The Secular Left in Israel Needs to Let Saving Lives Supersede Secular 'Commandments'

Dmitry Shumsky
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An Israeli wearing a punk-rock hairstyle chats with an Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jewish man as they walk in the street in Jerusalem, Monday, Jan. 1, 2007. A secular Israeli with a punk hairstyle shares the street with an ultra-Orthodox Israeli in Jerusalem.(AP Photo/Kevin Frayer)
Dmitry Shumsky

Reading the article by ultra-Orthodox commentator Israel Cohen in Haaretz last month, in which he expressed appreciation for the reservations of left-wing MKs concerning the “daycare decree” of Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman, as well as hope that the Haredi public will recognize that Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz and Ahmad Tibi of the Joint List took their side on this issue – gives rise to a weighty, highly significant question in the diplomatic sphere.

The question is whether this is a passing episode in the relationship between the remnants of the Israeli left and the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, public, or whether there is a slim chance for a genuine, fundamental rehabilitation of the relations between the left and the Haredim, perhaps even to the point of starting to rebuild the political alliance between them, like the one that almost three decades ago made it possible to advance the Oslo Accords.

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It is evident that Cohen is not surprised by the left’s empathy for the socioeconomic distress of the Haredim – problems that can in no way be solved with Lieberman’s Bolshevik-style methods. It therefore seems that although Cohen – like most of the Haredi public for whom he serves as a mouthpiece in the pages of Haaretz – supported and consistently continues to support the alliance between opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and the Haredim, he is aware that finding a common language between the left and the Haredim is not impossible.

In fact, there is no question that the left has something to offer the Haredi community, and not only in the area of social welfare. It’s no secret, for example, that quite a number of leftists are willing to accept the refusal to serve in the Israel Defense Forces on the basis of conscientious objection. We can assume that the left would definitely be capable of demonstrating the same degree of sensitivity towards Haredi refusal to serve in the IDF for religious reasons – in any case, they would be far more accepting than those on the militarist right and center-right.

In addition, as we recall, when Shulamit Aloni agreed to join the coalition with Shas during the formation of the government of Yitzhak Rabin in 1992, she declared that for the sake of peace she was even willing to wear a shtreimel (a fur hat traditionally worn by Hasidic men), since Aloni considered advancing the diplomatic process a supreme goal.

We can assume that even today among the diplomatic left wing there are some who would be willing to go a long way towards the Haredi public in areas dear to its heart, as long as in return they would receive the support of its rabbis and representatives for the renewal of the peace process with the Palestinians.

The alliance between the Haredim and the right, as it became established during Netanyahu’s rule, today seems stronger and more stable that ever. But this is not a self-evident ideological alliance, like that between the right and the settlers, since Haredi politics is usually based on pragmatic motives.

It is clear, for example, that one of the main reasons behind Haredi support for the settler right is the cheap housing in the settlements. But if and when the dream of a diplomatic agreement with the Palestinians becomes the reality, it would be possible to divert a substantial percentage of the tremendous resources now being spent on security needs to social welfare needs, and thereby to provide housing solutions to the Haredi community as well.

Moreover, the Haredi public and its spiritual leaders are not indifferent to the attitude of secular Jews towards religion. The secular antagonism towards Judaism undoubtedly disturbs many Haredim. And now, if and when there are signs among the Haredim of trends toward diplomatic moderation, that is likely to contribute to a change in the hostile attitude to religion and religiosity, at least among members of the secular diplomatic left.

The idea that it is worthwhile now to renew the political alliance between the left and the Haredim looks, on the face of it, like a naïve, anachronistic delusion from the ‘90s. However, we must confront reality: Without a renewal of the alliance between the left and the Haredim, there is no chance of returning Israel to the route of the diplomatic process and removing the moral stain that has become attached to the Jews due to their humiliation and enslavement of another nation.

In order to renew the political partnership with the Haredim, the secular left will have to decide courageously that saving lives supersedes numerous secular commandments – just as both Rabbi Eliezer Shach and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef once ruled, in different wording, that saving lives supersedes the commandment to settle the land.

But before that, the left should initiate, without delay, a practical dialogue with the Haredi rabbis and public figures, in order to create a concrete plan for renewing the alliance with the Haredi parties in the foreseeable future.

Are any of the remnants of the diplomatic left willing to pick up the gauntlet?

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