Saturday, August 11, 2012


“Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Exodus 19:6

This blog has had a lot to say over the years about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has certainly been a major focus of my activism and will continue to be so. But today, allow me to take a break from that conflict and concentrate instead on Israel’s internal division, which is increasingly taking center stage throughout the country. It is difficult for the Israeli Jews to envision making peace with their Arab neighbors if these Jews can’t even make peace within their own ranks. And lately, the battle between Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox population, or “Haredim,” and the rest of its Jewish citizens has been reaching a fever pitch.

Consider the demographics. Today, Israel has roughly six million Jews, one million of whom are Haredim. Nearly every demographic subset of Israeli Jews is having fewer children today than they did a generation ago. The Haredim are the exception. In that community, a family with five children is considered small, and one with eight kids is anything but uncommon. As a result, the Haredim constitute over 20 percent of the nation’s elementary school population, with that number expected to increase markedly over the upcoming decades.

Israel’s Haredim do not generally serve in the army, even though such service is compulsory for the remainder of the nation’s Jews. Men in the Haredic community also typically do not work for a living. Their unemployment rate is fully 60 percent. Consequently, the Haredic community is economically poor, though it does benefit from subsidies received from the remainder of the Israeli population.

Given the fact that they receive an exemption from compulsory military service as well as substantial economic subsidies, you would think that the Haredim would at least act like appreciative neighbors to their fellow Israelis. Think again. Haredim protest the decision of the Jerusalem city government to allow buses with mixed-sex seating to travel through Haredic neighborhoods and oppose the rights of women to speak at professional conferences involving Jewish issues. They are also known to spit on their fellow Jews when they dress immodestly or engage in mixed-sex prayer services. And, most recently, they have begun to walk around city streets with glasses that intentionally blur their vision so that they won’t have to clearly envision the women who approach them.

Commonly, Haredim do not differentiate between amoral Jews, secular Jews, or religious Jews who simply are not Ultra-Orthodox. All are seen as having ignored their responsibility to honor Jewish law. Adding to the disrespect that non-Haredic Israeli Jews may feel on a personal level, many Haredim also choose to oppose or remain neutral about the existence of the Jewish State. Given that the Messiah has not arrived, they view the creation of such a State as premature.

Normally, the Empathic Rationalist attempts to expose its readers to more than one side of an issue. I try to remember that even the thinnest of pancakes has two sides, and wisdom involves learning each side as well as possible before taking a position. So given that perspective, why was the above account so obviously critical of the Haredim? The answer is simple – because their own approach to relating to non-Haredic Jews is so overwhelmingly intolerant that it is difficult to treat them with the tolerance that they themselves would want from others.

To illustrate my point, I am reminded of a few lines from Jewish history. This includes the quotation at the top of this blog post: “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” That was directed to all the Jews, not merely a certain subset. And the State of Israel’s survival amidst the most difficult of circumstances is largely a testament to how much effort has been made to respect that Biblical proclamation.

Just consider the diverse accomplishments of the Israeli Jewish population over the past several decades. Some have been ushering in advances in science and technology, which has led to a number of Nobel Prizes and valuable inventions. Others have excelled in developing music or poetry that reflects the national aspiration of a 3000+ year old people who has spent much of that time wandering in exile until finally they have found a homeland, albeit in a very inhospitable neighborhood. And still others have been attempting to develop an approach to religious Jewish thought that marries both an appreciation for modern philosophy and a heartfelt devotion to the Name. I am, of course, in each case, generally referring to the achievements of Israel’s non-Haredic population.

Non-Haredic Israeli Jews represent a diverse array of individuals with a diverse array of interests, who are nevertheless largely unified in the goal of making their country a “light unto the nations,” to use the words of the Prophet Isaiah. Non-Haredic Israeli Jews do not insulate themselves from the rest of the world, they embrace the world at large, so as to discharge their responsibility for “lighting” it up. These Jews serve in the army and work for a living largely out of a sense of national duty, not because they don’t have other things they would rather do. Many of the non-Haredim would love to devote hours a day to contemplation and study about the Holy Name. But they put that activity aside because economic and military realities require them to honor other responsibilities, just as their pious ancestors may have felt obliged to till the soil or trade in the marketplace.

Back in Israel’s early days, more than 60 years ago, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, in an act of mercy to the Haredic community, exempted them from military service. The Haredim had been largely wiped out a few years before by the Nazis, and their number was tiny by all accounts. To his credit, Ben-Gurion wanted to show those few Haredim who survived the Holocaust that they, too, deserved an honorable place in the Jewish State. Now, things have changed. Far from going extinct, the Israeli Haredim is flourishing in number – a million strong! It is time for them to extend the same hand to their Israeli neighbors that the relatively secular Ben-Gurion extended to them. It is time for them to recognize that when a non-Haredic Jew serves in the army or gets a job, s/he does so with motives that are every bit as selfless and holy as their own motives for studying the sacred texts. And it is time for them to behave as if the Haredic path is not the only Jewish path worthy of respect.

Finally, I am also reminded of a famous line from Rabbi Hillel, who lived in the decades before the Common Era. When asked to summarize all of Judaism while standing on one foot, he replied: “What is hateful to you, do not do to others. All the rest is commentary. Now go study.”

There is no question that the Haredim are taking the last part of that statement to heart – they have, to be sure, gone and studied. But what about the first part of that statement: the negative formulation of the Golden Rule? Can anyone truly say that by spitting on Jews who are engaging in mixed-sex prayer or seeking to ban women from lecturing in professional conferences, they are behaving consistently with Hillel’s teaching? Is that the way they would like to be treated by others? Isn’t their attitude towards non-Haredim the same kind of intolerance that paved the trail for Hitler when he sought to become chancellor of Germany, back in 1932?

Religion gets a good name when it works for tolerance and social cohesion. It gets a bad name when it displays intolerance and serves as a vehicle for division. I have no trouble respecting the Haredim for their piety about God, veneration for tradition, principled approach to ethical choices, or sense of community. I, like Ben-Gurion, wish to see them remain as a part of the Jewish tapestry. In fact, I can attest to the fact that there is much that they can teach us, for I will forever be in their debt for the time that I spent, free of charge, as a student at an Ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem back in 1981.

But their unwillingness to pull their weight as an increasingly large segment of Israeli society is quite unacceptable to me, and I can only imagine how much it is ripping apart the social fabric of that nation. I might be more tolerant of their desire to exempt themselves from the obligation to serve in the army and work in the economy if I actually thought that their attitude was grounded in the teachings of the Jewish faith. Unfortunately, when I reflect on the greatest of Jewish teachings, including what I learned at their own yeshiva, I find little to support their claim to special privileges.

We are supposed to be a kingdom of righteous people, not a kingdom composed of a priestly caste and a toiling caste. It’s time for the Haredim to wake up and drink the coffee. They’ll need it. There’s plenty of work to do in the Holy Land.


E Gartman said...

Ok, but what can secular Israeli Jews do about it?

Daniel Spiro said...

What can secular Israeli Jews do about it? That is hardly an easy question to answer.

One glib answer is obvious -- the non-Haredim can work extra hard to support a two-state solution before it becomes a virtual impossibility.

There are, of course, plenty of other glib answers, most of which involve changing the laws to require the Haredim to behave more like other Israelis (e.g., educational laws, laws involving national service, etc.). The problem is, I have no idea if those laws would be enforceable, or if the Haredim would in essence go on strike and the Government would ultimately have to back down.

The situation is really quite a mess.