Discord in Zion - Rise of Israel's Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Groups

10/11/2011 23:44 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

Something disturbing is happening to the Israeli army. A body that has always been the ultimate melting pot for the sexes is now causing offense to women in the name of religion.

The Israeli Defence Force is to all Israelis an integral part of growing up, a uniting, life-forming hub where the greater need of national security takes priority over race or faith issues. The unsettling ongoing rise in the number of religious Jewish soldiers creates an inevitable conflict as these soldiers' faith clashes with mixed sex army life.

In a recent headline-making incident, religious male soldiers walked out of a rally when a female soldier singer came on stage to perform.

In Orthodox Judaism, men are not allowed to hear women sing as a female's singing voice is considered a revelation of her 'nakedness'.

This follows an incident where during the jubilant Jewish Simchat Torah celebrations, hundreds of female soldiers were moved behind a separating divide, away from the male soldiers.

Even more disturbing than the incidents themselves is commanding officers' somewhat understandable impotence. The male soldiers exiting the rally were indeed dismissed from their army course, but the conflict between cohabiting army life and religious Jewish soldiers remains. Protests from the female soldiers ordered away from the men cannot be acted upon as the religion's demand for segregation will continue.

Worryingly, this phenomenon is not exclusive to the army but is increasing within the secular state of Israel. With an almost surrealistic air, women are wiped off Jerusalem's streets as their faces are removed from posters and billboard ads in respect of the resident religious Jewish communities. Mainstream fashion retailer Honigman has taken this act a step further by first removing models' heads from their street ads and later deleting protesting messages posted on the Facebook page by women and troubled citizens.

This somewhat medieval conduct is alien to Israel's secular, totally westernised society. It is seen as expected within the ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Mea Shearim, but will never sit well with Israeli society as a whole. If anything, this conflict is set to intensify. Israeli society is already fighting back. Several weeks ago the Israeli high court ruled against the segregation in the Amish-like, ultra-orthodox Jewish Mea Shearim, and it was ordered to remove separating walls between the sexes.

In Northern Haifa, a singing festival is taking place this week where men and women sing together in response to the orthodox prohibition against women singers, while media commentators openly, and more vocally criticise religion's invasion of daily life.

In Israel's thoroughly modern society, women stand at the head of industries and are even the current leaders of the two main political parties. This country currently has a woman heading the supreme court and has had the famous Golda Meir for a prime minister decades ago. Israeli women are a major workforce with over 40% returning to work less than a year after giving birth and an Israeli woman scientist has recently won the chemistry Nobel prize.

The civilised nature of this society is at breaking point. Religious people have already driven entire secular communities away from Jerusalem, applied restrictions on women soldiers celebrating with their male counterparts, angered secular communities with often violent tactics against Christians, demanded changes within education and have retailers like Honigman bowing to their laws.

It is not surprising that resentment towards the ultra-orthodox (Haredi) community is growing and becoming more vocal. The army and the government need to take urgent action to ensure clear laws and regulations exist to preserve the secular community's quality of life. The government must recognise ultra orthodox Jewish extremism as a threat and legislate accordingly. The issue of "respecting others' beliefs" cannot be one-sided.