JUDAISM IS FLOURISHING, both in Israel, where 43% of the world’s Jews now live, and throughout the Jewish diaspora. The Jews as a nation are flourishing too. Israelis, for all their problems, are the 14th-happiest people in the world, happier than the British or the French, according to a recent global happiness report commissioned by the UN. In the diaspora Jewish life has never been so free, so prosperous, so unthreatened.
In America an observant Jew, Senator Joseph Lieberman, ran for vice-president in 2000. With Al Gore as candidate for president, he nearly made it. His Jewish faith was no drawback, he says; rather, it appealed to many Christian voters who take their own religion seriously. Mr Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, “were dreaming of a large suka” (a rustic hut covered with branches in which Jews eat and entertain during the Sukot harvest festival) in the grounds of the vice-president’s residence. “We felt we could be ourselves.” Had he had gone on to run for the White House, as he hoped, “I’d have been observant there, too.”
go to a gym – or at least I did before the extortionate fees led me to cancel my membership – in an area with a large Muslim population. I know this not because of demographics, but because the gym had a “women only” section. And on any given day it would be full of women wearing headscarves, fully covered-up, working out with the best of them.
Islam isn’t the only religion to proscribe certain clothing as immodest; Judaism has strict laws on modesty too, and certainly Christianity calls for women to behave appropriately in other respects.
But, regardless of which religion it is, there are ways to uphold the requirements of the faith without compromising on lifestyle; this can be anything from working in “male professions” as a woman, to Orthodox Jewish women wearing the latest trends with added sleeves, or Muslim women exercising to their hearts’ content in private spaces.
Modesty laws don’t have to be an impediment to lifestyle, yet they are in several countries, including Saudi Arabia.
Until recently, I had never been to Hebron. In the past three months, however, I have twice boarded an armoured bus to make the journey.
The first time was with a private, non-political group to visit Hebron’s Jewish area and the Cave of Machpelah, where Abraham and the patriarchs and matriarchs are said to be buried.
It was a shock. If ever there was a illustration of the attempt by Islam to supersede Judaism, this was surely it.
This holy Jewish shrine was to all intents a mosque. Islamic prayer mats were piled high, and there seemed to be not one Jewish artefact in the place. Even the catafalques sporting labels claiming them as the tombs of the founders of Judaism were topped by Islamic crescents.
Those labels are hung only on the handful of days per year the Jews are allowed to visit. Hebron has become a synonym in the west for oppression of the Palestinians by ‘crazed settlers’, but it is in fact those Jewish residents who are hanging on by their fingernails to a minimal right of access to one of Judaism’s holiest sites.