Secular Israeli Fear of the ultra-Orthodox Has Turned Into Hatred

Even if the ultra-Orthodox do army service and learn core curriculum subjects, non-religious Israelis will see them as a threat. The simple truth is that secular people don’t want Haredim to exist

Chaim Walder
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IDF soldiers in Gaza, in 2012.
IDF soldiers in Gaza, in 2012.Credit: Nir Kafri
Chaim Walder

In my many meetings with secular Israelis, I have recently encountered numerous manifestations of fear of ultra-Orthodox Jews. More precisely, their fear for the future because of the very existence of the Haredim. The fear is expressed across a broad spectrum: from sharp criticism and show of contempt, to latent hatred and pure, unadulterated panic that is anything but hidden. The fact that the Haredi public gave the two political parties that represent it 16 seats in the most recent Knesset election, in September, appalls anyone who has been taught to see this public as a “black” bloc that endangers the liberal way of life and threatens secular existence as such in this country. If now, then 20 years down the line.

Fear and suspicion of those who are different are generally associated with a primitive mindset and ignorance. But when it comes to the secular population’s “Haredi phobia,” the fear seems to mount in parallel with the socioeconomic status and educational background of those who are frightened. Indeed, it is the public living on the social periphery in Israel that is not afraid of the Haredim – perhaps because those two communities interact more, or because they both have an affinity for religion, or possibly because liberalism is sometimes a cover for patronizing behavor and prejudice.

The fear of “a halakha state” (one based on Jewish religious law) has brought about a push for a “state of secular halakha” – that is, one in which secular values and the secular way of life are forced upon the public. Fear of religious coercion, it seems, generates a desire for secular coercion. Fear of imposed religion has brought about a powerful desire to secularize the Haredi public in any way possible.

In a conversation I had recently with a group of mostly secular educators who are identified with the left, my interlocutors spoke openly about concerns over Haredi population growth and stated as an absolute – and absolutely mistaken – certainty that if the Haredim were ever to become the majority in Israel, they would no longer be able to live here.

As a member of the ultra-Orthodox community myself, I asked the educators what Haredim would need to do to for the secular public to stop being afraid of them and seeing them as a threat. “Our only concern is for you to share the burden,” said the most senior figure among them, who has an important position in the realm of education, and clarified, “For the Haredim to do army service and for their educational curriculum to be such that it will enable them to integrate into the labor market.”

“And then everything will be all right?”

“Obviously. Why should we have a problem with the Haredim?”

“Interesting,” I said. “We have with us here a person from the religious-Zionist education system. They did just those things. They learn the core curriculum, do army service, integrate into the labor market, some of them dress almost like secular people. Now, with your hand on your heart, with which group do you have a greater problem? With us or with them?”

A gender-segregated event during the Sukkot holiday, in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

My interlocutors were fair enough to admit: “It’s true, we have a bigger problem with national-religious people ‘like [Bezalel] Smotrich,’” the transportation minister, from the far-right Union of Right Wing Parties alliance.

“Do you see?” I said to the group. “Religious Zionism tries to meet the secular population halfway, and what do they get? Mockery, persecution and expulsion [from the settlements]. Admit, at least, that if the Haredim were to accede to the secular public’s demands in terms of education and military service, it would not help their situation but would only aggravate it.”

The secular community’s fear of Haredi demographics and of an expected takeover of the Israeli way of life must be quashed. The Haredi refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces should actually calm secular liberals, not anger them. Everyone who wants to achieve a position of power in Israel understands that the army, the police and the judicial establishment are the systems through which power is wielded. If the Haredim wanted to force their way of life upon the entire population, they would have to go to the recruiting stations, ensure that they have soldiers in the IDF, and use their political connections to integrate into the courts and the police. But Haredim do not involve themselves in these professions – they even flee from them. There are hardly any Haredi judges – there are none in the Supreme Court – Haredi yeshiva students do not become career army officers and the MKs from United Torah Judaism typically refrain from assuming ministerial posts.

Is this the behavior of people who want to take over the country and force their faith on the secular public? If secular people are so afraid of the Haredim, wouldn’t it make more sense to pause and consider whether they are even wanted or needed in the army in the first place?

The truth, which the secular population doesn’t want to admit, is that even if the Haredim were to do army service and study the core curriculum, fear of them would not disappear but would in fact grow – and with it the hatred they feel. The truth is that the secular liberals do not want the Haredim in the army and don’t really have any interest in what they study in school.

The unvarnished truth, which no one dares even whisper, is that secular liberals don’t want Haredim to exist. More accurately, they are willing to have Haredim exist, but not in large numbers and only if they do not wield influence. They’re ready to accept the 400 Haredim whom David Ben-Gurion exempted from the draft – a kind of harmless “nature preserve” of Haredim, of anthropological value. Secular Israelis would be ready to invest billions in a preserve of that kind, where they could visit, be cordial and feel super-enlightened.

But because in today’s Israel, the dream of such a preserve coming about has faded, the secular public is ready to compromise on more. They are willing to have the Haredim continue to call themselves Haredim, but they must accept the educational curriculum of the secular public – including Darwin’s theory, which is contrary to what they believe – and forgo their non-liberal values, such as a need for gender separation in schools and elsewhere, the prohibition on men listening to women singing, etc. In addition, Haredim must not dare expose secular children to such religious values as belief in God, the importance of worship, Shabbat observance, the concept of the world to come, heaven and hell. Secular youngsters don’t need to be acquainted with the concepts informing Haredi life. Haredi children, on the other hand, should be obligated to learn and even to live by secular-liberal concepts.

It’s a reasonable assumption that the secular public wants to see some sort of act of contrition on the part of Haredim. I’ll say this much: Maybe the Haredim overdid it, maybe we were uppity or even committed the sin of hubris and were contemptuous of the secular population and its values. Certainly, the secular public believes that the Haredim started the ideological confrontation between them, by belittling the secular public’s values and wanting to make them religious. But maybe a bit of a clarification is in order here, to see who really “started it all.”

To that end, we need to go back 270 years, to the era of the Enlightenment. Before that time, all Jews – including, that is, all the forebears of today’s secular population – were ultra-Orthodox. And then came the Emancipation and Moses Mendelssohn, and the rest is history. The method used by the fathers of the Enlightenment to destroy the Old World was to nullify religious values and deride believers, to persecute them and exercise educational coercion based on the values of the world of the goy, erasing to the greatest extent possible the precepts of the Torah and the virtues of Judaism. So who was the first to force their way on the other side?

Maybe, though, instead of asking who started the whole conflict, the time has come to think about how to end it. The solution must be mutual recognition and respect.

It is indeed difficult for a secular, liberal person to acknowledge the legitimacy of a culture that sanctifies belief in a Creator and the study of Torah – an ancient culture that heeds halakha and seems to conflict with the liberal values. And it is indeed difficult for a believing Haredi to acknowledge a culture that conflicts with Torah and halakha, which looks to him more like a passing fashion than a stable and deeply rooted set of values. But both sides must sit together and arrive at understandings by which “each shall live according to his belief,” according to which both sides acknowledge that the only way to coexist is to defend the values of the other side, even if you totally disagree with them.

We live in a country to which few others can compare. We’ve managed until now to get along together, and not too badly. Now a situation has been created in which the two camps are facing off against one another, girding their loins for a struggle. Everyone knows how it starts and history knows how it ends. Because when it’s brother against brother, the winner always loses.

Chaim Walder is an educator and writer. In 2003 he was awarded the Prime Minister’s “Magen Hayeled” Prize, presented by the National Council for the Child.

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