Opinion

How Israel’s Religious Ultra-nationalists Fought a Civil War, Retreated to the Ghetto and Lost Their Influence

As the ultra-Orthodox world is slowly, painfully opening up, religious nationalist institutions insist on an ever more closed world. They’ve lost all connection with the ‘real’ Israel - and with their communities

Religious Israelis praying at a protest against the Gaza disengagement, August 2005
Nir Kafri

A Haredi journalist I follow on Twitter dedicates much of his time to tweeting uplifting photographs and videos of rabbinical events and rituals in Hasidic courtyards and other ultra-Orthodox venues.

On Monday night, as Simchat Torah ended and most of the country began getting back to normal after the long High Holy Days period, he tweeted a clip of a crowd of hundreds of men, bobbing up and down, pressed together in a bloc of sweat-drenched white shirts. "Spiritual power," he tweeted. "Energies of singing and dancing at hakafot shniyot in Yeshivat Har Hamor."

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Hakafot shniyot, for the uninitiated, is the last gasp of the holidays, a mass dance with Torah scrolls, for those who have not had enough of three weeks of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah, and need one final dose of spiritual ecstasy.

I know one shouldn’t interpret too much from one tweet, but it was interesting that a Haredi writer, a member of a community which usually looks rather dismissively at any religious practice of "Zionist" Jews, thought it fit to highlight the devoutness of the students of what is ostensibly a non-Haredi yeshiva.

But then again, maybe it wasn’t so strange. Har Hamor and all it stands for are today ultra-Orthodox in all but name.

I admit to having a special interest in Har Hamor. One of the first big stories I covered when I was starting out in journalism as a religious affairs reporter for a local Jerusalem weekly was the schism within the Merkaz Ha’Rav yeshiva 21 years ago this week.

Merkaz Ha'Rav was known in those days as "the flagship of religious Zionism," its beit midrash (study hall) had famously been the hotbed of the nationalistic fervor that infused the Gush Emunim settlement movement.

Like most religious schisms, the background was as much personal as ideological.

The last joint event of Merkaz Ha’Rav was hakafot shniyot in 1997 and a shouting match began there when Rabbi Zvi Thau was not called upon by the title rosh yeshiva – head of the yeshiva – to hold a Torah. Thau was seen by many of the students as the true embodiment of the yeshiva’s founders, Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Kook and his son Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook. But when Tzvi Yehuda died in 1982, he wasn’t posthumously named a rosh yeshiva, and the tension had been festering for 15 years.

The excuse for the inevitable split were the plans to open a teachers college within Merkaz. In most modern Zionist yeshivas, a teachers training program is commonplace; many of the graduates become educators so why not put the yeshiva’s imprimatur on them? But to do so, their studies must also comply with academic standards, and Thau strenuously objected to sullying Merkaz’s beit midrash with any external, secular elements.

The die was cast that night at hakafot shniyot, and the next Sunday, as yeshivas resumed their normal studies at the beginning of zman horef, winter term, a source called and suggested I visit an address in Jerusalem’s rundown Kiryat Menachem.

The Har Ha'Mor yeshiva in Jerusalem
Emil Salman

I arrived shortly before midday. Inside the small neighborhood synagogue were already over 20 ex-Merkazniks, with more arriving by the minute, swaying in pairs over their talmuds. Yeshivat Har Hamor had been born.

In 21 years it has grown exponentially and moved three times, and now occupies a sprawling campus in Har Homa, the vast settlement-suburb at Jerusalem’s southernmost point, and Rabbi Thau is its president. Hakafot shniyot on the evening after Simchat Torah is one of the main dates on the yeshiva’s calendar.

Why am I boring you with all these stories of intra-religious rivalry?

There was one big ultra-religious Zionist yeshiva at the northern entrance to Jerusalem, now there is another, almost identical one at the other end of town, just more hard-core.

Merkaz abandoned its teachers college plans in the wake of the schism and the students who go into education obtain their official teacher’s certificate outside the yeshiva’s hallowed confines. Both Merkaz and Har Hamor have spawned a network of other yeshivas, schools, pre-military academies and strictly segregated women’s seminaries, all headed by their alumni. To outsiders, they are indistinguishable.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting the Mercaz HaRav yeshiva
Alex Kolomoyski

Merkaz Harav was once the ideological vanguard. Its rabbis and their students transformed the once placid religious Zionist community. Who remembers today that in 1967, on the eve of the Six-Day War, the ministers of the venerable National Religious Party had been those who counseled against going to war?

Within a few short years, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook’s students were leading the challenge to the Labor government, building the first settlements in the West Bank, and they’ve been there ever since. A small minority that dragged an entire country into an occupation that’s lasted half a century and has no sign of ending.

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The schism at Merkaz, 30 years after the Six-Day War, reflected a feeling that the yeshiva had run out of steam, and no longer had the driving power to pull a nation in its direction. From its foundation, Har Hamor took it upon itself to lead and in the internal competition with Merkaz, won hands down.

But it may be losing the wider battle for Israel’s future.

In 2005, on the eve of the disengagement, the rabbis who follow Thau’s direction sought his guidance on how to counsel their students serving in the IDF to act during the pullout from Gaza. Thau invented the idea of "gray objection." The IDF, of course, is holy, but the Land of Israel is holier – so the student-soldiers were to tell their commanders, discreetly, without making a great show of it, that they simply couldn’t obey an order to take part in withdrawing.

But "gray objection" failed dismally. Thousands of religious soldiers and officers carried out the eviction of the Gaza and northern Samaria settlers and protesters. For all his standing and charisma, Thau’s followers chose the decision of an elected government over his.

Har Hamor lost the battle over disengagement and they are losing another battle now. For all its rabbis’ fulminations against the integration of women into the IDF’s precious combat units, and their threats that they won’t send their students to the IDF, the integration is going ahead. Pathetic protests, like the bunch of religious paratroopers who turned their backs on a female instructor, get headlines, but the real story is that they are all still there together in the same army.

An Orthodox Jew walks down a deserted street in at the start of Yom Kippur, Tel Aviv, Israel, September 18, 2018.
Oded Balilty,AP

What’s more, the number of young religious women enlisting in the IDF, instead of opting for civilian national service, has doubled in the last five years. The Har Hamor rabbis are losing not only to the secular authorities, but their influence within the religious community is dwindling as well.

Small wonder that Haredim now look upon Har Hamor with admiration. In many ways, this religious Zionist yeshiva is becoming more ultra-Orthodox than they are. It’s a reversal of the opening and closing of minds to the world around them.

In a generation when thousands of young Haredi men and women, in Israel and the large ultra-Orthodox communities of the Diaspora, are trying to escape the penury and parochialism of ultra-Orthodoxy, grasping every opportunity on offer for vocational training and academic education, the new Haredim are dancing at the religious Zionist yeshiva that was founded in rejection of even the slightest secular academic influence.