Judaism in the Middle East

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How is Judaism in the Middle East different from Judaism in the rest of the world?

It may surprise Americans and Europeans, who have only tangential contact with Judaism. It may even surprise some Jews who have not bothered to look beyond their cloistered and safe lifestyle.

Israel is the only nation on earth where Judaism makes up the majority religion of the population: 76.1% Jewish, 16.2% Muslim, 2.1% Christian, and 1.6% Druze, with the remaining 3.9% not classified by religion. The Druze are a sect of Islam that has incorporated many non-traditional beliefs. But this is what makes Israel unique. It was committed in 1948 to be a national homeland for Jews, who have been historically persecuted because of their religious beliefs.

Haredim in Israel

Although only 10% of Jews in Israel consider themselves Haredim, or ultra-orthodox, as many non-Haredim refer to them, a good third of the population consider themselves very religious. Now, that is a huge difference between America and Europe, where the majority of Jews are from the reform movement. Reform Jews are progressives who do not regard Judaism as a living religion that changes vitally as the community, culture and technology of the world changes. They regard the Talmud and the Torah as valuable guides to moral and ethical life. In addition, nearly 80% of American and European Jews are not orthodox.

Orthodox Judaism

In Israel, Orthodox Judaism possesses a great deal of political power. As a party, they have instituted Sabbath laws which strike Americans and Europeans as very unusual, considering the separation of State and Church that is such an important function of Western constitutions. For instance, on Saturday, elevators are required to automatically stop at each floor and open and close automatically, so that Orthodox Jews will not have to break Sabbath by pressing the button, which Orthodox Jews consider operating machinery. Religious study of the Torah and Talmud is also grounds for exclusion in the mandatory military service required of all Israelis.

Religious life in Israel, a vibrant and living Judaism, is knit into the fabric of the social culture in every way. Although there are many Muslim citizens of Israel, some even serving in the Knesset, the Israeli legislative body, and the nation enjoins active freedom of religion, Israel still remains, as it was intended in the Balfour Declaration of 1920 or Churchill’s White Paper of 1922, a homeland for the Jews. It is a Jewish state in the midst of vastly overwhelming Muslim populated nations.

Now, examine the nature of Jordan, Syria, Egypt and nearly all the other overtly Islamic nations in the Middle East. Few of them offer citizenship on equal footing to non-Muslims. Few of them allow freedom of religion, allowing free conversion, free speech, freedom to prostletyze. Not a single Muslim nation in the region outside of Turkey has a single individual in their puppet legislatures who is not a Muslim. In Israel, laws protect the rights of non-Jews to practice their religion. In Saudi Arabia, an Arab caught with a Bible is subject to legal action. In Syria, a person caught trying to convert a Muslim to Christianity can face a death penalty. In Afghanistan, an Afghani who converted to Christianity was saved from the death penalty because of the torrential outcry of the Western world, so much so that the Afghan government allowed the man to emigrate on the grounds that he was mentally unstable, since, to them, that would be the only reason a Muslim would convert.

I didn’t intend to go on a rant about repressive Islamic regimes, but it offends me mightily that Muslim nations remain benighted in medieval isolationism from progressive thought. Muslims are regarded by the rest of the world as primitive and cruel because their oppressive governments, none of which, with the exception of Turkey, even begins to qualify as democratic, wish to remain religious nanny-states that dictate how one is to practice religion.

Israel is a shining beacon of democratic government, progressive models of industry, science and agriculture.

It leads the world in technological advances in water de-salination. And it is a nation purely dedicated to be the homeland of a religious group. Why cannot Muslim nations do the same? If Israel is a Jewish state, why cannot Muslim nations be as progressive, enlightened and humanist? Instead of seeing Israel as an enemy and a blot on the landscape, perhaps Muslims should look to it as a model of a democratic state founded in a religious tradition.

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