Israel’s Society: Implementing the Noble Ideals of the Prophets

March 6, 2016  

Israel’s Declaration of Independence proclaims not only that “the State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles” but that it “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.”

The quest for a just society has been the main theme of Jewish writing since the very dawn of Judaism.  From the exhortations of the  Biblical prophets, to the Rebbes of the great Hassidic movements, to contemporary voices in Israel, there has been a sense of urgency in dealing with pressing social issues; caring for the poor, rectifying wrongs, denouncing corruption and seeking good for others.

Nevertheless, this lofty and principled ideology, central to the High Holiday prayers and the process of repentance, must be translated into action; a highly challenging task in a country as diversified and beset by problems as is the Jewish State.

As the New Year begins, this issue of The Jewish Word considers the consequences of Israel’s having successfully pursued its mission of “gathering in the exiles.”

This issue of The Jewish Word explores multifaceted Israeli society, its various components, its problems and challenges. We report on a society divided on ethnic, cultural, socio-economic, religious lines, yet united by the choice to live in, protect and develop the Jewish Homeland while partnering with Zionist Diaspora Jewry.

Recently, this unity has, unfortunately, been challenged and put to the test. The previous issue of The Jewish Word dealt with the pending Iran agreement and its dangers for Israel and the world. Now that it is being debated in Congress, it is heartening to see that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s criticism of the deal’s signing has been supported by all Zionist and religious parties, from Opposition leader Yitzchak Herzog to Bayit Yehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett, despite the deep divisions between them. The fatal stabbing of a gay parade participant and the death of an Arab baby whose house was set on fire also drew unanimous condemnation.

However, not everyone sees the basic unity of Israeli society as a given. President Ruby Rivlin, in addressing the 2014 Herzliya Conference, defines Israeli society’s main problem as the demographic change that is ending the majority status of the secular, reducing it to but one of four equally dominant “tribes.” Classifying Israeli Arabs and Hareidim as non-Zionists, ignoring the steady, silent integration of the Hareidim into the IDF and the commonalities of Hareidim and Religious Zionists in their love of Torah and the land, he fears the disintegration of Israeli society. 

Former IDF Chief Rabbi Avichai Rontski, counters this view. Noting that in the 1950’s, when Israel absorbed a number of immigrants equal to its own population at the time, the guiding philosophy of immigrant absorption was the “melting pot” theory. Today, he asserts, although each group of citizens tries to preserve its own culture, the IDF succeeds, as it always has, despite socio-economic differences and cultural divides, in strengthening common ideals and  acting as a powerful unifying factor.

The groups within Israel include Ethiopians, Druze, “semi-baalei Teshuva”, Russians, illegal African migrants, Jewish families-at-risk, the poor and the unemployed. This edition of The Jewish Word examines each group and the challenges and controversies they engender.

Beginning in 1979, a large portion of Ethiopian Jewry, the Beta Israel, arrived in Israel after managing to escape Ethiopia and walk across Sudan from where they were airlifted to Israel. The immigration continued with Operation Moses in 1984-85 and Operation Solomon in 1991. The Falash Mura, who converted to Christianity over a century ago, were flown to Israel from 1993 and thereafter.

The enormous leap necessary to join Israel’s modern society, along with the shattering of parental authority and instances of prejudice, may have caused some Ethiopian youth to feel a misguided kinship with blacks in the U.S. An Olam Katan (popular Religious Zionist weekly aimed at hesder and midrasha students) editorial suggested that this could have influenced recent protests, ignited by police abuse of an Ethiopian soldier, that deteriorated, with leftist NGO encouragement, into shocking vandalism a la Baltimore.

The Taub Center’s recent survey of the 135,000 Ethiopian Israelis shows that while only 20% of the younger generation has obtained an academic degree (compared to 40% of all Israelis), over 90% of those raised in Israel graduate high school, and the overall employment rate is 72% (compared to non-Ethiopian Israelis at 79%). A success story, but one with a long way to go.

In this issue of The Jewish Word, Dr. Chaim Peri, legendary educator whose work with Ethiopian immigrants and troubled youth has received international acclaim, describes what he sees as the cause of the current unrest that has thrust the progeny of this dignified aliyah into the headlines.

Israel’s silent Zionists are the 130,000 Druze, whose frustration and fears for their pro-Assad relatives in Syria exploded recently into an uncharacteristic mob-lynching of a wounded rebel fighter brought to Israel for medical care. Druze MK Ayoub Kara writes about his people, their bravery, dedication and loyalty to Israel, as well as of their concerns, complaints and challenges.

Neriah Chaim, a noted hareidi journalist (writing under a pseudonym), counters the misinformation about his sector in Israel. Arutz Sheva‘s Hillel Fendel writes about the under-reported offshoot of the baal teshuva  movement – celebrities who begin the process of fully returning to their Judaism and specifically Orthodoxy, but pause along the road.

Since 1989, Israel has absorbed close to a million Russian immigrants, of whom a third are not halachically Jewish.  Their children speak Hebrew as a first language and while most are in the secular educational system, thousands are enrolled in religious Zionist elementary schools. Plans to convert these youngsters are stymied by the fact that many of their parents are not interested in converting, having a kosher kitchen or honoring the Sabbath. Rabbi David Stav has established an independent conversion court for these youngsters, sparking a stormy rabbinic debate.

The army’s Nativ conversion program, backed by the Chief Rabbinate, is successful on a small scale, but there is as yet no program aimed at the tens of thousands of non-halachically Jewish high school students. If they do not convert, intermarriage will soon be another looming problem. If conversion requirements are eased, but do not gain the approval of major halachic authorities, the converts will be the ones to suffer.

In this issue, Rabbis Chaim Amsalem and Baruch Efrati express opposing views on converting those who are not halachically Jewish and yet wish to convert.

Another pressing problem confronting Israeli society is the 60,000 illegal African migrants currently residing within its borders. Dr. Donniel Hartman sees this as a social justice challenge demanding a response, while journalist Judith Bergman feels the group poses a danger Israel must avoid.

Jewish society’s anchor has always been the values and value of the Jewish family. That institution is under attack in Israel, as it is in all the West, writes Arutz Sheva’ s Gil Ronen, while Amy Oppenheimer-Abitbol of the religious women’s shelter draws a sobering picture of domestic violence within the Jewish family and what is being done about it by people who care.

Economic opportunities play a central role in a just society, as do the people who think enough about others help them find their place in that society. Minister Uri Ariel faces the acute cost of the housing problem in Israel, while muckraker Elyashiv Reichner examines “the Other Israel.” Rabbi Yosef Rimon describes the creation of a unique model that found jobs for former Gush Katif residents and that is now doing the same for young Ethiopian women and  Rabbi David Stav describes a little-known, sensitive way to help Russian immigrants who claim to be halachically Jewish ascertain their Jewish genealogy.

Israel is the land where the noble ideals of the prophets were spawned and most effectively articulated.  Now is when the miracle of Eretz Yisroel in Jewish hands must meet, confront and overcome the social and practical challenges posed by the miraculous Ingathering of the Exiles.

We hope that this issue of The Jewish Word will enlighten you as to the variety and complexities of these challenges and lead you to reflect on and appreciate the problems, the miracles, and the efforts being made towards implementing our eternal biblical ideals in the modern Jewish state.

May the Jewish people and the entire world have a peaceful and happy New Year.

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