Israel's Secular vs. ultra-Orthodox Jews: One People, Divided?

As ultra-Orthodox leaders’ incendiary rhetoric against the Israeli state ramps up, is there any hope for common ground between secular and Haredi Jews in Israel?

Daniel Goldman
Daniel Goldman
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Secular and ultra-Orthodox protesters arguing in Beit Shemesh.
Secular and ultra-Orthodox protesters arguing in Beit Shemesh.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Daniel Goldman
Daniel Goldman

In the midst of the Holocaust, while Jews were already being slaughtered by the thousands elsewhere across Europe, the previous Rebbe of the Belz Hasidic dynasty was rescued from Budapest by agents sent by the Zionist movement and brought to the relative safety of Palestine. On the eve of his departure he sent a sermon intended for his followers.

In the speech, delivered by his brother, the Rebbe chastised the Zionist movement as a false prophecy and urged his community to stay behind in Hungary. Most of the Belz followers heeded the teachings of their revered Rabbi and tragically met their ends only months later in the Nazi inferno.

None of us can judge the difficult emotions or factors that drove those statements in Nazi Europe. The Rebbe could not have been expected to be a prophet alongside many similar statements made by leaders of all backgrounds.

The lesson which one can take from this tragic episode is that religious leaders are not infallible and regardless of their intelligence or spirituality they are liable to make errors in judgment and statements that are out of touch with reality.

I recalled this story in the wake of pronouncements by the current Belz Rebbe, the nephew of that same Rebbe who, having escaped Europe, successfully rebuilt his Hasidic empire here in Israel. The current Rebbe has been quoted in recent weeks saying that Jews today would be saved by the Torah and their yeshivot and again they would not need the Israeli state or the Zionists who created it to be their savior. It is perhaps left purposefully ambiguous, but are his Hasidim independent from the state in terms of their physical, military or economic requirements, or perhaps all of the above? He even went as far as to advocate that if the current “edict” requiring yeshiva students to contribute via military or national service was not rescinded, Belz Hasidim should seriously consider leaving Israel.

In 2014 Israel, the Haredi world would be particularly wise to recognize this lesson of history and remember that their leaders are not all-knowing and their statements cannot always be accepted as divine. This is particularly the case as the country witnesses a series of sweeping developments heightening tensions between the Haredi community and the greater Israeli public.

These latest tensions began to come to a head when the Supreme Court struck down the Tal Law legalizing Haredi draft exemptions. They increased even further when the past general elections for the Knesset saw Yesh Atid rise to power, arguably leading to the exclusion of the Haredi parties from the government. Most recently we saw the Conscription Law approved which would require increased Haredi participation in the IDF, under theoretical threat of criminal prosecution.

The response by the Haredi world has largely been one of shifting into attack mode. We have witnessed a series of aggressive and even incendiary comments from leading Haredi Rabbis, and whilst this is not necessarily new, the pace seems to have picked up and now includes some of the mainstream leaders – including, as mentioned above, the Belz Rebbe. Much of this has been directed at Yair Lapid, although some of the juiciest comments have been dedicated to Naftali Bennett and the wider religious Zionist community. Having described the situation as “Decrees of Annihilation” and those promoting them as modern day incarnations of Amalek, most recently one high school principal compared the religious Zionist ideology to a form of Nazism.

How then are we to look forward and wrestle with this issue? Can we continue to ignore a growing section of the population (remembering that 30% of first graders in Israel study in Haredi schools)? With their strongly ambivalent feelings at best towards wider society how should we relate to pronouncements that are completely out of touch with reality even being viewed as outright incitement?

I would humbly argue that we cannot, but that Israeli society as a whole and the Haredi community in particular must completely reevaluate its priorities and its direction. With some optimism, I can attest to this being a process already well in development.

In the recently published book Black Blue-White, Dr. Haim Zicherman offers an insider’s look at the structure and sociology of the Haredi community. One of his conclusions is that the requirement to protect the world of Torah learning and yeshivot will actually force the Haredi world to develop new economic realities for itself, not least because of cuts in state funding and a drop in private donations due to the world economic situation. This trend can and should of course be assisted by the state while practiced with respect for Haredi sensitivities. It must be clear that societal change does not equate to the destruction of Haredi communities or values.

Whilst recognizing that this change needs to happen and indeed is under way, we need to engage in a much more in-depth dialogue and dissect the trends within Haredi society, appreciating the affect they will have on the rest of us.

It is completely understandable that when we, the non-Haredi public, hear comments like those of the Belz Rebbe, we feel very angry and hurt. I can say that as one involved closely with the recent Beit Shemesh elections, it will take a long while to get over the vicious attacks against my own Jewish identity. However, as a society we need to discover the additional multiple dimensions that exist in the Haredi world and become much better informed of their reality, learning their perspectives as well.

The changes thus will need to be bilateral.

We will have to embrace natural changes occurring in the Haredi world as they too will need to appreciate the risks of alienating the other (and still the majority) alongside the intense danger of blindly accepting the words of leaders who are motivated by emotion as well as fact.

This was the tragedy of the original Belz Rebbe’s words. History demands that we not make the same mistakes again. We all have the opportunity to learn the lessons of the past and build a better society. Let us not forsake it.

Daniel Goldman is Chairman of the Board of Gesher, co-Chairman of the Friends of World Bnei Akiva and Managing Partner of Goldrock Capital. He lives in Beit Shemesh with his wife and five children.

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