Life in Israel does not stop surprising me. Yesterday while I leafed through the paper, I stumbled on this sensational, albeit minor article:
“The Knesset is expected to look into the possibility that Israel Nature and Parks Authority guides at the Soreq cave Nature Reserve are concealing the true age of the cavern’s stalactites and of the stalagmites so as not to offend the beliefs of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox visitors. “
The Soreq Cave is a famous cave located in the Western slopes of the Judean Hills, few kilometers West of Jerusalem. The rock formations inside the cave are estimated by scientists to be as much as 8 million and 25 million years old. A teacher who was recently touring the area with first and second graders was told by the official guide that the formations were indeed “very old“. Despite the curiosity of the pupils, students of a science-oriented school in the South of Israel, it seems that the guide deliberately refused to state exactly how old. At the insistence of the teacher, the guide admitted she was not allowed to give the exact figure as not to conflict with the faith of the Orthodox, who believe the world is only 5.000 years old.
When hearing about conflict in the Middle-East, one may think the dichotomy Jews-Arabs is all it comes down to. But there are plenty of internal frictions inside modern Judaism. An abyss separates secular Jews and the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, estimated at approximately 1.3 million in the world and 7% of the Jewish population within Israel. Even within the Ultra-Orthodox communities themselves, many are the episodes of intolerance, mainly driven by a different degree of observance – or interpretation of the Torah’s rules.
Lately, this underlying conflict resurfaced in an episode which involved 43 school girls of Ashkenazi origins (of European descent) being withdrawn from a religious school in the West Bank settlement by their Ultra-Orthodox parents, worried about the risks of mixing with Ultra-Orthodox girls of Sefardi origin (Of North Africa and the Middle East descent).
The Immanuel school, which had been formerly segregating the two ethnic groups, was ordered by the Court to desegregate, a fact which angered especially the Ashkenazi community. Protests have seen the arrests of several of the parents, who refused to re-admit their girls. The reason for a separate education, they claim, is the necessity to protect their daughters from the worrisome influence of girls who display a less strict degree of religious observance: behaviors such as watching TV, using the internet, and a laxer dress code among the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox have been cited as reasons for demanding the continuation of segregation.
The case brought to surface a much wider issue which is central in Israel today: the increasingly resentment by the secular population against the ultra-Orthodox minority which is supported by welfare benefits, and which at the same time does not recognize the supremacy of the state rule above the Torah’s. This defying attitude combined with the fact that many ultra-orthodox do not serve in the army in favor of religious studies, has brought forward the image of a “parasite” community, which refuses to mix with the rest of the society which indirectly supports them.
The Haredim – as they are called in Israel, “those who tremble in awe of God” – are encouraged to engage in modern society as little as possible. However, ultra-Orthodox are also a rapidly growing population, with high birth rates and an increasing political power: they are represented by the Shass party, whose influence binds the hand of Nethanyahu’s government on major issues like the settlements policy.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews calculates the origin of the world based on the chronology presented in the Genesis book, which proclaims that there were only a certain numbers of generations separating Adam and Abraham. A small minority of classical rabbis believed that the world is older than 5.000 years, and that life as we know it today did not always exist. Nowadays, Orthodox Jews who reject evolution in block are a minority. Many have come to include scientific findings as a way to learn about the miracle of God’s creation, avoiding entering into mandatory details.
So while authorities are determining whether or not other National Parks guides are voluntarily concealing scientific information to satisfy the beliefs of the ultra-Orthodox minority, we can ask ourselves how far is modern Israeli society willing to go in putting up with their demands. Deliberate obscuration of scientific information is not a new fact in the history of relation between Science and Religion. Remember Galileo? Tied down by an inquisition panel, the famous scientist who had refuted the Ptolemaic model of the Earth being at the center of the world, endorsed by the Church, had to publicly abjure his own theories. But when he walked away from the court, he mumbled the famous sentence “Eppur si muove!” (“however, it is moving” – referring to the Earth movement around the Sun).