The Immanuel Affair and the Problems of Intercultural Encounter
Democratic Culture in Israel and in the World, Vol. 15, 2013
29 Pages Posted: 28 Apr 2013
Date Written: 2013
This article discusses a clash between the Supreme Court of Israel and the Ashkenazi Ultra-Orthodox community of the town of Immanuel. I maintain that the Immanuel affair exemplifies the problems that tend to arise in an encounter between the institutions of a liberal state on the one hand and a nonliberal cultural group that lives within that liberal state on the other. I advance three principal arguments.
The first argument is that exclusion is an extremely offensive form of discrimination. But even though at first sight the Immanuel affair would seem to be a clear-cut example of invidious exclusion, it nonetheless demonstrates that every intercultural encounter is problematic in two specific respects: the difficulty that each side has in understanding the other side's culture, and the problems that arise from each side's normative evaluation of the other's culture. The Immanuel affair demonstrates the difficulty that a secular and liberal court has in understanding the daily practices that are so characteristic of the life of an ultra-Orthodox community.
The second argument focuses on the issue of justification. It attempts to deal with the problem that arises when a liberal state has to justify to its nonliberal citizens its taking coercive action against a cultural practice of the nonliberal group.
The third argument is that a hierarchy of measures is available to a governmental institution when dealing with problematic cultural practices that are sometimes prevalent among nonliberal groups. The most moderate form of intervention would be to encourage action in the domain of civil society, while the most extreme measure would be criminal punishment. In the Immanuel affair the Court resorted to the latter kind of action. I argue that in cases of intercultural confrontation, encouraging action at the civil society level is the most likely route to success, while the criminal punishment course is often – though not always – destined to fail.
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