Bordering Beliefs: Israel’s Sociopolitical Divide Between Liberal and Ultra-Orthodox Values

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In Israel, social borders, political demands and the status of women continue to underscore tensions between liberal democratic values and the conservative, ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.

Ultra Orthodox Clash with Police. Photo by Chaim Goldberg/Flash90

Dynamics of ultra-Orthodox communities within Israel's liberal democracy

Israel is a liberal democratic nation state, fulfilling the Zionist idea of re-erecting a state for the Jewish people. As a democratic nation state, it is facing complexities typical to this kind of regime. The state of Israel was established in 1948. The "Declaration of Independence" defined it as the state of the Jewish nation and expressed its commitment to democratic and liberal principles. Among those were a commitment to maintain full social and political equality of rights for all its citizens, irrespective of religion, race, or sex; to guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education, and culture; to preserve the holy places of all religions; and to be faithful to the principles of the United Nations Charter.

Accordingly, both non-Jewish and Jewish religions were practiced in Israel during its years of existence. This includes conservative ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups that are in part anti-Zionist and make up 13.6% of Israel's population (in the year 2023). This article focuses on the relationship between these groups and the Israeli liberal society. The religious ideology and social structure of the ultra-Orthodox groups drive them to place the conservation of social borders at a higher level of importance than liberal values and rights. It is important to note that according to both Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish approaches, liberalism and Judaism do integrate well and some liberal religious communities flourish in Israel and other countries. Yet, since these conservative ultra-Orthodox communities have an extremely high demographic growth rate, their political powers and friction with the Israeli liberal public sphere increase with time. As a result, the ultra-Orthodox communities' leaders have built very high walls of social separation, raising them higher over time; this is an attempt to guarantee strict separation between their communities and the wider public and to preserve their ways of life without outside influence. These borders are set by requirements imposed on members of their communities regarding almost all aspects of life. These requirements intensify as the general society becomes more liberal, and they create social unrest as they aim to affect the public sphere. Accordingly, this raises difficult issues in liberal thinking, especially concerning the rights of individuals.

The struggle over these borders within Israeli society can be very well demonstrated by the conservative ultra-Orthodox policies on the issues of women's status and their presence in the public sphere. The communities' restrictions on female members have become more demanding over the last decades; this was possibly a reaction to the enormous development in the status of women in all aspects of the modern and democratic society of Israel. Lately, these demands are also framed with liberal terminology in a misleading way, as shown in the example of "the right to separate women and men on the grounds of the right of honoring a group's lifestyles and beliefs". This phrasing is used to try and legally establish a restrictive public sphere that separates women from men in public events and the course of public services. For example, this occurs on public transportation lines that serve areas where the ultra-Orthodox population is a majority or at beaches and springs where the hours of service are regulated to enforce separate-sex swimming. At the same time, and perhaps as the main goal, it allows the community leaders to create separate spaces for their members so that they don't mingle with the public. 

These political demands infuriate the non-Orthodox liberal population who experience them as a violation of their rights and as steps leading towards a coercive religious state. It also raises debates regarding the rights of female members of these communities to be exposed to different (and liberal) values and to choose their own way as individuals. Other brave ultra-Orthodox individuals and groups speak out against these demands, as they don't recognize the religious justification for them and wish to practice an ultra-Orthodox identity without social separation from the wider public.

These demands also reflect theoretical dilemmas of liberal thinking, multiculturalism, and pluralism, such as the legitimacy of recognizing non-liberal demands made by identity groups that ignore the liberal-driven rights of individuals in those groups. Moreover, utilizing politics to allocate public resources for these non-legitimate demands raises even more dilemmas. In Israel, these questions are not theoretical at all.

Overcoming internal divides in the face of external threats in 2023

In the context of this long-lasting struggle, the year 2023 brought two major effects. In the first nine months of the year, Israel experienced a firm political and public struggle accompanied by civil protests and a broad awakening of the public discourse on the issues of democracy and liberalism. This was a result of some reforms declared by the coalition members that formed a new government at the end of 2022. A set of political circumstances brought together some extreme political groups to form a coalition with ultra-Orthodox groups and take power in the Israeli government. These groups aimed to change the governing values and priorities of Israeli society. 

Though the country was deeply divided facing this struggle of civil awakening, protests, and debate, Israel's reality changed dramatically in October 2023. This was due to a vast attack that was launched in surprise from its southern borders by thousands of Hamas terrorists. Terrible atrocities were committed against civilians of all ages in their homes or on holidays and against soldiers; hundreds of people of all ages were kidnapped and held hostage in Gaza. The attack launched a war against Israel that Israel is still fighting back against. This is a complicated war that is raising terrible dilemmas and complexities, but that will not be explored in detail here. 

What is relevant to this essay, considering these events as a background, is that in the face of horror and shock and a deep sense of self-defense, Israeli society is showing an impressive force of unity and cohesion. The political and social divisions described in this article were mostly set aside and internal borders were dimmed, at least for a while. Parts of the ultra-Orthodox society sought to be involved, and some scholars pointed out a possible deep change due to these events; namely, members of ultra-Orthodox groups identify as part of the wider society and acknowledge the dangers that the country and all civilians face from its external borders and the common needs that have to be shared by all. This is expected, as some predict, to force their leaders to understand that some borders, fences, and walls must be lowered. 

For a short while, this social involvement was even relevant to another issue separating these groups from wider society - serving in the Israeli army. The army service in Israel is mandatory for most youngsters. However, the youngsters from the ultra-Orthodox groups are released from army service on the grounds of their commitment to continuous religious studies as part of their religious practices. This way, these youngsters are not exposed to outer society in the "army's melting pot". Naturally, this situation is causing tremendous aggravation in the wider society and long-lasting political unrest. Yet, following the shocking events described above, thousands of ultra-Orthodox youngsters approached the army, asking to serve their country.

An uncertain future for Israel's societal borders

Time will tell if a real change is happening or if these reactions were only a spark that will dim against the power of ultra-Orthodox religious establishments and ideology. As of now, and even though some change can be found at the grassroots level, the leaders and political level stick to the fences and borders. Once again, it seems that religious forces and politics do not change as fast as the liberal people desire. 

To conclude with a view of the wider picture, it seems that the current Israeli government has taken advantage of threats experienced by parts of the public, following the liberal discourse of rights, the processes of globalization, and the removal of borders within society. As in other countries and societies, some people feel that their national, cultural, and religious identities are under threat. As a result, they wish to create borders to save their identities from the liberal world. Ultra-Orthodox groups in Israel form a distinct example.  A harsh reaction also comes from groups that are left behind and fail to integrate into the processes of globalization. As in other countries, these reactions might be shaped by borders built or rebuilt within society. These borders have diverse faces, yet they are formed mostly by conservative, religious, and nationalist groups and might be accompanied by the phenomena of populism or use liberal ideas and terms for their benefit. This is indeed a time of struggle for liberal values around the world and in Israel as well.

This article was first published by Salzburg Global Seminar.