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Israel's Peace Movement Withers As Ultra-Orthodox Jews Gain Strength
The Washington Diplomat / November 2014

By Larry Luxner

Nestled in the green hills of central Israel — just off the main highway linking Jerusalem to Tel Aviv — is the only village in the Middle East where Arabs and Jews live together intentionally.

That village is Neve Shalom, whose name in Hebrew and Arabic (Wahat al-Salam) means “oasis of peace.” Some 220 Jews and Arabs reside in this tiny farming commune, which supports the internationally renowned School for Peace, attracts private funding from 11 countries and has been nominated three times for a Nobel Peace Prize. In 2006, the village hosted a concert by former Pink Floyd musician Roger Waters.

Yet Neve Shalom has no political affiliation, nor does it get financial support from either Israel or the Arab world. Its inhabitants are Palestinian Arabs from places like Nazareth and Jaffa, and Jews who were either born in Israel or “made aliyah” (immigrated) from the United States, Europe or elsewhere.

“We walk a very delicate line,” said Bob Mark, an American Jew from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and one of the settlement’s original founders. “A lot of the antagonism against us comes from people who say we’re being naïve. Because we don’t define ourselves politically, there isn’t a lot we allow people to grasp onto.” But, he adds, “We threaten a lot of people. Our very existence raises questions. We make them face things they otherwise wouldn’t face.”

If Neve Shalom represents the epitome of religious and cultural tolerance in Israel, then its exact opposite can be found only six miles to the south, in Beit Shemesh.

This once-tranquil town of 80,000 — whose name in Hebrew means “house of the sun” — is being ripped apart by tensions between a secular Jewish majority and a vocal minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews who demand that the town bend to their stringent rules.

The tensions are emblematic of a larger rift in Israeli society, as secularists balk at the growing influence of ultra-Orthodox Jews whose strict beliefs are at odds with the country’s reputation as one of the most liberal in the Middle East. Despite the backlash, Israeli public opinion is shifting rightward toward a more hawkish, nationalistic foreign policy, as seen by the strong support for Israel’s recent offensive in Gaza.

Beit Shemesh first landed in the spotlight years before the latest flare-up. In late 2011, black-clad haredim, or fervently Orthodox Jews, spat on an 8-year-old girl as she was walking to school, accusing her of dressing immodestly. Israeli journalists who attempted to report on the story were later assaulted by haredim, and the attacks sparked massive demonstrations by secular Israelis and condemnations from around the world.

In October 2013, the consensus candidate for Beit Shemesh’s secular and modern Orthodox community, Eli Cohen, lost a bid to become mayor. Cohen received 47 percent of the votes compared to 52 percent for the incumbent, Moshe Abutbul, in an election filled with accusations of fraud and fake ballots. Abutbul later enraged opponents when he said that no gays live in his “holy and pure” city — and that it wasn’t his job, but rather the responsibility of police and health officials, to take care of homosexuals.

Today, an uneasy truce exists between the town’s secular Jews and the haredim, who live mainly in the sprawling new hilltop suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh. Religious authorities there limit which sidewalks non-Orthodox Jews can use and demand the right to have their own bus lines, with separate seating for men and women.

In late September, the simmering religious tensions led the Rockville, Md.-based Jewish Federation of Greater Washington to cancel its 19-year partnership program with Beit Shemesh — the ultimate embarrassment for a Biblical city said to be the place where David slew Goliath.

“We are not abandoning Beit Shemesh,” Steven Rakitt, executive vice president and CEO of the federation, said in announcing the partnership’s phase-out by the end of June 2015, without directly mentioning the controversy. But sources in Beit Shemesh made clear that their Jewish benefactors in Maryland no longer wanted anything to do with a city that has become synonymous with intolerance and religious hatred.

To be fair, the decline of Israel’s peace movement and the rise of religious fervor aren’t directly connected. Not all peaceniks are secular, nor are all political hardliners necessarily religious. Soviet-born Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, for example, is the leader of the secular, nationalist right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party.

In addition, not all Orthodox Jews consider themselves ardent Zionists. In fact, a tiny yet particularly loud sect of haredim, the Neturei Karta, is known for its anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian views. (In 2007, Neturei Karta leaders traveled to Iran to attend a Holocaust denial conference at the invitation of then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, where they prayed publicly for Israel’s destruction.)

But there’s little question that since the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, attitudes toward Jewish fundamentalism have changed and the divide between secular and Orthodox Jews has grown.

Resentment that ultra-Orthodox Jews can avoid mandatory military service by pursuing religious studies culminated in legislation passed earlier this year that will set annual quotas for drafting ultra-Orthodox Jews into national service.

The debate over military exemptions revealed longstanding frustrations that ultra-Orthodox Jews, who often depend on government welfare and study full time instead of working, aren’t pulling their collective weight. One Finance Ministry estimate said that the absence of the ultra-Orthodox community from the workforce cost the Israeli economy over $1.5 billion in 2010.

Of Israel’s 8.2 million inhabitants, about 75 percent are Jews and roughly 12 percent are considered haredim. Because of their tendency toward large families, the number of haredim is growing by 5 percent annually — much faster than the growth rate for Israeli Arabs (2.2 percent) and secular Jews (1.2 percent).

According to an annual report on religious freedom released in late September, 61 percent of Israeli Jews support increased separation of church and state, and 78 percent are dissatisfied with the Netanyahu government’s actions on religion-and-state issues.

At the same time, public sentiment regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has taken a sharp turn to the right — a trend only exacerbated by the latest war in Gaza. According to polls, Israeli support for Operation Protective Edge ranged from 87 percent (Channel 10 News) to 95 percent (Israel Democracy Institute). Dissent was hardly to be seen in the streets of Tel Aviv, a marked contrast from previous conflicts such as Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, which in 1982 triggered an angry demonstration that brought 400,000 people — a tenth of the country’s population — onto the streets of Tel Aviv.

For most Israelis, it was the kidnapping and murder of three Orthodox Jewish teenagers in the West Bank that triggered this summer’s invasion of Gaza, which ultimately killed over 2,100 Palestinians, the majority of them civilians, and 73 Israelis, most of them soldiers. The Netanyahu government immediately blamed Hamas and began rounding up hundreds of suspects in a massive sweep throughout the territories.

But then Jewish extremists beat up and burned alive a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in revenge — a crime that shocked even hardliners in government.

“This premeditated act of immolation is unprecedented in Israel,” said journalist and writer Uri Avnery, co-founder of the Gush Shalom peace movement. “A dangerous and violent extreme right is shadowed by a government which in itself belongs to the extreme right. Let’s not forget that the appointed Israeli defense minister, Danny Danon, just after the kidnapping of the three young Israeli settlers, said that Israel should take heed of Vladimir Putin, who ‘would raze entire villages to the ground one after the other if a Russian boy had been kidnapped.’”

Avnery, insisting that the Netanyahu government has no interest in a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, said the pacifist movement “is severely weakened, and more so than it has ever been. No major political force allied to the pro-peace side disputing the occupation is in a position to win the elections, to offer an alternative and change the political climate” of Israel today.

But Aaron David Miller, a vice president and distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center, says the Israeli public’s shift to the right took place long before the latest conflict in Gaza.

“Why would the fact that 95 percent of the Israeli public supported the war in Gaza have anything to do with the demise of the peace movement? They can be against Hamas itself without any commentary whatsoever on what their views on a two-state solution might be,” he told us. “This is the conflation of arguments which are frankly impossible to unwind. The central contention is simply not logical.”

At any rate, Miller said, the peace movement “has never been a constituency” upon which any Israeli prime minister created the basis of support for a peace initiative.

“The story of peacemaking in Israel is the story of transformed hawks — from [Menachem] Begin and [Yitzhak] Rabin to Netanyahu and [Ariel] Sharon, the architect of the settlement movement who dismantled settlements — and their capacity to mobilize the Israeli center,” he said. “The notion that the peace camp has ever been a consideration in driving the Israeli public is simply false.”

Miller agrees that Israel has become a much more conservative country, but that’s largely in response to geopolitical circumstances. In any event, peacemaking has been driven mostly by events external to Israeli decision-makers, he says.

“Begin would never have given back Sinai had it not been for Sadat’s decision to rearrange the furniture,” Aaron said, referring to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who helped push through a landmark peace treaty with Israel in 1979. “Rabin would never have agreed to engage the PLO had the Palestinians not put themselves on the map by launching the first intifada. And King Hussein [of Jordan] made peace with Israel because Oslo afforded him the cover necessary to do so.”

Yet Maen Rashid Areikat, the PLO’s representative in Washington, pins the shift rightward largely on the Netanyahu and his Likud party. He said the peace movement’s “decline over the last 14 years” since the first intifada has resulted in one of the most extreme right-wing governments in Israeli history.

“This government has succeeded to spread the culture of fear among Israelis. And we’re not talking about a government that supports settlements, we’re talking about members of the government who are settlers themselves,” he told The Diplomat. “When this latest conflict [in Gaza] started, there was an absence of an opposite view. Only a few journalists and columnists had the courage to write about this war objectively.”

One of them is Gideon Levy, a writer for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz who has grown used to being harassed in public and spat on by strangers in the streets of Tel Aviv.

“What is different this time is the anti-democratic spirit: zero tolerance of any kind of criticism, opposition to any kind of sympathy with the Palestinians,” he told the Guardian in a recent interview. “You shouldn’t be surprised that the 95 percent [are in favor of the war], you should be surprised at the 5 percent. This is almost a miracle. The media has an enormous role. Given the decades of demonization of the Palestinians, the incitement and the hatred, don’t be surprised the Israeli people are where they are.”

A big part of this change of sentiment occurred in 2005, when the late Ariel Sharon unilaterally withdrew Israeli military forces from the Gaza Strip — and the situation immediately took a turn for the worse. As soon as Hamas wrested control of Gaza from its Fatah rivals, it began showering nearby Israeli towns and settlements with rockets.

For their part, the Palestinians argue that the disengagement was a diversion for beefing up settlement activity in the West Bank. They also point out that Gaza remains under de facto lockdown because Israel controls the flow of goods and people in and out of the tiny coastal enclave. Nevertheless, the example of Gaza has soured the Israeli public on the idea of further territorial compromise with the Palestinians.

“That disengagement from Gaza destroyed the peace movement for awhile. It was difficult and painful, and I expected that afterward, it would be reciprocated with goodwill from the Palestinians,” said Frida Grynspan, a site manager for a medical high-tech company in Mevaseret Zion, a suburb of Jerusalem.

“I’m a very liberal person and I’m in the peace movement, but regardless of our politics, we didn’t initiate this war,” explained Grynspan, who moved to Israel in 1996 from her native Costa Rica and has a son in the Israeli Army. “My son had three good friends in Gaza. One of them was kidnapped and two of them died, and his officer was killed. So he lost four very good friends in a period of one week.”

She added: “The peace movement has been hit hard, but it will come back. I think we should have a Palestinian state. I believe in a two-state solution. We have to be strong, but if we don’t talk, there will never be peace.”

Levy says finding people in Israel who even still want to talk to the other side is becoming harder and harder to do. “I’ve never had it so harsh, so violent and so tense,” Levy told Foreign Policy in August. “We will face a new Israel after this [Gaza] operation … nationalistic, religious in many ways, brainwashed, militaristic, with very little empathy for the sacrifice of the other side. Nobody in Israel cares at all.”

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