By Reza Aslan
I know better than most how unexpectedly a country can be changed from within.
I was born in Iran before its 1979 revolution, when it was a secular country with a modern constitution and equal access to the law, but ruled by a dictator with an iron fist.
In the eyes of then-US President Jimmy Carter, Iran was an “island of stability in one of the most troubled areas of the world.” He said as much to the country’s long-serving monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, in a public toast in Tehran in December 1977.
But within the supposed “island of stability” there was a substantial minority population that was religiously conservative, politically active and zealously committed to imposing their values and agenda upon the state. When the Shah failed in his duty to address the needs of his citizens — when the government was revealed to be kleptocratic, inept and corrupt — the religious conservatives saw their chance.
With the backing of much of the population, they helped organize a massive revolution that roiled the country and forced the Shah and his family to flee as his kingdom was transformed into the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In this case, the revolution was sudden and violent. But not all revolutions happen in this way.
Some occur quietly and gradually, with one group injecting its ideology into the state, forcing more government concessions and taking on greater political power until, one day, you wake up and find this group has more or less taken over the state.
That is precisely what I see happening right now in Israel with the Haredim, an extremely conservative religious minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews. The ultra-Orthodox represent a diverse but devout and anti-modern group that’s been challenging the secular nature of Israeli society for years and could change the very fabric of the country.
Right now, the Haredim comprise about 13% of Israel’s Jewish population, but their numbers are increasing. If their birth rate continues at the current pace, by mid-century approximately one in every four Jews in Israel will be ultra-Orthodox, according to an October 2013 report from the United Nations Statistical Commission and Economic Commission for Europe.
I believe these demographic changes pose a severe threat to Israel’s status as a modern, secular democracy. After all, according to the Pew Research Center, a staggering 86% of ultra-Orthodox Jews want Israel to be a theocratic state governed by Jewish law, known as “halakha.”
In the interviews I conducted with ultra-Orthodox leaders during the filming of this week’s episode of “Believer,” I was repeatedly told that the only way Israel could legitimately be a “Jewish state” is if it abides by Jewish law. In practical terms, this means forcing stores, restaurants and cinemas to close for the Sabbath, something that ultra-Orthodox youth have at times tried to enforce through threats and violence.
One of our interviewees, Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox deputy mayor, Yitzhak Pindrus, threatened not too long ago to cut off all municipal funding to any event that violates the law of the Sabbath. “I am not prepared to allow municipal budgets to be given to events that desecrate Shabbat,” he said.
Pindrus is one of a growing number of ultra-Orthodox Jews who are taking on increasingly powerful roles in the Israeli government with the goal of either enacting legislation that favors their community, or stopping legislation they deem to be in violation of their strict interpretation of Jewish law.
So, for instance, despite the fact that a 2013 poll found that 70% of Israelis support same-sex marriage, the ultra-Orthodox have been one of the voices in Israel’s national debate about civil marriage. Under current Israeli law, Jews can only be married through the Chief Rabbinate, the supreme religious council in Israel, which, unsurprisingly, is dominated by ultra-Orthodox rabbis.
As with many religiously conservative groups, the ultra-Orthodox practice strict gender segregation guidelines. As a result, women have been barred at times from certain sections on public buses in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, and have at times been kept from walking on certain sidewalks in Haredi areas.
In majority ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods like Meah Shearim and cities like Beit Shemesh, self-ascribed “morality police” have at times harassed and sometimes even physically assaulted women who are not, in their view, properly dressed or behaved.
Perhaps most dramatically, the Orthodox have attempted through threats and physical acts of violence to keep women from performing services at the Wailing (Western) Wall, the holiest site in the world for all Jews.
Such actions have created enormous friction between the ultra-Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews. (Indeed, the government’s ultra-Orthodox minister of religious affairs recently declared about Reform Jews, “I cannot allow myself to call such a person a Jew.”)
I myself spoke to a number of secular Jews in Israel who openly worried that the ultra-Orthodox are on the verge of turning Israel into a Jewish version of Iran. While that may sound extreme, it shows the level of concern that is running through the secular community in Israel.
Whether the ultra-Orthodox are in fact able to one day transform Israel into a religious state remains to be seen. But what cannot be denied is that their influence over Israeli society and the Israeli government is only growing.
And as someone who lost his own country to a small but powerful group of religious zealots, I genuinely worry about the future of Israel.