Raymond Ibrahim writes for Middle East Forum and extensively covers the fate of Christians in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Today he published an article about the hijab that I think should serve as a warning to Israel. Sure, unlike Egypt, Israel has a different government and social and political systems, not to mention a much better educated population and political traditions. And yet, some of the same religious coercion and influence that permeates their culture has reared its ugly head in Israel’s. Read this and see whether some of the lessons apply:

According to Nasser, the very first demand of the Brotherhood leader was for the hijab to return to Egypt, “for every woman walking in the street to wear a headscarf.”

The audience erupted in laughter at this, then, ludicrous demand; one person hollered “Let him wear it!” eliciting more laughter and applause.

Nasser continued by saying he told the Brotherhood leader that if they enforced the hijab, people would say Egypt had returned to the dark ages (to more laughter), adding that Egyptians should uphold such matters in the privacy of their own homes.

Half a century later and none of this is a laughing matter: the hijab, if not the full burqa, is commonplace in Egypt, even as the Muslim Brotherhood—who for decades were banned and imprisoned for trying to return Egypt to an Islamic dark age—are now poised to govern the nation, all under U.S. tutelage.

In other words, Sadat’s great mistake—which cost him his life—is that he conferred a degree of legitimacy on the Muslim Brotherhood, thereby allowing them to worm their way into Egyptian society.

Such is the way of time: left unchecked, what was once ludicrous to suggest—for instance, the Brotherhood’s 1953 request “for every woman walking in the street to wear a headscarf”—slowly and gradually becomes part of the culture.

Back in 1948 when Ben Gurion agreed to have the ultra-Orthodox evade military service and the Israeli government gave up control over aspects of civil law to the Rabbinate with its full governmental authority behind this religious body’s rulings, the Orthodox population, modern and ultra, was relatively small. It has since grown enormously and the powers and decisions made back in the late 1940s under entirely different circumstances continue to play out in entirely unintended ways.

That the Orthodox Jewish community has taken advantage of the rights availed to it should surprise no one, it is the nature of politics and communities to seek to maximize their opportunities. However, for too long, these groups have sought to influence the lives of Israelis and Jews who are not affiliated with stringent observance of Jewish law.

What these groups could not do through the Rabbinate to all Israelis and Jews, they did within their own communities with relative impunity. What we’re seeing today, which is increasing demands for people around them as well as within their own Orthodox communities to have women commit to rules that are discriminatory and affect their place in society, is the result of decades in which the Israeli government has turned a blind eye to obvious developments within those communities, including primarily the growing stringency in observance of certain Jewish laws. To remind everybody, it was only a couple of years ago that Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leadership appointed itself as the ultimate group able to decide on a person’s Jewishness by declaring veto power over conversion made not just by Conservative and Reform rabbis, but even by Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox rabbis, outside of Israel and even inside Israel.

The government did nothing.

It is time to make sure that this slow but definite encroachment on the rights and freedoms of women and those men who are not Orthodox inside Israel is put to a complete halt. Religion has no place in the government and protecting the freedom of religion is not the same as harming the freedom of others who do not subscribe to religious observance and its multiple interpretations.

If you’re a woman living in Israel, take every opportunity you have to take a stand against activities that may harm your freedoms. And run for office or encourage other women and men who understand the danger here to run for office. Then get them elected into the Knesset. This is critical and it has to be started now to have an effect on the next election.

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  • I find your posts very insightful, especially since they are true to those original blogs that focused on the opinions of the writer.

    Unfortunately, the one paragraph where you attempt to summarize the legal situation in Israel may have mislead your readers.

    re: “…it was only a couple of years ago that Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leadership appointed itself as the ultimate group able to decide on a person’s Jewishness by declaring veto power over conversion made not just by Conservative and Reform rabbis, but even by Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox rabbis, outside of Israel and even inside Israel.”

    Perhaps you meant to state that the ultra-Orthodox leadership “attempted” to appoint itself…

    I suppose you were referring to the Rotem conversion bill which never passed in the Knesset and has been ‘put on hold’ for now.

    Joel Katz
    Religion and State in Israel

    • If readers were misled, perhaps it’s because I wasn’t explicit but not because I’m mistaken. I was referring to the unofficial declaration by prominent and influential rabbis in Israel to discount the validity of Orthodox conversions abroad except for those given by approximately 50 “pre-approved” rabbis who were deemed either established enough or powerful enough that they couldn’t be treated like the rest of their colleagues. The excuse given was that standards in North America had become too lenient or lax when it came to conversions. Of course, that’s absurd considering they were targeting Orthodox rabbis and even many ultra-Orthodox rabbis. So it can’t be considered anything other than a power play where the Israeli leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis appointed themselves as the key powers in determining the validity of conversions. Subsequently, there were claims that many conversions overseen by a prominent kipa sruga rabbi in Israel were insufficiently stringent.

      This was an unofficial takeover but it was a long time in coming. What happened as a consequence is that eventually many parts of the North American Orthodox community found themselves conceding to the Israeli rabbinical leadership on conversions, especially since the most prominent rabbis had been grandfathered into the system by the Israeli rabbis and the less influential rabbis simply couldn’t do anything since we’re not talking about a democratic process.

      On the Israeli nationalist religious front, they didn’t qive in to the dictum of the ultra-Orthodox and protested mightily, but they were essentially pushed into a corner where they were forced to ensure that stringency was strictly observed, probably to a point far greater than if they didn’t have insane machmirim looking over their shoulders.

      So all of this is unofficial, but it sure did happen and has had a real impact on who determines when a convert really will be considered Jewish by the Israelis.

      Oh, and by the way, I was speaking to a friend who is making aliyah soon. This guy has a Jewish name, has a Jewish mother, was raised in Jewish schools, has a Jewish wife, is a practicing Orthodox Jew and all of this was insufficient to be considered a Jew when making aliyah. He now has to show his mother’s ketubah as evidence and apparently he’s lucky that he doesn’t have to show his grandmother’s. Maybe I should start writing posts called Kol Shel Kulanu She’lo Haredim.

      • I thought everyone who made aliyah under the Law of Return had to present their parents’ ketuba. I had to show my parents’ ketuba to the Aliyah Center official in Chicago when I made aliyah in 1991. This was long before the heredim had such a positon of power as they do today.

      • That last paragraph of yours is really alarming; I’m planning to make aliyah with my husband in the coming year, but if the friend you mention isn’t considered Jewish enough, I’m absolutely stuffed; my mum married out and so did I. I was under the impression that I’d have to take in my grandmother’s ketubah, my mum’s birth certificate and my birth certificate and that would suffice, as it did when a) I went to Jewish schools b) my family made aliyah when I was a child. From what you’ve said, there’s no way I’m going to be approved for aliyah. Where’s your friend moving from, and which agency is he using? The JAFI woman I spoke to a while back sounded very frosty when I said my husband has no intention of converting, but there was no indication that I might not be approved for aliyah.

  • Shira,

    I’m not going to provide more information about my friend because I’ve already given a great deal.

    I’m not familiar enough with the current rules to be a source of information for you, but if you have your grandmother’s ketuba you should be fine because the Rabbinate will consider you Jewish since your mother was born to a Jewish woman. I believe the only exception to this would be if your mother actually converted to another faith and I assume that sometimes they do ask that particular question if they have concerns. If you are going to move to Israel, though, the first thing you need to learn is to not let rules stop you from trying to do what you need to do. Just go for it and worry about what might happen if it does happen.

    DLL, interesting story. From what I can tell rules are much more stringent now, but it may just be that the circles of people in which I moved didn’t seem to have any problem making aliyah with minimal documentation back in the day. I seem to recall posting a story a year or two ago about a young woman who was in the process of becoming Israeli and when she was about to get married, in order to have a “Jewish” wedding, the Rabbinate was demanding that she provide ketubot going back 3 or 4 generations.

    • themiddle, of course; I should have thought of that before asking for more details on your friend, sorry.

      That’s what I’d been told about my grandmother’s ketuba, so your answer is reassuring enough to stop me panicking until I can ask the appropriate agencies myself, thank you. I can definitely get behind your advice about the rules – I’ve always believed it’s easier to apologise than to get permission.

      Re: Nefesh B’Nefesh – I’m on their mailing list but have heard varying opinions of them, so it’s good to get another positive recommendation. Thanks!

  • Oh, and Shira, if you’re not working with them yet, let me recommend Nefesh B’Nefesh as a resource for you. I was very skeptical about them when they first launched, but they have become a very serious and effective resource for olim.

  • Sorry to break up the liberal tut-tutting party… but the tightening of documentation for new Olim is not some vast Haredi conspiracy – it stems directly from Israel’s new status as an attractive target for third world immigrants.

    This was first experienced during the recent waves of Soviet immigration, when a significant number of people with no real connection to the Jewish people tried to get into Israel using forged documents.

    The army is currently picking up dozens of Sudanese and other Africans crossing our border with Egypt.

    …and the comparison between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Haredim is as laughable as it ever was – and Muddle manages to get the facts wrong again. For example: growing numbers of Haredim are joining the army now that the religious national camp has paved the way for religious army service. And then there’s the wall-to-wall condemnation of the latest nonsense in Bet Shemesh…

    The Israeli Left has done more to damage democracy than the Haredim ever will.

    • Um, Haredim are joining the IDF in tiny numbers. The reasons have nothing to do with the national religious camp paving the way and have everything to do with the fact that the community has been forced to find a few suckers to go and do it so that the vast majority don’t. They don’t even do national service.

      While it is true that many refugees are coming across a porous southern border and while it is also true that the Russian aliya of the past 25 years has raised the warning antennae of the rabbis in Israel because many non-Jews arrived in Israel, the new-found stringency has far more to do with everything else that’s going on – hachmara and growing strength due to more political influence.

      As to your final claim about the Israeli left and the haredim, I will only say that even when you repeat a mantra numerous times, it still won’t become true.

  • Muddle:

    The reasons have nothing to do with the national religious camp paving the way and have everything to do with the fact that the community has been forced to find a few suckers to go and do it so that the vast majority don’t.

    Could you please cite the ruling/law that imposes ANY quota on the charedim, or applies any “force” to get them to serve?

    On the contrary – Ne’eman’s bill lets them continue on to higher education and employment without the restrictions/stigma that used to dog them.

    But hey – why bother actually finding out the details when you can just hold forth from America?