Israel’s Peace Camp Should Reach Out to the Rebbe

A British Foreign Office minister has met the Belzer Rebbe, a key force for political moderation and social progress in the Haredi world. Now it’s the Israeli peace camp’s turn.

A potentially game-changing political event took place in Jerusalem on Tuesday, though you'd have to dig deep into the local media to find any reference to it, let alone any serious coverage and analysis.

Alistair Burt, the top Middle East man in the British Foreign Office, called on Yissachar Dov Rokeach, the Hassidic rebbe of Belz, at his home alongside the towering Belzer beit midrash in north-west Jerusalem. They talked about peace, and about religion and family values too.

In diplomatic parlance, the importance of the meeting lay primarily in the very fact of its taking place (and being verified by a photographer). Burt, one of the sanest, shrewdest actors on the thankless international Middle East stage, has taken the very step that the Israeli establishment, and especially the 'peace camp' leadership, has failed, indeed refused, to take for long, lost decades.

The upshot of that obtuse refusal has been that the bourgeoning Haredi community has become, by default, an integral part of the anti-peace 'national camp'.

Burt and his advisers rightly analyzed the devastating consequences of this political alliance. They rightly discerned, too, the possible chink in the wall afforded by the Haredi parties' exclusion from the current coalition.

Above all, they rightly identified a key force for political moderation and social progress in the Haredi world today: the Belzer Rebbe.

In Israeli lore, Dov Rokeach will forever be cast, with not a little condescension, as 'the yenuka', the young boy in Tel Aviv destined for rebbe-hood after his uncle, Rabbi Aharon of Belz, died in 1957.

As Alistair Burt properly and pointedly noted at their meeting, Belz hassidut, under Rabbi Dov's leadership, has risen out of the ashes of the Holocaust to attain once again some of the glory of old. The huge and colorful wedding in Jerusalem last month of the rebbe's grandson and presumptive future successor, Aharon, was a moving celebration of this saga.

The Burt-Belz meeting, part of the visiting British minister's official program, took place just two days after a 100,000-Haredi-man demonstration in Manhattan against Israel over the evolving national service legislation in the Knesset. The significance of that proximity was hardly lost on Rabbi Dov.

His success within his community has given him the confidence to stand out boldly among Haredi rabbis as an independent and sensible pragmatist. He does not automatically give sweeping support to indiscriminate or permanent exemption for Haredim from national service. Ideally, he wants his young men to sit and learn in yeshivas and kollels [yeshivas for married students]. Practically, he recognizes that this cannot be the career option for everyone. And specifically, he does not condone loafing around on an artificial pretext of kollel membership.

One of his most senior hassidim is a founding executive of 'Mafteach', the JDC-backed network of Haredi employment centers in Israel which help married kollel graduates and their wives find suitable, and often challenging, work. He would hardly be devoting himself to this socially essential mission without his rebbe's sanction and support.

In national policymaking, too, there is reason to believe, or at least to hope, that the now-seasoned Rabbi Dov is open to the arguments that warn against the endless occupation of the Palestinian lands and favor the two-state solution.

As with the social issues, he is too seasoned and sensible to court internal Haredi conflict. Rather, he is an incremental revolutionary – and hopefully all the more effective for that.

On the political margins, there have been efforts over the years to bring 'peace camp' leaders to engage Haredi leaders – rabbis, not politicians – in serious discussion of Israel's basic policy options. All too often, however, these attempts would implode as the center-left politicians, in their condescension, dragged down the discussion to budgets and stipends.

The present generation of pro-peace mainstream politicians would do well to take a lesson from Alistair Burt on how to reach out, respectfully and intelligently, to this critical constituency in Israel and world Jewry.

Oren Nachshon