Secular-haredi split: One state, two peoples


In Amos Oz’s In the Land of Israel, the author describes his visit to Beit Shemesh, a small town near Jerusalem. Established in the 1950s, Beit Shemesh was mostly populated by Jewish immigrants from Muslim countries. Oz elegantly records the residents’ bitterness against the authorities and their complaints about discrimination. For them, no one is to be vindicated: The snobbish Ashkenazim, the elitist government and Tel Aviv’s bourgeoisie who treat them as second-class citizens. However, as social gaps have narrowed over the years, the bittereness of those Sephardim/Mizrachim has abated.
Since the 1990s, rising housing prices in Jerusalem are causing many haredim to relocate to Beit Shemesh. There, they are settling in designated “haredi-only” neighborhoods, creating their quasi-autonomous communities, separating men and women in the public sphere and have even bullied Naama Margolese, an 8-year-old schoolgirl, for dressing “immodestly.”
Fast forward to October 2013. Beit Shemesh, already a city, is bitter again. Now, it is the city’s seculars and traditional (masortim) residents who are taking the streets to protest against what they consider the haredi takeover of their city following the alleged fraud in the re-election of the haredim-backed mayor, Moshe Abutbul, over the masorti candidate, Eli Cohen.
Two years before the elections in Beit Shemesh, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed to divide Beit Shemesh along demographic lines: the north to the seculars and masortim; the south to the haredim. This “creative” solution is indicative to the way in which consecutive Israeli governments have dealt with the cleavage — further dividing instead of fusing. Paradoxically — depending where one stands — the haredi politicians opposed Netanyahu’s offer. They know, probably better than anyone else, that further segregating the haredi community will only heighten its already skyrocketing poverty rate.
Beit Shemesh, it seems, is an interesting microcosm of Israeli society. Today, as in the past, it provides a unique look into one of Israel’s most burning issues: the expanding secular-haredi cleavage.
In the past two decades the Jewish secular-haredi cleavage has widened so much that in today’s Israel one can generally discern two, distinct Jewish societies. The two societies have learned to live next to each other, rather than with each other. In other words, they exist rather than co-exist. These developments have immensely worrying short- and long-term implications for Israeli society, economy, security, politics and ideologies.
And from Beit Shemesh further south to the Negev desert: Last Sunday was the 40th anniversary of the death of one of Israel’s founding fathers and its first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. In a special commemoration session dedicated to the late prime minister at the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute in the Negev, the government approved the construction of two new towns in the Negev. Prime Minister Netanyahu declared the development of the Negev is in accordance with Ben-Gurion’s vision to “make the desert bloom.”
True, the government has far-reaching economic, industrial and residential plans for the Negev. But if Ben-Gurion would have known that one of the planned towns is designated for the haredi public only, he would have turned over in his tomb. It was Ben-Gurion and his contemporaries who strove to redeem the Jewish nation from its exilic-ghetto reality. Nowadays Israel’s politicians insist on restoring it.
Moran Stern is an adjunct lecturer in the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and at American University’s Center for Israel Studies. Follow him @MoranStern

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