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Religious Revolution and Counterrevolution in Israel

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A religious revolution is in progress in Israel. It will either upend or extend the reach of the Ultraorthodox religious establishment, which presides over the institutions of marriage, divorce, and conversion in Israel, siphons off public funding for yeshivas, and worst of all has prevented the state from enacting a constitution that could provide significant protections for religious minorities.

For much of last year, Ultraorthodox factions seemed ascendant and able to exercise their clout in new ways. They pushed for gender-segregated public buses in particular neighborhoods in Jerusalem and agitated against the tradition for Jewish women to gather for special prayers at the start of each month. Initially, the Israeli government yielded to their demands, sanctioning the segregated "mahedrin" buses and arresting medical student Nofrat Frenkel, whose only crime was to wear a prayer shawl at the Western Wall. A theocratic movement seemed to be moving frighteningly close to the levers of power.

But Reform and Conservative Jews both within and beyond Israel responded to the Ultraorthodox aggression as never before. Nofrat Frenkel's arrest sparked protests around the world, while her fellow congregants in the "Women of the Wall" prayer group continue to meet each month at the Western Wall. The liberal Israel Religious Action Center recently brought suit against the Transportation Ministry for the segregated busses, and the Israeli Supreme Court struck down the medieval seating arrangement as illegal. These forward-looking Jewish organizations are pushing back against the Ultraorthodox establishment, and not merely to return to the status quo. They are trying to marginalize fanaticism altogether.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, reflected on the situation this week in Reform Judaism: "Unconditional support is not the same as uncritical support." Implicit in the statement is that American Jews may in the future apply their political and financial support for Israel more selectively. Giving the country carte blanche, many have recognized, is tantamount to giving the Ultraorthodox an advantage in the tug of war for Israeli identity.

Israeli delegates to the United States seem keenly aware of the potential loss of support from American Jews. Ambassador Michael Oren was asked this week about what he would do to ensure equal treatment at the Western Wall for all branches of Judaism. Though cloaked in diplomatic rhetoric, his message was clear: "I will only assure you that I think there are good solutions for the problems at the Kotel... They are at the top of my agenda. And that at the end of the day, it will require compromise on everyone's behalf." (Read: For the first time in six decades, the Ultraorthodox may need to make concessions about religion.)

The question remains, however, which group will win the war over Israel's identity. The Ultraorthodox are an entrenched interest group, which preys on the fragile system of political coalitions. But moderates have begun to court a surprising number of religious conservatives. When it became known that a growing number of Orthodox and even Ultraorthodox Jews had called in to support the Israel Religious Action Center's petition against gender segregated bussing, one of the Supreme Court justices quipped, "The Haredim [Ultraorthodox] are calling Reform Jews? That's progress." The downfall of the Ultraorthodox establishment might ultimately come from the disaffected within.