Ultra-Orthodox Jews Draw the Line

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A recent law obligating military service on religious Yeshiva students reveals the inherent flaw in Israel’s claim to be Jewish

An earlier version of this article has appeared on AlterNet

Prime Minister David Cameron got more than he expected at the Israeli Knesset in his last visit, receiving a cold shoulder from ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian legislators who share common interests, being the state’s most oppressed communities. Cameron’s visit to the Knesset took place on the same day that two controversial laws, the Conscription Law and the Governability Law, were finally approved following a prolonged legislative battle. As Prime Minister Netanyahu welcomed the guest of honour the ultra-Orthodox parliamentariansleft the plenary session in protest while their colleagues, Palestinian Members of the Knesset, refused to attend the event altogether. This was the culmination point of several months of heated protest over the Conscription Law which brought to the surface contradictions between Zionism and Judaism.
Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews (Haredim) of all denominations took to the streets of Jerusalem to oppose the draft law several days before its legislation. In a mass prayer, the worshippers-protesters declared their faithfulness to Torah study rather than to the military. United under the banner declaring that “the State of Israel is fighting against the Kingdom of Heaven” they held signs stating that military draft is a spiritual suicide. The event was not merely an opposition to the law but nothing short of a battle cry against the very legitimacy of a state that encroaches upon their spiritual autonomy and poses a danger to their religious liberty.
Under the slogan “Equality in the Burden” both religious-Zionist Naftali Bennett and secular-Zionist Yair Lapid were elected and became the two largest coalition partners of a Haredi-free government. The campaign called for the forced conscription of the ultra-Orthodox and garnered wide support from the Israeli public. Unlike the purist Edah HaHaredit group which prohibits its members from partaking in, voting and receiving funds from the Zionist state, the Haredi rabbinical councils which called for the mass protest have their elected representatives at the Knesset. They all walked out of the plenum stating that Netanyahu is an enemy to their religion, yet this did not stop the Prime Minister from addressing Cameron in his welcoming speech by saying “David, welcome to the City of David and to the Jewish Knesset”.
The law enforces an incrementally growing annual quota of ultra-Orthodox students to be drafted, reaching 5,200 by 2017. Religious schools that would send their students to the military will receive financial incentives but in case the goal is not met, a draft for all the ultra-Orthodox would be imposed and financial sanctions implemented. The ultra-Orthodox argue that sanctioning and criminalizing students of the Torah proves that the State of Israel cannot possibly be regarded as being Jewish. The Law’s initiators, Lapid and Bennett, along with Prime Minister Netanyahu, were subsequently depicted in an animated film as they physically abuse a Haredi Jew and place him behind bars.

People of the book, not people of the rifle
The forced conscription of the ultra-Orthodox into an army that is foreign to their culture is deemed by the Haredim as a Zionist attempt to destroy their millennia-old tradition of Jewish learning. The draft law has therefore achieved the rare feat of uniting all non-Zionist religious streams of the Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Hassidic and Lithuanian communities who are currently working together in an emergency action committee. Following the massive Jerusalem demonstration, an immense protest of over 150,000 people took place in the United States, which united all major ultra-Orthodox Jewish denominations. Yet, the law achieved more than simply uniting the Haredi groups but has also allowed for the more radical voices, like the Mahara Satmar Rabbi, to gain dominance. While the initial call for protest referenced the word “Israel,” the Satmar Rabbi conditioned his support on omitting it and managed to convince all other Rabbis to re-sign an amended declaration that will not give an ounce of legitimacy to the Zionist state.
While the religious Zionists see serving in the IDF as a holy obligation, the ultra-Orthodox believe that living according to the Torah and serving God is the ultimate goal of Jewish life. Recent days have displayed a clear divide between the latter and the religious Zionists as the Haredi paper Hamodia referred to religious Zionists in terms unused before, such as “collaborators with Satan,” “deeply messianic” and “worshippers of the state.”
Religious nationalism, a contradiction in terms
Appalled by the statement of the revered Haredi rabbinical councils, claiming that the State of Israel is an enemy to the religion of Israel, Rabbi Haim Druckman, spiritual leader of Bennett’s nationalist Jewish Home party, instructed his students not to attend the massive gathering. For the ultra-Orthodox, such a rabbi objecting to a gathering for prayer exposes the inherent flaw in religious Zionism whereby, to put it bluntly, the state is worshipped rather than the Almighty.
In response, an op-ed in the Haredi newspaper Yated Ne’eman took the harsh and unusual step of publishing Rabbi Druckman’s name while omitting the title “Rabbi”. Ultra-Orthodox Knesset member Aryeh Deri referred to Jewish Home member Ayelet Shaked, chairwoman of the draft law committee, as a “traitor of Judaism,” “the Jewish Home and Ayelet Shaked did not [only] betray the Haredim, they have betrayed the Torah.”
This unholy union of Zionism and religion is what mainstream Israeli society perceives as the Jewish identity. Yet, the ultra-Orthodox perspective is that Zionism is nothing short of an aberration of Judaism, insisting that Zionism goes against Judaism while claiming to speak on its behalf. The late Prof. Leibowitz, an Orthodox scholar, philosopher and a proponent of separation between state and religion, explained that: “Religious nationalism is to religion what National Socialism is to socialism. National Socialism is not socialism but its opposite and likewise religious nationalism is not religion but its opposite.”

Boycotting the state, saving Judaism
Opposition to Zionism is not new to the ultra-Orthodox. From its very first days, the Zionist movement was strongly condemned by almost all traditional Rabbis in Palestine and throughout the world, who prohibited any Jew from embracing Zionism. As a result, Zionist ideology took hold almost exclusively among secular Jews, i.e. those of a Jewish ethnicity rather than religion.
While talks were underway concerning the future of Jerusalem, Rabbi Dushinsky, the leader of the 60,000 people strong Haredi community in the city, expressed his definite opposition to the Zionist movement and its attempt to expropriate the holy city of Jerusalem. He claimed that religious Jews have not the slightest intention of subjugating the local Arab population. Even earlier, in the years following the Balfour Declaration, Dr. Jacob Israel de Haan who acted on behalf of Rabbi Sonnenfeld, saw the Arabs as natural allies against the Zionist project and met Arab leaders accompanied by the Rabbi, in order to protect their religious autonomy under Arab rule rather than accepting an alien Zionist governance.
Merely a day before embarking for Britain to address the British government, as a part of a delegation which expresses its staunch opposition to the Balfour Declaration, de Haan was assassinated outside the Sha’are Zedek synagogue where he attended the afternoon prayer. The assassins confessed to receiving orders from the top Zionist leadership at the time, including Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi who later became the second president of the State of Israel. It is speculated that David Ben-Gurion was also involved in the decision making.According to Avraham Tehomi, one of the assassins, de Haan was marked for execution due to his meeting with King Hussein and Emir Abdullah (who, according to several oral testimonies), promised unlimited Jewish migration to Palestine in return for renouncing exclusive national ambitions. Following the murder, it was the Zionist Jewish Agency which in turn limited Jewish immigration into Palestine by choosing to provide ‘certificates’ only for Zionist Jews, even during the Holocaust.
While most secular Israelis detest the Haredim, rare stems of solidarity have recently appeared from the almost negligible number of progressive Israelis. The group Democracy or Rebellion claims that a state that denies civil equality and minority rights has no democratic virtue. In its activities it also reaches out to the ultra-Orthodox community and had posted its message of solidarity on the walls of Me’ah She’arim in Jerusalem as well as demonstrating their support in Tel-Aviv.
A whole new discourse is now emerging within the Haredi community. Some call for a political re-alignment with progressive parties and even with elements on the radical left. Others call to boycott the settlements and their produce, while a growing number of rabbis call on Jews abroad to boycott and divest from Israel at large. One Hassidic group went as far as making plans to migrate en masse to the US, seeking political refuge there with the assistance of American senators.
Neither Jewish nor democratic
During Cameron’s visit at the Knesset, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech focused on four points. He declared that the boycott is racist, that Jews have religious-nationalist rights to the land and that indigenous Palestinians hardly existed before the Zionist colonization of the land. Aside of the fact that these claims are patently false, a more rational and humane approach would be to propose an end to the criminal policies leading to boycotts, insisting on equality between Jews and non-Jews and acknowledging the rights of all indigenous people.
Finally, Netanyahu argued that the Balfour Declaration validates Zionist exclusive rights over the land and that this is the will of Jews worldwide. The declaration states, however, that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” and the political assassination of de Haan by the Zionists can hardly be regarded as a form of agreement between Jews and Zionists. Therefore, it would have been appropriate for the British Prime Minister to correct his colleague and explain that the Balfour Declaration, as unfair as it is, has never recognized the right to dispossess, expel or subjugate.
The so-called “Jewish and democratic” state is neither Jewish nor democratic. Religiously speaking, Zionism is a secular movement that went as far as dehumanizing and mocking the religious Jews of Europe. Israel’s majority is secular rather than religious, while it can hardly be argued that the state’s oppressive policies are in agreement with Jewish values. As religion has been “nationalized”, hardships also exist for those practicing Jews who choose a different path from the state sanctioned form of Judaism.
Ethnically, the majority of world Jewry prefers to live abroad rather than in Israel. At the same time,Israeli figures show that ethnic Jews are no longer a majority between the river and the sea, while not even counting the many Palestinians living in exile.
Paramount to the Zionist project in Palestine is the claim that the land is exclusively Jewish and that all others, even its indigenous people, are alien and unwanted. It is therefore no coincidence that Israel refuses to have a constitution or to acknowledge an Israeli nationality since this would mean, at least on paper, that its citizens are to be treated as equals. Instead, the privileged group is defined as having a “Jewish” nationality while the others may be “Arab,” “Druze” or “Circassian,” none of which are nationalities. On this basis, discrimination has been codified into law.
The Israeli regime can therefore best be characterized as an ethnocracy which practices the Crime of Apartheid as defined by international law. Israel is only “Jewish” in the ethnic-supremacist sense, in the same way that South Africa was white. Consequently, the demand to recognize its Jewish character is just as questionable as legitimizing white supremacy in South Africa at the time.
After many decades, new bonds between anti-Zionists – ultra-Orthodox, Palestinians, and progressives – are now being forged. While dispelling the myth of Zionism, a new path is being paved in the Holy Land.
Let us walk that path.
Joshua Tartakovsky comes from an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem, went to a Zionist-Haredi army unit and is a graduate of Brown University and the LSE. He is an independent researcher and filmmaker.
Ronnie Barkan is an Israeli human rights activist, conscientious objector and co-founder of Boycott from Within, a group of Israeli citizens and residents that supports the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS).
Follow him on Twitter: @ronnie_barkan