Analysis

What It Means When an ultra-Orthodox Politician Lays a Memorial Day Wreath in Israel

The Haredi community is strong in its isolation from core Israel, but it’s not expelling anyone who marks the holiday

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman reading psalms at the Kiryat Gat military cemetery on Memorial Day, May 1, 2017.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman added a new element to the official Memorial Day service. Instead of hanging his head as others were doing, he quietly read from the Book of Psalms after laying a wreath at the memorial for fallen soldiers at the Kiryat Gat military ceremony. It’s now the second year Litzman has represented the government at a memorial for soldiers. It’s also the second year he has said psalms after laying the wreath an act that many ultra-Orthodox Jews deem un-Jewish.

“The entire Jewish nation becomes one person,” said Litzman, a representative of the Ger rabbi and the head of Agudat Yisrael, now part of the United Torah Judaism party. “You should know you’re not alone. All the Jewish people are at your side, remembering your unbearable pain and appreciating your too great contribution.”

He added: “Those who hate us do not distinguish between Haredim and secular people, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, right and left, or immigrants and native-born residents.”

Although it’s the second year, this kind of talk can still make many people do a double-take. Even if Litzman didn’t mention the Zionist vision, his speech at the military ceremony about a joint fate is innovative for a leader of a community that has championed separatism from Zionism, including the exemption of its young men from military service. Who better than Litzman to represent this line?

Litzman started participating in state ceremonies based on a decision by the Council of Sages well over a year ago to deviate from Agudat Yisrael’s policy since 1948 (save for one exception in the 1950s). That decision let Litzman be a full cabinet member, not just a cabinet-level deputy minister, an arrangement that the High Court of Justice struck down. Litzman swore loyalty, and the rest is history. But Litzman’s participation in the ceremony is also linked to the weakening of separatist fervor in the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community.

The tough Haredi press

It’s conceivable that Litzman not only never said similar words out loud before coming to the Kiryat Gat cemetery, surrounded by an air force honor guard. It’s possible he never dared to even whisper them to himself. They don’t win you headlines in Hamodia or the other Haredi newspapers.

The Haredi press stressed, as it does every year, its reserved attitude toward the Zionist enterprise and the state. Yated Neeman republished an old article with a new caricature. The message was: Once, when we adhered to the way of Torah, we rode the lion (“the nations of the earth”) and everyone was satisfied, including the lion, while today, when Israelis have exchanged the Torah way for secular Zionism, the lion is about to tear us apart completely, or perhaps just the secular people.

Such a caricature could have been published in a 1930s Haredi paper in Hungary, but it’s no surprise a Haredi paper is sending the message in 2017. True, secular Jews are no longer so Zionist, and the Haredim are no longer so anti-Zionist, but the official mouthpiece stays the course.

On the other hand, the non-establishment Haredi media, mainly websites and radio stations, adopted an Israeli agenda, sharing in the state’s grief and joy. The main headline on news portal Behadrey Haredim at the time of the siren Monday morning was “A week before he was killed: The Lomdei Torah cannot be harmed” about a Haredi soldier killed in the 2014 Gaza war. On top was a Memorial Day banner. Meanwhile, this portal’s competitor, Kikar Shabbat, published articles on the Haredim’s role in paying the ultimate price for Israel.

These publications join the social networks, where countless videos, posts and tweets declare in hundreds of ways that the Haredim too belong to Israeli society. What started as a trickle one or two years ago has become a flood this year. There are projects to read psalms and study Mishna for fallen soldiers. And a video went viral of a Haredi man sitting on the hull of an old tank asking “Tell me, am I a Zionist?”

Only on the fringes

The answer, with “Hatikva” playing in the background, is: “My Zionism is perhaps a little different, but my people are one.” Dozens of Haredim, members of a Facebook group for new Haredim called the Torah Hub, took part in a conference in Jerusalem to commemorate fallen solders a few days ago. This group is trying to forge a new ideological path – being Haredi and Israeli.

This is only happening on the edges of Haredi society. Despite the temptation to call it a revolution, it isn’t. It’s avant garde, something drawing attention in the Haredi media. But regular classes continue at the yeshivas and Haredi educational institutions. Most Haredim don’t vacillate about whether to hang an Israeli flag on their balcony.

But activity on the fringe says something about the center. The Haredi mainstream is strong in its isolation from Israel, but it’s not expelling those who mark or identify with Memorial Day. As in the case of the few joining the army, getting a job or studying at college or university, they remain in the Haredi community.

Regarding Litzman, it’s interesting that his speech and participation at the ceremony didn’t provoke any protests, even by anti-Zionist Haredim. Litzman remains Agudat Israel’s political leader, and if the government survives, he’ll be its representative at the next official Memorial Day ceremony.