Tikkun Magazine

“Our Nation Is Only a Nation in Its Torah”: On Haredi Refusal and Democratic Discourse


More than 300,000 Haredim demonstrate against Israel's new conscription legislation in central Jerusalem on March 2, 2014. Credit: Mondoweiss/Allison Deger.

It seems that one of the few things that “everybody” in Israel and in the United States can agree on is that the ultra-Orthodox should serve in the Israeli army. Right, left, religious, secular—“everybody” outside the Haredi community themselves can unite around denouncing this inequality. Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid (“There is a Future”) party, ran on this plank and garnered enough votes for nineteen seats in the current Knesset.

Now that this bit of campaign rhetoric has come to fruition in legislation (the bill passed in the Knesset 65 to 1, as the opposition boycotted the vote and one member of the coalition voted against it), the Haredi community is not happy. Hundreds of thousands of Haredim demonstrated in Jerusalem last Sunday (March 2), shutting down the main thoroughfares in and out of the city. The next week thousands of Haredim protested in Manhattan against drafting Haredim in Israel. This is not surprising. The current situation is a result of a compromise between the leadership of the State of Israel (in the person of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion) and the leadership of the Haredi community (represented by Rabbi Avraham Karelitz) signed in the 1950s. Originally envisioned as an exemption for 400 or so yeshivah students, the arrangement now excludes some 58,000 men from the draft.

Haredi women participate in a prayer protest against the new conscription legislation in Jerusalem on March 2, 2014. Credit: Mondoweiss/Allison Deger.

On the whole, the Haredi community views the new legislation, which undoes the compromise, as destroying their way of life, as “uprooting Torah.” Most others understand that it is an issue of basic fairness. Why should a secular, or even religious, Israeli have to serve three years in the Army when these able-bodied men don’t have to because they want to study in Yeshivah? Is their blood redder? What about the sharing of the danger and the burden of security? In fact, this is how this issue is referred to in the Israeli media: shivyon banetel (equality of the burden).

There are those outside the Haredi community, however, who do not consider themselves part of the “everybody” who supports the conscription legislation. They were also at the demonstration, and they were supporting the Haredim. They are religious, secular, Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, male, female, from many walks of life. Many signed a letter (written by the writer and activist Almog Behar) in support of the Haredim. The letter says in part:

 We, citizens, activists—religious, traditional, and secular—convey with this our support for the struggle of the Haredi community against their forced conscription into the army.

It is time to end the meaningless talk of the government of the State of Israel, and the parties who are members of that government, about “equality of the burden” with which they deceive the public. Talk which is meant to divert the attention of the public from the true inequality in the State of Israel:

Inequality in the economic class of various sectors (including the Haredi sector, whose members suffer from abject poverty);

In the educational and employment options in Israeli society;

In the dispersal of certain groups to the periphery, as opposed to the concentration of others in the geographic center, which is also the economic-cultural center of Israel;

In the funding of Western culture in Tel-Aviv, as opposed to the underfunding of Arabic, Oriental, and Ethiopian culture, and the underfunding of culture in general outside of Tel-Aviv.

In the surplus of Jewish-Ashkenazi-secular-males in the government, the academy, the courts, and the top ten percent; and the surplus of Orientals, Arabs, Ethiopians, and Russians in the boarding schools for at-risk youth, in the jails, in places of employment as day laborers, and in the lower classes.

It seems that any area that we might analyze is infected with gross inequality.

This claim that the slogan of “equality in the burden” is a smoke screen for the greater inequalities, with which Lapid’s mainly bourgeois party is very happy, is not new with this letter and these demonstrators. It is also not a marginal argument of an underrepresented group of radicals.

One year ago, the American Jewish community fell in love with Knesset member Dr. Ruth Calderon’s opening speech at the Knesset (which garnered some 250,000 views on YouTube in Hebrew and English). Calderon famously taught a talmudic story in a speech whose point was that the tradition belongs to us all, and that Torah study should be open to all. Calderon beautifully made the point that the tradition was also hers, by claiming the texts as hers, and fluently teaching those texts.

In that same session, another newly elected Knesset member also gave her first Knesset speech. While Calderon was part of the Yesh Atid party, Meirav Michaeli is a member of Labor, a party which has lost much of its sheen and excitement in recent years. In her speech she said this:

The speeches and debates in this house over the past month have focused on “an equal sharing of the burden.” Astonishingly, this demand isn’t coming from weakened minorities. It isn’t coming from those excluded from the centers of power, from money and from justice. We’re not seeing the poor demand that tycoons share their burden and resources; women aren’t standing here and demanding equal pay. No. The powerful stand here, those that control Israeli society, demanding an “equal sharing of the burden” from the minority. An upside down world.

No one is demanding sharing the burden of the demeaning income and conditions of contract workers; no one is demanding the burden of racism faced by Ethiopians be shared; no one is volunteering to participate in the burden of unemployment carried by college-educated Arab women. Only the most privileged in society are demanding equal participation in the burden of “serving”, which itself guarantees them those key positions in Israeli society.

Unsurprisingly, her speech only garnered 8,000 views on YouTube, and was more or less ignored when posted on the Forward.com site.

Behar’s letter and Michaeli’s speech both come from a sentiment which came to light in the mass demonstrations against income inequality and the destruction of the middle class in Israel, know as the J-15 or the tent demonstrations of the summer of 2011. The tent demonstrations began with a group of young men and women who were frustrated by the fiscal impossibility of living in Tel-Aviv, by a severe housing crisis. The demonstration touched a deep chord and hundreds of thousands eventually came out to the streets. One of the leaders of the demonstration, Stav Shaffir, is now in the Knesset.

During the demonstration (which lasted several months) it became clear that there was a difference between those who had set up tents on Rothschild Boulevard in the heart of Tel Aviv, and those whose tent camps were in the “periphery”—either geographically distant from Tel Aviv or just culturally distant in the economically depressed and mainly Mizrahi Hatikvah neighborhood, for example. Michaeli, and to a greater extent Behar articulate the voice of groups like the “not nice boys” (lo nechmadim, a reference to former Prime Minister Golda Meir’s disdainful remark in the seventies about the Israeli Black Panthers) and the “transit camp” (ma’abarah, a reference to the transit camps of the fifties, in which immigrants from North Africa, Iraq, Yemen, and other places were interred). These groups were much more pointedly political, voicing concerns about the inequality between sectors that were overlooked in the attempt to get as many people as possible to the streets. These groups were also intersectional, voicing the concerns of a wide range of Israelis whose voices are not usually heard in the daily Israeli debates.

Behar’s letter however goes further. Behar and the activists who signed on to the letter are worried about the social, cultural, and religious attack on the Haredim. At its most extreme, they say:

It is difficult not to suspect that those who wish to bring about the conscription of Haredim to the army are motivated in great measure by that same European antisemitic desire to fix the Jew, to nullify his frightening difference and “Christianize” him. Now this desire returns together with a strong expression of hatred and fear towards Haredim and their difference, who remind many of Jews out of the antisemitic caricatures. They want to fix them by turning them into new Israelis, part of the nation that is defined in Israel by the army.

They are calling out and naming the demonization of the Haredim as having roots in European anit-Semitism. This is an extreme formulation. However, it does bring up the question of the use of extreme language, reminiscent of anti-Semitic slurs (“parasites”) when referring to the Haredim. They are also making the uncomfortable connection between the attitudes toward the Haredim and toward Mizrahim. The latter experienced severe cultural oppression or spiritual crisis when they were brought to Israel and “Ashkenized.” Finally, the conscription of Bedouin and Druze is raised as an example of groups in Israel who served in the army and yet reaped no benefit from it in terms of equality of the rights and privileges of citizenship.

Behar, finally, writes that those who signed the letter are not blind to the problems in the Haredi community. He calls them “an oppressed and oppressing” community. The fact that they oppress, however, is not an excuse to oppress them. He argues:

Haredim are fighting government attempts to oppress their community through militarism, hatred and the silencing of an alternative economic/political agenda than that of the government. We feel that Haredi resistance to conscription, as well as the community’s prioritizing the value of learning, is not foreign to the traditional Jewish stance with a long-standing history.

The activists who are loosely organized around these issues and publish on various websites and perform in various venues are almost completely unknown to the American Jewish public. One can quibble or even violently disagree with Behar’s ideology, while still having to admit that it represents an authentic and important voice in the Israeli political, religious, and cultural scene. Meirav Michaeli is a member of Knesset.

New Israel Defense Forces soldiers try on their uniforms for the first time. Credit: Creative Commons.

In addition to the importance of these voices on their own, this discourse highlights the very narrow focus of the American view of Israel. There is a steady stream of rhetoric which claims privilege of insight and moral righteousness from living in Israel. This rhetoric is mainly deployed in the defense of the right wing of Israeli political thinking. However, it is obvious that those who see these writers as representing the whole Torah coming from Zion are sorely mistaken. Not only are they being fed a diet of half-truths, but they also live under the misimpression that they are exposed to the range of Israel political and cultural activity and thought. This is, of course, far from the truth. This makes it hard for the American Jewish community to react when their preconceived notions of what Israel is “about” are shattered. For example, when the J-15 demonstrations began, most of the mainstream or establishment Jewish organizations in the United States had nothing to say. They were struck dumb. The protests did not fit neatly into the categories of pro- and anti-Israel with which they thought, and by which they react. The first organization to publicly comment early on was the New Israel Fund, which had worked with many organizations (prior to the first tent going up on Rothschild) on the very issues—housing and poverty—to which the demonstrations were a response.

The narrow spectrum of understanding about Israeli culture and politics also shines an unflattering light on the current public brouhaha around Open Hillel. It is not unimportant that a politician who is the CEO of Hillel international was the one who coordinated the ham-fisted response. In the American political world there is no nuance or subtlety around Israel, there is no place for the complicated and substantive voices expressed by Breaking the Silence or Avrum Burg—let alone the deeply held and subtly thought out convictions of groups like those who publish at Ha-Oketz or Ma’abara, thinkers and activists like Almog Behar.

Haredi men gather on a street in Israel. Credit: Creative Commons.

The voices that the American Jewish establishment embraces and the American Jewish community hears are the voices who, on the whole, support the Israeli right. The conversation they hear is about “start-up nation” and not about the Israeli 99 percent who struggle with the problems of the wealth gap, unaffordable health care, problems in education, and racism against Ethiopians, Mizrahim, Druze, Bedouins, and Palestinians. This is an unhealthy situation. A true dialogue about Israel has to recognize the fluid boundaries and complex politics that are not characterized by pro and anti. The Israeli dialogue and critique of Zionism and Israel is written by a broad spectrum of serious writers, academics, activists, artists, and politicians who are fighting for their place in the Middle East. (One cannot even say that the reason for this ignorance is linguistic since, for those who take the time, most of the material has already been translated on Ha-Oketz, Café Gibraltar, and +972.)

If Israel is to truly be a democratic state, it has to have room for anti-militarist positions as well as others. The right to be a conscientious objector is part of the rights of democracies. The Haredi community has always been a thorn in the side of secular Israelis because the Haredi community does not buy into the Zionist ideology or the militarist symbology of the state. To move forward, Israel in general has to have room for this political and religious voice in the conversation. There is an enormous amount to learn from (and also to engage with, and debate with) in the writings of the young activists who wrote this letter.

If the American Jewish community wants to take part in the conversation, and be taken seriously when they do, they should start listening to these folks, and stop the censorship and sloganeering.

Aryeh Cohen, Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, is the author most recently of Justice in the City: An Argument from the Sources of Rabbinic Judaism (Academic Studies Press). He blogs at Justice-in-the-City.com.
tags: Activism, Analysis of Israel/Palestine, Israel/Palestine, Judaism