‘Don’t look up,” my host cautioned. “The guy to our right is one of the troublemakers. Keep walking ahead.”
He was talking about the thugs attacking individuals, and institutions, which break from conformity in the poor and tight-knit neighborhood we were walking through. We weren’t in Gaza or Afghanistan. I was on the streets of Israel, and this impressive Torah scholar was telling me about the social change he is trying to advance through teaching elite groups of rabbis and community leaders.
Religious extremists in Israel today are doing their best to prevent the sort of forward-thinking change my host is advancing in the ultra-Orthodox sector.
Despite the media focus on this handful of extremists, the picture of Israel today is also a lot brighter than these troublemakers want us to believe. Israel’s recent spike in secular-religious tension has given birth to a number of important changes taking place in the ultra-Orthodox world. The first is a rare willingness among leaders to engage in dialogue with the outside world. These are brave men and women who realize that the current model is no longer tenable, or even possible, and that both diaspora Jews and mainstream Israeli society need to hear and cultivate voices of reason.
I have encountered a number of these individuals and worked closely with them through the Gesher Leadership Course over the last year. This group meets intensively over a six-month period with members of Israel’s religious sector and their secular counterparts. The two groups work through the thorny issues pulling at Israel today, build bridges of communication and develop on-the-ground initiatives that influence their communities to advance moderation and coexistence.
Projects like this are critical, but the goal extends well beyond moderation in the ultra-Orthodox community. It needs to work both ways. Many Israelis today lack the willingness to work with ultra-Orthodox counterparts. They approach delicate issues of change with the subtlety of a sledgehammer and apply all-or-nothing preconditions. They are determined to force integration or shared responsibility at almost any cost. Concurrently, they fear integration themselves. For example, a recent Gesher poll showed that many employers are loath to hire haredi applicants (they are near the bottom of the list of desirable applicants, barely above Arab and Ethiopian job seekers). And employment sits at the heart of the next major change taking place.
A year ago the ultra-Orthodox party line was to condemn training programs geared to give professional qualifications to ultra-Orthodox men because it meant leaving full-time yeshiva study. Today, ultra-Orthodox radio programs promote these exact training programs, and host grassroots initiatives geared at helping their men gain acceptance in the Israeli workforce. The all-or-nothing attitude is starting to give way, as young families look to their cousins abroad and see a healthier balance. I believe programs like these are working, and the real change is happening on the ground, where the most encouraging shift has taken place.
Two years ago a small group of concerned citizens turned up at Gesher’s door asking for help. They were disgusted by the extreme stereotyping taking place in the wake of Beit Shemesh’s violent protests and wanted dialogue with the other side. Some were high-tech professionals from Tel Aviv; others were haredi yeshiva students from Jerusalem. They were worlds apart, but shared a common drive for the activism required to change a generation. At first we worked with several groups that reached out to us for help. Then we sought to uncover other potentials. Today, we’re struggling to keep up with demand. Gladly, this voice of moderation is bubbling up to the surface, albeit cautiously.
How can we support this crucial change? First, we must not fall prey to the rhetoric of extremists on either side. Take a moment to put those outrageous stories and characters, like the thug I mentioned above, in perspective, and combat his desire to occupy your perception of reality. Second, we must strategically support the moderate voices and initiatives that will build a different future for Israel. And lastly, we must act on what we preach. Not only educate our children to be tolerant but actually guard our own judgments and words to play an active role in helping to build this new voice we aspire for.
Creating balance for Israel’s changing religious landscape won’t happen on its own. Today there are people putting themselves at risk, and more are on the way, to combat extremism and ensure our generation reaches its great potential. We cannot afford to let them fail, or worse, become part of the problem ourselves.
Yoni Sherizen is a director of Gesher, an Israeli NGO working to bridge the divide between Jews.