The status of women in society has emerged as an issue in what seems like an unlikely place--Israel. Today's New York Times reports on the increasing influence of the ultra-orthodox Jews in that country. The attitude of this particular religious group with respect to gender roles in society is very similar to those of fundamentalist Islam--the group that has been most often criticized in the modern world for its stance on the place of women.
The list of controversies grows weekly: Organizers of a conference last week on women’s health and Jewish law barred women from speaking from the podium, leading at least eight speakers to cancel; ultra-Orthodox men spit on an 8-year-old girl whom they deemed immodestly dressed; the chief rabbi of the air force resigned his post because the army declined to excuse ultra-Orthodox soldiers from attending events where female singers perform; protesters depicted the Jerusalem police commander as Hitler on posters because he instructed public bus lines with mixed-sex seating to drive through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods; vandals blacked out women’s faces on Jerusalem billboards.
Mr. Carmon [president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem research organization].compared the strictly religious Jews of Israel to the Islamists in the Arab world, saying that there was a similar dynamic at play in Egypt, with tensions growing between the secular forces that led the revolution and the Islamic parties now rising to prominence.
“Today there is not a city without a Haredi community,” said Rabbi Abraham Israel Gellis, a 10th-generation Jerusalem Haredi rabbi, as he sat in his home, an enormous yeshiva on a hill outside his window. “I have 38 grandchildren and they live all over the country.”
And in that sentence one can see the influence of demography in this situation--the fertility rate among the ultra-orthodox Jewish population is very high.
Dan Ben-David, executive director of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, said fertility rates in the Haredi community made the issue especially acute; the very religious Jews are the only group in Israel having more children today than 30 years ago.This is just another reminder that the future is a foreign country.
“They make up more than 20 percent of all kids in primary schools,” he said. “In 20 years, there is a risk we will have a third-world population here which can’t sustain a first-world economy and army.”