A battle is raging for the soul of Israeli society

November 28, 2011 - 3:20 AM

JERUSALEM (AP) — On billboards, on buses and in the halls of parliament, a battle is raging over the nature of Israel, raising ever more urgent questions over its future as a democracy.

Radicalized religious activists and conservative lawmakers see themselves as bulwarks against assaults on faith and country by rivals within multifaceted Israel and by the outside world.

Although the nationalist right includes many nonreligious Israelis and the religious camp is not exclusively nationalist, the overlap is strong, they are considered natural political allies, and they share a simmering historic grievance: a sense that Israel's cosmopolitan elites — the courts, the media, even the army — should be brought into line with a more conservative populace.

Arrayed against them are secular Israelis, many of them liberal and European-descended — the group that established the country, long dominated its affairs, and has seen its majority dwindle.

They are horrified at the assault on what they consider a critical yet brittle achievement: Surrounded by dictatorships and theocracies, Israel is a place of pugnacious reporters and freewheeling human rights groups, a land where gay pride marches are commonplace and where it goes without saying that the Supreme Court can be led by a woman and include a prominent Arab.

Conservative Israelis are trying to force change as never before.

In the past two weeks alone, nationalist lawmakers have pushed forward bills that would block much of the foreign funding for dovish groups critical of the government, make it easier for politicians to sue media outlets for libel, and give politicians greater influence over appointments to the Supreme Court.

Before that, this most hard-line of Israeli parliaments passed laws requiring non-Jewish immigrants to take loyalty oaths and punish Israelis who advocate boycotting Jewish settlements.

"The ruling right doesn't understand what liberal democracy is," said Zeev Sternhell, a prominent professor and icon of the left who was once wounded by a pipebomb planted at his home. "For them, it means that the majority does what it wants. They want the majority they have in parliament today to change the essence of society in Israel."

The lawmakers say they are battling a global campaign to "delegitimize" Israel's very right to exist. They say legislation concerning the courts is designed to make the selection of judges more transparent — and condemn today's Supreme Court as a self-perpetuating preserve of the old, liberal elites.

Danny Danon, a lawmaker from the ruling Likud Party, said the governing coalition was enacting changes that its constituency supports. "It's possible that the (political) opposition doesn't like these changes, but the people who elected us want different values," Danon said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who grew up and was educated in the United States, seems torn between a certain discomfort with the new direction and the fact that it is spearheaded by his own political camp.

On Monday, he vowed that Israel's democracy would not be harmed on his watch. "As long as I am prime minister, Israel will continue to be a strong democracy, an exemplary democracy. Nobody will tell anybody what to think, what to write, what to investigate, what to broadcast," he told Likud lawmakers.

Hours later, he nonetheless voted for proposed amendments to the libel law that parliament approved in the first of three required ballots. In that same session, parliament also gave preliminary approval to a bill that would change the makeup of the panel assigned to select Supreme Court justices — a bill opponents see as trying to stack the committee in the government's favor.

An aide, however, says he opposes a bill that would let parliament veto Supreme Court candidates. And over the weekend he announced he would oppose a bill restricting petitions to the Supreme Court by private groups. That bill was rejected by a ministerial committee Sunday.

Foreign governments have been especially critical of proposed legislation to dramatically limit foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations — a measure that would largely affect dovish groups and so far has been put on hold.

Supporters of the bill say European governments and organizations channel important funds to Israeli groups that hurt Israel — for instance, by calling for economic boycotts over its treatment of the Palestinians, or collecting testimony on alleged military misconduct.

"The duty of a democracy is to defend against those who want to harm it," Israel's ultranationalist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has said.

The mindset of politicians like Lieberman represents an important evolution in Israel's nationalist right wing, which in the past was respectful of the country's judicial, academic and intellectual elites, despite their general association with the opposing more moderate political camp.

Yair Sheleg, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the change stems in part from the rise of Lieberman's nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party, which draws heavily on the support of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, where Lieberman himself was born. "They come from a world view ... that the regime has the right to use force to influence or oppose opponents," Sheleg said.

Sheleg sees the religious radicalization arising from a similar outsider sentiment: "I think the intent is, 'We shut up too long when the liberal left alone shaped the norms of Israeli society. Now we're demanding that they listen to us, too.'"

Unlike in United States and many other Western nations, there is no formal separation of religion and state in Israel. The country sees itself a both Jewish and democratic state — but "Jewish" is ambiguous, meaning mainly a people to some, but a religion to others.

The boundaries were set in the country's early years, when the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, tried to placate the religious minority with a series of concessions: The Jewish Sabbath was made the day of rest; kosher kitchens were required in the military and police; a separate state religious school system was permitted; and rabbis were given dominion over marriage and burial.

Ben-Gurion later exempted several hundred ultra-Orthodox male seminary students from the draft and gave them government stipends to let them rebuild the great seats of Jewish learning destroyed in the Nazi Holocaust.

That move has come to haunt the country: The group of exempted seminary students now numbers in the tens of thousands, and the ultra-Orthodox minority's high birthrate, dependence on state handouts and evasion of military duty have created a deep rift in the country.

The ultra-Orthodox are now approaching a sixth of Israel's 6 million Jews, and they are joined by even larger numbers of other groups of religious Jews. With seven children and more commonplace, their numbers are rising, and with them their determination to impose some of their norms on society.

The latest campaign is focused on banishing women from the public domain, including increasing demands to prevent them from singing in public — which the activists believe inflames the passions of men.

On the streets of Jerusalem, it's tough these days to find signs and billboards with female faces, as vendors and advertisers cave in to pressure from ultra-Orthodox groups who, in the past, have defaced such signs as licentious and boycotted the advertisers.

In strictly religious neighborhoods, some women have taken to cloaking themselves head to toe, like fundamentalist women in the Islamic world, to comply with rabbis' increasingly impassioned exhortations to dress modestly. The Jerusalem municipality has stepped in on another matter, saying it will not allow several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods to carry out a plan to have segregated polling stations for community council elections.

The brewing cultural war has secular Israelis bitterly inflamed, and depending on the Supreme Court as an ally.

Last month, the Supreme Court stopped one Jerusalem neighborhood from designating heavily traveled areas off-limits to women during a holiday crush. The court also stepped in late last year to halt gender segregation on more than 80 bus lines.

While segregation has diminished sharply since that ruling, it was largely men in front and women in the back one recent morning on a line that runs through ultra-Orthodox Jewish enclaves in Jerusalem. The driver said that when women dare sit up front, male passengers sometimes still try to browbeat them into moving to the back.