(Liya Rechtman)– Have you ever watched a family implode? Imagine that you have, but also imagine that this family has roughly 13,421 people – like a small(ish) international tribe. I thought, coming to Israel this winter, that I would have a break peaceful, validating break from secular life and a chance to return to the Jewish roots of my childhood. This visit marks my first time here since I stopped being “religious” at the end of high school and settled into a more “secular” worldview. (See my other two posts on Israel for details…) This visit is also my first time here as an adult.

When I was fifteen and even more staunchly feminist than I am now, I was asked to take off my kippah (yarmulke, skullcap) at the Western Wall (of the Holy Temple, Kotel) in Jerusalem by an Israeli soldier. Women don’t traditionally wear kippah, so it was a very strong feminist statement that I was making, that women and men could worship in the same ways even in more conservative communities. The soldier told me he was worried that I would get hurt for wearing a kippah and he wouldn’t be able to protect me from an angry mob of ultra-Orthodox. At that point, I had no idea WHAT he was talking about, and I spent the next week being huffy about religious censorship in the military.

I can’t even BELIEVE now how naive I was then, and how naïve I have been about what is happening to this country…

Only a day after I landed, the ultra-Orthodox town called Beit Shemesh five minutes walk from the kibbutz where my family lives erupted in violence against – wait for it, did you guess Arabs? Wrong – women, Orthodox women who aren’t religious ENOUGH. I don’t mean “not religious enough” as just me, in my tights, short skirts and doc Martens. An ultra-Orthodox man spit on a seven-year-old girl outside a synagogue for not being dressed modestly enough. She was wearing long sleeves, leggings, a long skirt, and a sweater. Her wrists were showing.

In Jewish communities of the past, the onus was on the community at large to support the most religious members, the Rabbis and their families who devoted their lives to study the holy books. This relationship between religious leadership and laity is not unique to Judaism: in both Catholicism and Buddhism, historically, the monks were also economically supported by laity. This creates (for these cultures) a complicated relationship between lay people and leadership. The presumption being that since the religious people are religious, they are also morally irreprehensible. In the Jewish State (Israel), the same dynamic exists. The government funds (aka taxes from lay people) are used to support the ultra-Orthodox, who claim exemption from the work force because of a religious obligation to study scripture. Fast-forward about five hundred years (because lay people have been paying “religious” Jews to live in Israel without working since WAY before there was an official state), and you have these huge, quickly-multiplying communities of religious extremists who are autonomous, insular, poor, and with a huge superiority complex. These conditions easily lend to outbreaks of religiously fervent violence. You have a problem.

The ultra-Orthodox have super-legal rules in Beit Shemesh in the past two-ish years that prohibit women from:
-riding in the front of the bus
-revealing anything other than their eyes in public
-gathering together in groups, either in public or in the home
-appearing in photographs (this includes secular female officials elected to the town before it went bat-shit insane)
-speaking to men outside of the nuclear family

I… don’t even know what to say… it’s one thing to read Persepholis and understand that these situations happen somewhere, in a place and with a people I’m not connected to. It’s another thing to say that I want to sacrifice two years of my life in the army (with the risk of death from enemy gunfire) to defend my people, and then realize that this… this monstrosity IS my people. This is not Torah as I know it; this is not what I was taught in Hebrew school.

And honestly, it gets worse. It’s not just that this singular, isolated extremist community that is ripping apart a nation. It’s not even specific to this dichotomy, between religious and secular in Israel. The Jewish people, as a people, are more fractured than that.

In my first 10 minutes here over this break, as my grandfather pulled out of Tel Aviv International airport, I explained to him how much traveling I would be doing over interterm. My plans include a weekend at a Zionist youth leadership conference in Miami. My grandfather twisted around in the driver’s seat of the car to tell me that yes, I am a Zionist. I’m a Zionist because I’m too lazy/cowardly to actually move to Israel, so instead I sit on my ass in America, think a lot about Israel, and pay someone, who pays someone else, to actually live here. The money I put towards being Zionist makes me feel entitled when I come to Israel.

There’s this feeling here, between Israeli secular Jews who have moved here and “diaspora” Jews, Jews still living in the rest of the world, that we aren’t as legitimate.

In the same way that religious Jews don’t see secular Jews as “real” Jews, because they don’t adhere to the same (read: completely ridiculous) standards, Israeli Jews don’t see American Jews as legitimate either. We are viewed as defectors. Forget that I am seriously considering (although less so now) moving to Israel, the fact that I am already 19 years old and haven’t joined the Israeli army OR started a family here is considered disappointing, to say the least.

For me, this trip has been heartbreaking. It’s like traveling around the world to see the person you loved most, and realizing that maybe they never existed at all. I don’t yet what that means for my binationalism, or what that means for my Judaism. I guess maybe I’ll start figuring that out in 2012.

Well, Constant theme… <3 ConstantLy