Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Right Word in the Right Language

This may just be politics as usual in Israel, but it is interesting to see just how the leading opposition party there is using today’s mass protest against “gender segregation” (as one report put it) by the ultra-Orthodox extremists of Beit Shemesh for political capital.  An article about the protest filed late this morning on the BBC News Web site quoted opposition leader Tzipi Livni describing the ultra-Orthodox of Beit Shemesh as “the extremist elements that are rearing their heads and are trying to impose their world view on us.”  Presumably, Livni made her remarks in Hebrew;  but my guess is that she deliberately chose the same noun form that has been applied to violent acts by extreme fundamentalists of other faiths (that need not be enumerated).

I am also struck by the use of words sharing the stem for segregation.  I believe I heard a television report (which I have to confess I have been unable to trace), which claimed that there are Orthodox communities that force women to ride in the back of the bus.  I would guess I heard this on the BBC, because I would find it hard to imagine an American report of such activities that would refrain from a reference to Rosa Parks.  In other words Israel may be facing a civil rights movement that it had not dreamed would arise in a country of Jews.

I would also like to consider a remark that showed up in the same Al Jazeera English report that included the phrase “gender segregation.”  The source is Professor Emeritus Menachem Friedman of Bar Ilan University.  This is what he has to say about the current tension between ultra-Orthodox communities and the predominantly secular majority of Israeli citizens:

It is clear that Israeli society is faced with a challenge that I am not sure it can handle.  A challenge that is no less and no more than an existential challenge,

I agree that “existential” is the right adjective, but I wonder if Friedman had bothered to explain why this is the case.  As I see it, Israel may be forced to decide whether it is a “Jewish state” or a “state that guarantees freedom from persecution to all Jews.”  That is the critical existential distinction;  and it may be that how it is resolved will determine whether the current dispute between Israelis and Palestinians is best resolved with a one-state or two-state solution.  Clearly, the Palestinians would have every reason to reject a one-state solution if that one-state were a “Jewish state.”  Just as clearly, no Jew living in Israel would want to sacrifice the motive for settling there in the first place.  However, a single state that would guarantee freedom of religion to all Jews might satisfy enough of the currently secularized population to make for a viable resolution of the problem.  If the walls of Old Jerusalem can accommodate practitioners of any number of different faiths (more or less), why can’t that accommodation be escalated to the scale of a single country governed by a representative democracy?

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