Riots reveal cracks in society

When it comes to shooting itself in the foot and other essential bits, Israel undoubtedly takes the all-time prize.

For the past few weeks, Israel has been convulsed by how women are treated by fanatics in the strictly Orthodox community. Women are being segregated on buses serving Charedi neighbourhoods. At an IDF base, women soldiers were barred from a public singing ceremony; at another, religious male soldiers walked out to avoid hearing women sing.

These concerns became uproar after a "modern orthodox" eight year-old, Na'ama Margolis, told a TV interviewer she was terrified of walking to school in Bet Shemesh after being spat on and cursed because her demure attire was considered not modest enough. Appallingly, pupils have been running this gauntlet of hatred by neighbouring Charedim since it opened months ago.

Journalists and police who descended on Bet Shemesh were subsequently pelted with rocks and eggs by Charedi rioters. Suddenly, the deep resentment among secular folk towards all religious people boiled over in a national explosion of rage. Although the abuse was blamed on a few hundred fanatics from one particular sect, all of the strictly Orthodox were cast as deranged bigots.

For intolerance is by no means confined to these communities. Many secular Israelis not only demonise Charedim but also subject the modern Orthodox, who work, pay taxes, fight and die for their country with exemplary courage, to similar disdain.

They've been allowed to become a law unto themselves

These events played into the hands of the Israel-bashers. Ludicrously, Hillary Clinton even suggested that Israel, the one Middle East country where women have full equality, was in danger of becoming another Iran.

Still, to dismiss these events as the acts of a few marginal extremists simply won't wash. To bully young girls for "immodesty" is vile, but it is the tip of an iceberg. The Charedi leaders and rabbis could stop this public intimidation. They choose not to do so.

Moreover extremism is spreading, with the "price-tag" attacks on mosques and army outposts. The result is that the entire Orthodox world has been besmirched. The essence of the problem is not just the chronic absence of Orthodox leadership. It is also a systematic failure of politics and law enforcement. Israeli society largely shrugs off abuses in Charedi neighbourhoods - such as signs instructing women to keep to one side of the street - as if they belong to a different country. They have been allowed to become a law unto themselves.

Now there is pressure for change, which has led to the complaint that the rights of the Charedim are being stifled. This was expressed in the repellent demonstration in Jerusalem last week, where Charedim sported yellow stars of David and claimed that the public and media were treating them as the Nazis treated the Jews. Such a comparison illustrates the depth of moral, intellectual and religious degradation within the strictly Orthodox world.

If society is not to disintegrate into warring tribes, there must be must be one law for all. Any benefits received by Charedim must be linked to duties they perform to the state. But Israel exempts them from this civic bargain, giving them benefits regardless of their failure to pay taxes or serve in the army (although that is changing). With their numbers rising exponentially, it is small wonder they cause so much resentment. But that is down to a systemic failure by the state itself.

They are not held to account because of the disproportionate power they wield through Israel's lunatic political system. The risk of Israeli society fracturing around the toleration of the intolerable will only be averted if this is reformed and the Charedim lose their power to hold society to ransom.

Melanie Phillips is a Daily Mail columnist

    Last updated: 11:43am, January 5 2012