Opinion |

If Israel's Left Ever Wants to Regain Power, It's Got to Stop Hating the Haredim

Haredi Jews are not naturally right-wing or anti-peace. It's the antagonism and ignorance of Israel's left and center towards them that has serially pushed them into Netanyahu's arms

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An ultra-Orthodox father helps his kids cast his ballot at a polling station in Jerusalem. April 9, 2019
An ultra-Orthodox father helps his kids cast his ballot at a polling station in Jerusalem. April 9, 2019Credit: \ Ronen Zvulun/ REUTERS

My grandfather often used to say: "The acceptance of reality is the beginning of wisdom."

Over the next few days, the Israeli left will engage in some serious soul-searching about what went wrong on April 9. Some will blame overheated rhetoric from the right, others will blame their own poor leadership.

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But one key factor will be left out and forgotten, just as it was when then-Labor leader Itzhak Herzog lost in 2015.

The left, over the past decades, has handed over a gift to the right: The gift of the Haredi vote. The fact that when the election blocs are counted, the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) are automatically counted with the right, should be blamed on left-wing policies and priorities, and not on Haredi worldviews.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, at the opening of the Knesset winter session, October 23, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

It’s time for the Israeli left to accept what is, perhaps, a particularly jarring reality: there are more Israelis who are concerned about maintaining the legacy of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (Shas gained 8 seats) than those concerned with preserving the legacy of David Ben Gurion (Labor - 6 seats.)

Let me explain. If you look deeper in to the core ideology of Haredi thought, you will notice that it is, in fact, much closer to the Labor Party than to the Likud.

Rav Eliezer Shach, one of the founding fathers of modern Haredi society, wrote in his book "Michtavim u’Maamarim," that the Jewish people is forbidden from antagonizing the nations, and ought to be considerate about the "nations of the world" in matters of policy.

He opposed the founding of the Haredi city of Kiryat Sefer, because it was beyond the Green Line; he famously called the Israeli settlements ''a blatant attempt to provoke the international community'' that endangered Jewish lives, and supported withdrawals for the sake of peace, declaring it is "permitted and necessary to compromise on even half of the Land of Israel."

Shach was known for his discomfort with Israeli nationalism and with militaristic over-confidence, and preached humility in his writings. Regarding the peace process, Shach ruled that one ought to follow the majority of professional opinions of military and diplomatic statesmen.

Long before that, Agudath Israel sat in the Mapai government decades before Begin came on the stage.

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In theory, the Haredi world could have been an ally of the Israeli left. Yet the left failed to recognize what they might have in common with their religious brethren.

For Shach, however, it was the left's virulent secularism which pushed him away.

As the Ethics of our Fathers says: "If you have seized a lot, you have not seized." In other words, when one is over-ambitious, one defeats oneself.

The left has decided to give equal importance to operating a construction site on Shabbat as it does to the Middle East peace process and the Israeli economy. It should come as no surprise, then, that the first two parties that swore allegiance to Bibi were Haredi parties. Not because of their alignment with all of Likud’s policies - but rather because there was no space for them alongside Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz.

Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Moshe Yaalon, and Gabi Ashkenazi of the Kahol Lavan party huddle at an election night event in Tel Aviv, April 9, 2019Credit: AFP

Gantz, to his credit, understood that the only chance he had to become prime minister was to persuade the Haredi parties to join him. In his very first address to the nation, he made it a point to emphasize that he sees the Haredi world as a partner, and as an important part of the Israeli society and. He even placed a Haredi woman - Omer Yankelevich - high up on his list to prove his seriousness.

But his Achilles’ heel for Haredi voters was his arranged marriage with Yair Lapid. As much as Lapid kept silent on issues of religion and state throughout the rest of the campaign, his policies and attitudes to the Orthodox were well-known. The mere mention of his name was enough to make the average yeshiva boy frown.

But antagonism is joined by ignorance. Tamar Zandberg, the leader of Meretz, was asked in an interview about Kikar Hashabbat, the leading Haredi Internet site by a large margin, which has been a partner of Yedioth Aharonoth’s Ynet site since 2012. She misidentified it as a religious nationalist website. That's the equivalent of a Democrat not knowing the difference between Breitbart and the Wall Street Journal.

If the left, and the centrists, really want a chance to return to power, they need to get to know their Haredi neighbors.

It’s time to take the shuttle from Tel Aviv to Bnei Brak, and get to know the half a million people who voted for the Haredi bloc.

It's time to overturn some common misconceptions about what drives the Haredi community's lives, values and votes.

The conversation about the IDF draft, a perennial flashpoint issue for secular Israelis, is overblown and anachronistic, as anyone who really knows what is happening on the ground will tell you. If you say only a minority of Haredi yeshiva students serves in the military, you fail to understand the community.

Meretz head Tamar Zandberg at a party campaign stall in Tel Aviv on election day. April 9, 2019Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The Haredi world is going through a huge transformation, which has already been in train for two decades.

When I first entered the flagship Ponevezh Yeshiva in 2001, none of us even knew of anyone who served in the IDF. Military service was a completely foreign world. Fast-forward almost two decades, and by 2017, over 3,000 Haredi young men were drafted.

Yes, that’s a minority, but it is a significant enough number that every single Haredi child now has either a sibling, cousin or neighbor in uniform. The IDF is no longer a remote, alienated state force: it’s the army of their blood relatives.

A similar transformation is happening in academia and job market. Just in the past year, the first Haredi woman judge (Chavi Tokar) was appointed, and the first Haredi senior diplomat was sent overseas. Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine earned headlines for walking into his swearing-in ceremony wearing a black hat.

The biggest proof of this transformation is that it's already triggered a reactionary counter-reaction - an internal opposition group called "Hapeleg" (worth approximately 20,000 votes). Its activists argue the yeshiva world has lost its way. They feel threatened by the Haredi world's changes, its perceived newfound religious laxity and the integration into mainstream Israeli society unfolding on the streets of Geula and Beit Shemesh.

The nature of the Haredi world is that it changes slowly. It has its own mechanisms of change that are hyper-sensitive to the possibility of losing its unique identity. It is completely useless to try to change this community by force, from the outside, and certainly by criminalizing its stances – the direction taken by Lapid several years ago when he attempted to push a law punishing Haredi draft dodgers with criminal sanctions. The counter-reaction will only be to build higher walls separating themselves from the rest of Israeli society.

The Haredi yeshiva students who weren't persuaded by Trotsky's speeches in Vilna's pre-war city squares, or by the oratory of Zeev Jabotinsky in Brisk, won't be moved by Yair Lapid’s tweets.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, right, with President Shimon Peres.Credit: Kobi Gideon

The leaders of the center and left should consider Shimon Peres' example. 40 years ago, he started learning Jewish texts in chavruta with Rav Ovadiah Yosef as his learning partner. Although Peres hoped, over the years, to get Rabbi Yosef's support for the premiership, his one-man outreach operation was insufficient for the task.

But Yosef did grant Peres his support for one historic event: he instructed his party to vote for Peres over Reuven Rivlin for the presidency in 2007. That was the last senior position to be held by a left-wing politician in Israel.

The Haredi community is here to stay, and it is time for the left to learn its complexities. It is time for Gantz to find a chavruta too. It's time for think tanks to offer secular Israeli leaders proper insight into this ever-growing, vibrant community - and the best way to approach it. It’s time for the left to decide what is more important for them: A peace deal, or road-building schedules.

It’s time that the Israeli left stop framing the financial support of yeshivas as dirty political deals, and consider the fact that for many of us religious Jews, the study of our texts is a national treasure. Yeshivot are, and should be, more important to us than the monarchy and its state subsidies are to the British.

An Ultra-Orthodox Jew walks by a supporter of the Labor party waving a flag with a picture of the party's then-leader Amir Peretz, in Jerusalem., March 24, 2006Credit: AP

If the left would reconsider its attitudes to Haredi communities, and find common ground with them, in a conversation based on a shared ethos on foreign policy, the welfare state and the economy, perhaps then they wouldn't keep handing over 15 Knesset seats on a silver platter to the right.

In fact, it was Bibi, in 2003 acting as finance minister, who took more money away from the average Haredi family than any other politician in the history of the State of Israel, when he cut the funding for social security for large families - the bread and butter of their lives.

Nevertheless, Bibi knows just how to treat the Haredi community with respect - and rather brilliantly, knows how to speak their language, always prepared to discuss the weekly Torah reading or to quote the prophets. To this day, Bibi masterfully communicates to the Orthodox community how much he values their contributions to the tapestry of the Jewish world.

If the Israeli left ever wants to regain power, it’s time they do the same.

Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt is a rabbi in New York City. He studied in the Ponevezh (Bnei Brak), Hebron (Jerusalem) and Lakewood (New Jersey) Yeshivas

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