Frida Ghitis
The Miami Herald (Opinion)
December 23, 2011 - 1:00am

Over the six decades since its founding, Israelis have faced, and continue to face, countless threats to their country’s survival as the democratic state of the Jewish people. That threat comes from abroad and from neighboring countries that would like to see Israel cease to exist.

But today Israel also suffers from self-inflicted wounds. And some of those wounds are becoming infected.

Among Israel’s highly diverse population, two different Jewish groups include members whose views represent a direct affront to the character and the survival of the state. Both groups, for different reasons, are enemies of Israel, even if they are convinced that their actions are justified. If they were to succeed, Israel would ultimately disappear.

Whenever you hear about attacks on Palestinians by Israeli settlers, about olive trees being uprooted or mosques torched, chances are you are hearing about the work of the Hilltop Youth, a gang of young settlers who break Israeli law in their efforts to prevent the Israeli government from removing any unauthorized settlements or making any concessions to Palestinians. In one of their boldest “price tag” attacks, as they call their criminal rampages, several dozen of them recently went on a rampage against an Israeli army base in the West Bank, lobbing rocks at Palestinians and at Israeli soldiers. They injured, among others, an Israeli army commander.

The overwhelming majority of Israelis were horrified at the incident. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it “a stain on our democracy.” The authorities vowed to crack down.

I’m glad this incident happened, because it shocked Israelis awake about the outrages of a group that claims to act on behalf of the Jewish people. Supporters of Israel in the United States and elsewhere should be no less troubled, and they should demand that Israel keep the pressure and put an end once and for to settler violence, particularly when it targets Palestinians. The conflict with Palestinians must be settled though negotiations. This kind of violence makes a mockery of Israel’s founding principles and of its self-image as an enlightened nation.

The other Jewish group that threatens Israeli democracy can be found among the ultra-orthodox. About ten percent of Israel’s Jews are ultra-orthodox, living in a world most of us would never choose or comprehend and some of their views are hard to accept for the rest of us. There is nothing wrong with people opting to live as they wish. And, if there is one country on earth where people who follow the most orthodox interpretation of Jewish law should live, that, of course, is Israel.

But it’s not always easy to reconcile the beliefs of that minority with the views of most Israelis, who are fiercely modern, progressive and liberal. At times, and in particular places, such as the orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem, views clash, sometimes violently.

Among the country’s ultra-orthodox, some have gone to extremes — by assaulting marchers in Israel’s Gay Pride parade, for example. They routinely rip down advertising posters showing women. Most recently, they have made headlines because of their efforts to separate men and women in public transportation, relegating women to the back of the bus.

The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled segregation, on buses or elsewhere, plainly illegal. The police have vowed to crack down on any effort to impose segregation or discriminate against women.

The challenge to freedom does not end there. The orthodox in Israel are politically organized and they leverage their political power far beyond their numbers in the population.

The overwhelming majority of Israelis deplore the anti-democratic actions of the ultra-orthodox and the sickening behavior of the radical settlers.

Israelis should hear the criticism from their friends abroad on these issues as well.

There are wild claims that Israel is becoming a Taliban-style theocracy. That’s absurd. The country remains a vibrant democracy that juggles different lifestyles and worldviews.

But these attacks against democratic freedoms cannot be tolerated. People who support Israel do it for one principal reason: because Israel, despite its many flaws, is a country that shares the values cherished in modern democratic societies: equality of the sexes, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and rule of law.

If Israel allows any of those freedoms to erode, as some activist minorities want, the majority of the population, who want a modern society, will suffer. And Israel will justifiably lose international support, something it can ill afford if it wants to survive the many other threats it still faces, and remain the world’s only Jewish democratic state.


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