Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Beth Westboro Shul

Which reminds me. This story has been making the rounds, so maybe you've seen it already.

Ultra-orthodox Jewish males in Israel have been rioting again, this time because of women who dress like whores, like the eight-year-old girl above. The daughter of American immigrants, she attends a merely Orthodox school in the mid-sized city of Beit Shemesh, but is now "afraid of walking to her religious Jewish girls school for fear of ultra-Orthodox extremists who have spat on her and called her a whore for dressing 'immodestly.' ... The ultra-Orthodox consider the school, which moved to its present site at the beginning of the school year, an encroachment on their territory. Dozens of black-hatted men jeer and physically accost the girls almost daily, claiming their very presence is a provocation."

When the child's plight was televised, the government came under pressure to do something about it. The ultra-Orthodox fought back.

Several demonstrators were taken in for questioning after police and journalists were roughed up and insulted by ultra-Orthodox men telling them to "clear off," the journalist said.

There were also shouting matches between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews.

Beit Shemesh residents showered police and television crews with eggs and also set fire to the contents of refuse bins.

Here's some video.

Yep, some of these highly spiritual men are being arrested. But I can't help wondering: where are the batons, where is the pepper spray, where are the rubber bullets or even live ammunition, where are the water cannons, where are all the paraphernalia of twenty-first century police response to violence by extremists? Nowhere in sight, and it's not because Israel isn't up-to-date in that area. The rioters -- which is the right word to use for stone-throwing goons -- aren't even being put in choke holds. I suspect President Peres' expressed concern is merely cosmetic, and will disappear when the fuss dies down.

The ultra-Orthodox are an interesting phenomenon in today's Israel. Though they're only 10 percent of the population, they have disproportionate political power, both in the Knesset and in the Army. Israeli concern about what's delicately called "the demographic problem" among Israeli Arabs (that is, they have too many children, and will soon take over) doesn't extend to the no less prolific ultra-Orthodox.

There have also been numerous incidents over the years when ultra-Orthodox men have harassed women on buses for refusing to sit at the back. (Too symbolic, isn't it?) Now some ultra-Orthodox millionaires have proposed a private, segregated bus line to settle the problem.

American enthusiasts for Israel should be questioned about this issue. If President Obama can dodge it, perhaps someone might ask Secretary of State Clinton about, you know, human rights. But there's another side to this: why should the ultra-Orthodox be tolerated by everyone else? After all, "their very presence is a provocation." If they want to be bigots in their own enclaves, that's fine, but when they want to encroach on everyone else's territory, shouldn't the men be required to shave their forelocks and beards and dress like the majority? Shouldn't the women be required to dress like prostitutes? Conservatives are almost always the biggest moral relativists: they want to force everyone else to conform to their standards, but they don't want to conform to majority values. We who believe in pluralism and tolerance should continue to do so, but we shouldn't be impressed, let alone intimidated, when conservatives pretend to be loyal to their allegedly high principles. They don't really have any. Once again it's important to remember the difference between respecting others' right to their own opinions and beliefs, and respecting the opinions themselves. The first is an obligation in a free society, the second is not.