told some of the stories survive but none of the chaisdim did. I am not haredi, but neither am I daat leumi. I am closer to what some call “Masorti”, what Yanks call “Conservative”, but I’m not really that either. And why should I be? The shrill voices of Katsov and Neeman will become hoarse because they will not be able to shout over the voices of the reasoned majority.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Hanan

      Dear Raanan,

      1. If you really love this land so much, what are you doing in New York? Last time I checked that was NOT a part of Israel.

      2. Orthodox Judaism does not consider women and men to be equal. It does not consider people of other faith equal. Orthodox Judaism seeks to limit freedom of speech and of press. It considers “divine law” in its rabbinical interpretation more important than a democratic decision. These and many more elements make it UNdemocratic by default.

      3. Quote “Who ever heard of 2 countries making peace and then the other side moves its armies up to the now peaceful border? What if Canada would tomorrow put tanks and station troops on the American border?” Unquote
      Wait a moment…are you Pro-Israeli or Anti-Israeli? Because of all parties involved in peace deals over here, only the Israelis have a large amount of troops and tanks stationed in the border region…

      4. I see you hate the word “peace”. But instead of hiding behind “Jewish safety” – why don’t you just openly declare what your vision for “Judea and Samaria” is. What should the Israeli government do? Annex the territory? Deport the Arabs? Do nothing until this mess blows up? (I “love” the American habit of telling people here what to do without intending to face the consequences)

      5. Quote: “As even the name: “the Land of Israel” proves it is a Jewish land.” Unquote Israel is a nation, not a religion. That’s Judaism. Believe it or not: You can be an Israeli AND secular. Or Muslim. Or Christian. Shocking, eh?

      6. “The foundation for which is Jewish law. As such, people advocating for Jewish law to be the law of the land is actually the highest form of Democracy!”
      Jewish law is not democratic by default. And it will never be. Besides: In its details, it is barbaric. If you advocate Jewish law, you advocate the penalty of stoning for people that break the Shabbat and you adocate ridiculous stuff like this: If someone rapes a virgin, he has to marry her and can never divorce (a woman is clearly treated as a “thing” here. You break it, you buy it? That’s the law you want?).

      Jewish law is stone age style tribal law. Imposing it on everybody over here would turn this country into a nightmare, worse than Iran. And it would destroy Israel within a very short while. Because all the people that run the economy (the secular and moderate religious) will leave. And whose taxes are going to feed the Haredi sector then? Who is going to defend this country? You, Raanan?

      Reply to Comment
    6. aristeides

      “Extreme” isn’t a strong enough term to characterize Raanan. “Delusional” might do, but I think it lacks force.

      Reply to Comment
    7. My faith has, as one premise, that the world (or even very tiny slices of it) will never be like me. Glad of that. Silent majorities don’t matter. Voices do. So you start.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Anthony

      This article is all about how there are divisions within Orthodoxy and we should be supporting the moderates.
      Your gripes aren’t with Orthodox Judaism – which is not a monolithic thing – but with particular interpretations of Judaism found within Orthodoxy.
      I share your concerns but lumping together all Orthodox Jews as being from the stone ages is really counterproductive (and vaguely racist) – interpretation is key in religion and changes over time and between people.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Yitzchak


      You say that Orthodox Judaism values its rabbinical interpretation over anything, yet you quote the Bible in a way that no Rabbinical Interpretation would practice. While the Bible says that a rapist must marry his victim, the Rabbinical interpretation is that this only applies if the woman wants to marry him (not so likely). He is forced to marry her only if she wants to but he cannot if she does not want to. The Torah requires two kosher witnesses with exact warning to execute anyone for any capital offense. The Rabbis say in the mishnah that if a court administered capital punishment once in seventy year they were a destructive court. It was extremely rare for anyone to be executed for Sabbath violation unless they were basically martyring themselves to make a point (like the one story recorded in the Bible, that the Rabbis maintained that the man did so only to make the point, but this may have been the only time a Rabbinical court executed someone for Sabbath violation), it was basically suicide by court. Ever since the Romans took over Palestine over 2000 years ago, the Rabbis have abolished the death penalty.

      I feel that anyone who recognizes Jewish identity in a secular sense is a racist. Judaism is a religion. One can be Israeli without being Jewish, true, and one can be called Jewish by the Jewish faith without believing himself in the faith. However, for someone to identify themselves as Jewish without some religious connotation (whether it be Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, etc.), then they are a racist, as one can only convert to a religion but one cannot convert to a race. If one denies the religious aspect of Judaism, then their Jewish identity is pure racism.

      As an anti-Zionist Jew, I am offended by Zionist groups such as Chabad calling themselves Ultra-Orthodox. They are rather right-wing modern orthodox, as ultra-orthodoxy rejects Zionism. True Haredim oppose the entire concept of a Jewish state, whether secular OR religious. A true Haredi Jew cannot want to impose Halachah as the laws of the State of Israel, as this is the job of the Messiah and cannot be forced by political means.

      As an anti-Zionist Ultra-Orthodox Jew, I wish to see the One-State solution, which would mean the end of a Jewish State. I hope that Israel would become a state with true freedom of religion like the USA and that the Chief Rabbinate of Israel be either privatized (like the Haredi Courts) or disolved. Religion and politics should not be mixed. It is not my job to force other people to be religious through political means. I have enough on my plate handling my own observance without forcing my ways on others. If others want to learn about Torah, I am happy to teach. Violence is also against the Torah, and none of these people who spat on a little girl could truly be Haredi. They are either mentally ill or perhaps decoys sent by anti-religious individuals just to stir up trouble between various groups.

      I only seek peace and friendship with everyone. I live my life, imperfect as I am, but with my beliefs in Torah. I love to share Torah with others, but I do not seek to impose my ways on others. If more people embrace Judaism, I am happy, but I see this in G-d’s Hand. If I can be a tool in His Hand, it is a blessing, but ultimately it is up to Him. Anyone who seeks to impose religion through political means lacks faith in G-d. We were sent into exile by G-d, when He decides that it is time to restore the Kingdom, He will do it Himself. Until then, we have to work on our relationship with Him through Torah and Halachah. If we improve our own relationship, it will bring blessings to others as well. Political or violent force will not help this goal.

      Rabbi Yitzchak Kolakowski

      Reply to Comment
    10. Omri Dotan

      Raanan and Richard

      Controversy, interpretation and dialogue, with respect to and of each other, are welcome in and are pillars of Judaism.

      I say this with the utmost respect to your rights for opinion and your privileged freedom of speech: you can say what you have to say, even though you say nothing related to Rachel’s write up. You have the right to say it because of democracy, because of freedom of thoughts and speech given to mankind as inalienable rights, men and women.

      You would do well, and earn more respect, if rather than using this right to rant about peace and land, and holocaust, etc., you would address the matter Rachel wrote so skilfully about; namely:
      1. Are there orthodox extremists that are pushing to create an halachic state where the religious laws rule and democracy has no place (in Islam they call it Sharia law, in Judaism they call it halachic law)? And,

      2. Are their politicians in our democratic Knesset that work hard to saw the branch they are sitting on by supporting such beliefs? And,

      3. Should we show our support for the wonderful Jewish religion in all its currents be it orthodoxy, conservatism, old and modern, which strives to preserve the Jewish beliefs and values yet cherishes and promotes democracy in “coexistence” with these religious beliefs?

      Be respectful, raise the intellect and integrity levels of your rants, address the issue of the debate, and let’s have a discussion about how Jews of all creed can stand up to fight for preserving democracy and finding the balance and equilibrium between faith and democracy.

      Shabat Shalom

      Reply to Comment
    11. R’ Yitzchak,
      I’m currently taking an MA in Jewish Studies with a dissertation on Jewish theological responses to the Nakba and ongoing Palestinian dispossession. I’m trying to interview as many people as possible across the spectrum of Jewish observance. If it’s OK with you, I’d like to ask you some questions on it by e-mail – your comment raises some pertinent points. If you wouldn’t mind helping, I can be reached at vickyinpalestine at gmail dot com.
      Sorry to be off-topic, everyone else. 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    12. Mik

      Respectfully, I am very interested to find out how the author of this blog post comes to the conclusion that there is a silent majority. Are there some hidden statistics?
      And perhaps it is opposite- maybe it is very easy today to be a modern orthodox Jew because you can view that Israel is becoming un-democratic and be really happy that you are leading the way.
      Can you really prove anything by seeing 200 women dancing in a flash mob? Do we even know if these women think Israel should be a democracy? I am sure, btw, that Benny Katzover hates Haradei extremism as much as the author of this post does, so why purposely mix up the two?

      Reply to Comment
    13. Richard Witty

      Relative to messianic sequence, or the pejorative of the author “messianic wing”, my own impression is that it is unknown.

      Noone can know if the presence of Israel the state or Israel the prospective halachic state is in conformity with God’s will, or not.

      One cannot say that the in-gathering of half the world’s Jews to Israel is not an act of God, as one cannot say that it is.

      The guidance that I’ve found most useful relative to the messianic period, is to do good in the world.

      Thats it.

      If by saturating the world with good, we cannot tell the wonderful pre-messianic world from the wonderful messianic world, thats a good thing.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Shlomo

      The absence of any alternative to Orthodoxy is a big part of the problem. He would have a much harder time saying “Judaism” should replace democracy if “Judaism” were understood to not be only the Orthodox variety. He doesn’t speak for all Orthodox Jews (or even a majority), but it would help if there were more religious diversity within Judaism.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Andy Din


      First book of Samuel has fifty mistakes.

      Second book of Samuel has seventy mistakes.

      First book of Kings has eighty mistakes.

      Second book of Kings has one hundred mistakes.

      Tanakh has three hundred mistakes in four books.

      Book of Ezra has thirty mistakes.

      Deuteronomy has sixty mistakes.

      Tanakh has three hundred ninety mistakes in six books.

      Reply to Comment