“Suddenly we’re more religious than they are”


From Der Spiegel:

The ultra-religious are gaining power throughout the Middle East, including in Israel, where radical rabbis are expanding their influence. This is especially clear when it comes to women. Ironically, it is in Israel, a country that was already being run by a woman, Golda Meïr, in the 1970s, and where women fly fighter jets, that Jewish fundamentalists are trying to bring about gender separation in public — in elections, on buses and in the street — all in the name of a morality that is supposedly agreeable to God. Until now, this trend has been most noticeable in Jerusalem, in Beit Shemesh and in Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv, the country’s ultra-orthodox strongholds. But increasingly it is becoming apparent in places where secular Israelis live.

Even a former head of the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, is now warning that the ultra-orthodox are a bigger threat to the country than the Iranian nuclear program. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently that the conditions in Jerusalem remind her of Iran.

The odd coexistence of religion and democracy in the Jewish state was long unproblematic. But now the consequences are becoming clear, the signs of fatigue of an overstressed country, a country that is both a democracy and an occupying power, a high-tech nation in which a portion of the population still lives as if it were the 19th century, and a country that accepts immigrants from around the world, provided they are Jews, while at the same time mercilessly deporting refugees. As such, the settlers are, on the one hand, increasingly exhibiting a Messianic nationalism while, on the other hand, the ultra-orthodox pursue a fundamentalism hostile to the state.

Naomi Machfud says that she feels good in her headscarf and multiple skirts. So good, in fact, that she claims she doesn’t even sweat during the summer, at 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). She huddles on a worn sofa and tries to explain how it all began, with her and the veil. It is a story consisting of fragments and allusions, and it begins with a Jewish girl from New York who feels empty and spends her time in the streets, until she goes to Israel at 15 to attend an orthodox seminar. She becomes religious and, encouraged by the rabbis, starts wearing more and more clothing.

Her rabbi was supposed to explain why exactly women are doing this, but he cancelled the meeting at the last minute. At the moment, it is not advisable to openly support the Taliban women, because a few of the ultra-orthodox have just imposed a new rule on them, which they announce in wall newspapers: “You may not cover yourself in abnormal and peculiar clothing, including veils, especially if your husband is against it.”

Machfud smiles a Mona Lisa smile. “Some men don’t like it,” she says. “Suddenly we’re more religious than they are.”

“Advance of the Zealots”, Juliane von Mittelstaedt, Der Spiegel