Haredi impunity and autonomy: Tantamount to insurrection?

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By VIVIAN BERCOVICI    FEBRUARY 26, 2021

A typical street scene in the bustling modern-day shtetl of Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

A typical street scene in the bustling modern-day shtetl of Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH

This is the first of an in-depth series of articles in the run-up to the March 23 election looking at key aspects of haredi society and its role in and influence on the country today.

“If we face the choice of transgressing the laws of Moses or the laws of the state, we will violate the laws of the state, not those of Moses.”

– Yitzhak Meir-Levin, haredi welfare minister, addressing his cabinet colleagues at a meeting, July 12, 1950

It is unfathomable that a haredi minister of state would express this view so brazenly in cabinet today, but the sentiment seems to be unchanged.

This very clear statement is at the core of what may be the most dire social and political challenge facing the State of Israel: what, exactly, is “the state?”
Founded on the basis of classical liberal principles – with a strong dash of socialism – Israel was a direct outcome of decades of Zionist activism and nation-building efforts. Any haredi participation in the enterprise was more reactive and passive. The very small ultra-Orthodox population in the yishuv realized in the 1930s that the train was leaving the station and they astutely negotiated a foot on board. In this way they would, at a minimum, be apprised of what directives and laws were being considered by Zionist leadership and be better positioned to preserve their interests.
As was so often the case – and remains so more than 70 years on – the constant negotiation and recalibration of power between the haredi population and “everyone else” is a fraught and divisive undertaking. Each constituency bristles at the perceived preferential treatment accorded the other, with that resentment having become alarmingly toxic in the last year.
In the eyes of the broader population, haredim are often seen to be arrogant, entitled and contemptuous of state authority. This view, perhaps unfair, is rooted in the perception that haredim overwhelmingly trust rabbinic over civilian leadership; religious authority over state institutions and leaders. It is no surprise, then, that they would openly flout public health authorities and law throughout the corona epidemic. Many haredim, to be fair, follow such standards scrupulously. 
Many, however, do not. This reality is on full display in haredi neighborhoods and, most tragically, in the alarmingly high death toll corona has wrought in their communities. 
Numbers do not lie and appear to validate the widespread perception that most haredim defer to the directions of their rabbinic leaders over the state, and many rabbis have very openly and unapologetically counseled their flocks to carry on with Torah learning in schools, yeshivot and kollels, and to continue to attend synagogue and the mikveh.

In this past year, we have watched haredi MKs attend large weddings and synagogues and then deny the facts or dismiss their presence as being meaningless, as it was just for a short while. We have seen school-age children taunt police by calling them “Nazis” and throwing objects at them while the officers were trying to enforce school closures. We have watched too many funerals mobbed by thousands fill the streets of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. And we have witnessed journalists being physically assaulted for exposing haredi lawlessness; drivers beaten; a bus torched; garbage dumpsters overturned and police officers assaulted.

Bnei Brak, 1920 (Library of Congress)

Many Israelis – among them more than a few haredim – have concluded that the impunity and autonomy that many ultra-Orthodox seem to have assumed is tantamount to insurrection and, really, must be stopped.
HAREDI LEADERSHIP, not surprisingly, sees this conflict differently. They complain that the government failed to communicate with their communities proactively and with adequate sensitivity, further stoking mistrust. They claim to be targeted by the police for harassment while the rest of the country is left undisturbed. 

As such one of their most prominent and powerful political leaders, MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism, lashed out recently that because haredim are forced (by the rest of the country, presumably) to live in such small apartments, their compliance with corona-related laws is not possible. But, fundamentally, they believe that their ongoing devotion to Torah learning and prayer is the bedrock – not just of their communities, but the salvation of the State of Israel. 

MK Moshe Gafni (Marc Israel Sellem)

Put bluntly,  the haredim  in Israel say their rigorous piety is the essence of their existence and takes precedence over all else, including, if one applies logic, public health. That their own people have suffered from corona in wildly disproportionate numbers does not mitigate their zeal. In fact, it seems to embolden their commitment.

AT THE end of World War II, virtually all Jews agreed on the imperative of getting on with the establishment of a sovereign state. A Jewish, democratic state. 
Haredim too were desperate for a solution, although perhaps not so committed to the Zionist ideal which, in their belief system, jumped the gun and allowed for impatience to supersede the will of God. In 1947, the ultra-Orthodox population of Mandatory Palestine comprised only 5% of the Jews. Yet they already displayed an uncanny understanding of the importance of ensuring they were invested in the emerging power structure that would lead the new state. Most were, at best, ambivalent Zionists with a sharply honed pragmatic streak. 

David Ben-Gurion, the soon-to-be prime minister of the future State of Israel, was keenly attuned to the challenges presented by the highly segmented and complex society he hoped to unite in nationhood. Haredim, generally, were not inclined to support the creation of a secular Jewish state, but Ben-Gurion knew that without a “united” Jewish front, there was no hope of UN approval for statehood.

David Ben-Gurion reads the Declaration of Independence in the Tel Aviv Museum Hall, 1948 (GPO/Flickr)

Mindful of the positive momentum and global support for the creation of a Jewish state, on June 19, 1947, Ben-Gurion, as chair of the Jewish Agency and de-facto leader of pre-state Israel, set out his view of an acceptable “status quo” on matters of state and religion in a letter sent to the Agudat Israel, the representative body of the ultra-Orthodox in Mandatory Palestine.
As a foundational matter, Ben-Gurion made clear that any future Jewish state would be democratic, setting out threshold issues the Aguda must accommodate:
“Founding of the state requires UN approval, and that is not possible unless freedom of conscience is guaranteed to all of its citizens, and it needs to be clear that it is not our intention to found a theocracy.”
Ben-Gurion emphasized that all citizens – specifically mentioning Christians and Muslims – will have equal rights and that religious discrimination will not be tolerated. 
In his pre-state agreement with the Aguda, Ben-Gurion further agreed: that Shabbat may be observed, as a private matter; that kosher food would be provided in any “state-owned” kitchen; that Jewish law would prevail in matters of marriage, divorce, and other life-cycle events; and lastly, that as long as the core curriculum was taught, education may include religious studies.
DEPENDING ON one’s viewpoint, this position reflects either a capitulation on Ben-Gurion’s part, or a heavy hand brought to bear on a disenfranchised minority, desperate for a voice and small degree of self-determination. Prof. Kimmy Caplan of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on Israeli haredi society, explains that the various haredi factions consolidated into one political organization at this time, motivated primarily by a profound concern as to how they would manage to maintain a religious lifestyle in a secular Zionist state. 
“They were feeling their backs to the wall. They were weak. They understood that Ben-Gurion was on the horse, he called the shots. And they were really worried and scared. This is why they’re setting up a political party. This is why they came in with very minimal requests.”
Caplan interprets the “asks” in these negotiations on the part of of the Aguda as being the bare minimum to ensure they may live, privately, their preferred lifestyle.
In 1949, immediately following the first elections to the Knesset of the fledgling state, Ben-Gurion and the Aguda exchanged further correspondence on the matter of religious accommodation, on slightly more expansive terms.
In return for absolute control in the new state over life-cycle matters in rabbinic courts as well as a commitment to ensure that kashrut was fully observed in state institutions, the Aguda relented on the matter of equality. Sort of. What they really did was to submit on paper to Ben-Gurion’s insistence on equality, muddying their acquiescence in obfuscatory language. One does not have to be a talmudist to drive a Mack truck through their “agreement.” 
The bottom line was that neither side had the tenacity or time for a showdown on this point and both chose to live with the vague non-agreement as to what equality actually means in a democratic state. There were, as there always are, more pressing matters to address.
These were heady times. The country was in a state of protracted, existential war. Destitute refugees were flooding in from Europe and the Middle East and the demands on scarce resources were impossible. Families were living in canvas tents, some for years, or desolate “towns” with sand and not much else. The Promised Land of milk and honey was a far cry from reality. 
REFLECTING ON what he interprets as Ben-Gurion’s “light touch” in dealing with the haredim, Caplan sees it as something of a mystery. 
“Ben-Gurion didn’t need them,” he asserts. “He had all the power.”
A somewhat different interpretation of Ben-Gurion’s approach to haredi negotiations is proffered by Israeli historian Tom Segev in his recently published seminal biography of Ben-Gurion, A State at Any Cost. Segev sees Ben-Gurion’s negotiations with the Aguda as reflecting a hard-nosed pragmatism, a variation on the adage – “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”
Ben-Gurion’s keenness on having the Aguda in government rather than in opposition, Segev reports, is, as the first prime minister said, “because when they were Cabinet ministers they had more to lose and were thus less combative.” In the vernacular – they had “skin” in the game.
Segev describes an encounter when Ben-Gurion offered a prominent haredi figure, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a spot on the Mapai Knesset list. Leibowitz agreed to accept it on three conditions. One was the separation of religion and state. Ben-Gurion responded: “I will never agree to separate religion from the state. I want the state to keep religion in a grip.”
The grip, as it turns out, was as firm as one’s hold on a greasy pole. And that reality can only be explained away so far by the exigencies of the early state years. 
While the Shoah accounted for the murder of so many millions, there is historical consensus that the ultra-Orthodox were completely destroyed. The reasons for this are many; they were not integrated into the general society, they lacked the language skills and social connections to assimilate or hide, and they tended to be desperately poor and highly visible, making them easy targets.
The remnants that survived and arrived in Eretz Yisrael to begin new lives were a pitiful few and, no doubt, aroused pathos in the bronzed, muscled, emancipated “new Jews” who had been draining malarial swamps and tilling dead land for decades. The “old timers” most probably looked upon the new arrivals – still in black garb, sidelocks and fur hats, baking in the Mediterranean sun and heat – and saw vestiges of their families, friends, the world they had left behind and which had since been incinerated. Literally.
“Live and let live,” people likely thought (including the steely Ben-Gurion), when they had a moment to indulge such thoughts, amid the urgencies of nation building. 
AND SO, little attention was paid to the very deliberate rebuilding of the haredi community in Israel undertaken methodically in the following decades, inspired by Avraham Yeshayahu Karlitz, known as the Chazon Ish. Never ordained as a rabbi, the Chazon Ish immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1933. He was revered for his piety, brilliance and revival of haredi life in Israel.
In addition to their small numbers, the haredim had been stripped of all oral tradition and the more tangible elements and tools of community continuity. For centuries, millennia, Jewish ritual observance had been passed on within households, in the form of habit, custom, ritual song and cherished objects passed through generations. There were precious few intact haredi families to provide sanctuary to the much larger numbers of orphaned young men and women hoping to maintain or adopt the lifestyle.
The Chazon Ish is credited with having had the vision of reviving haredi life through the establishment of a network of yeshivot g’dolot, large centers of Torah learning where young men would live, learn, socialize. Every moment and ounce of their being would be devoted to Torah learning and recreating aspects of the traditional East European life. This also meant that the young men were living, as the late scholar Menachem Friedman terms it, in a “quasimonastic community” quite cut off from any family or friends they may have had and, certainly, from the broader environment.
Caplan refers to this “movement” as having exceeded all expectations, in terms of its success. In old Europe – the society the Israeli haredim strove to recreate – Jews had traditionally learned for a limited time and then were required to work to provide for their families. There was a long-standing custom within many communities to identify particularly gifted students and collectively support extended study for the anointed few, in the interest of maintaining a tradition of Torah learning. But there was absolutely no precedent for a way of life that is now the norm in haredi Israel, where all men are understood to be entitled to a lifetime of learning at the expense of others.
The economic burden of supporting these families – now constituting 12% of the population – is borne, to a significant degree, by the state. While men are encouraged to study full time and women, increasingly, take on work outside the home, their salaries and taxes paid are insufficient to finance necessities for very large families; or to contribute proportionately to the true cost of government services – among them education, health care and transportation.
THIS INGRAINED system and culture of entitlement is resented deeply by the broader society, particularly as haredim overwhelmingly refuse to serve in the IDF or national service. So, why, then, has this state largesse persisted?
Caplan (as do many scholars) attributes the inclination of successive Israeli governments to turn a blind eye to the burgeoning haredi population – with correlative entitlements – to a generally accepted notion that haredim represented the “authentic” Judaism. As such, there is presumed to be a moral duty to support them. The truth is, the brand of heightened extremist devotional habits adopted widely by haredim in Israel really took hold only in the post-Enlightenment era, and even then in a manner much more limited than what is now customary in Israel. Judaism had self-maintained through millennia of Diaspora and persecution by adherence to more moderate observance. 
No one, it seems, was or is talking about that. 
Holocaust survivors emerged with what we now understand to be “survivor’s guilt,” a dreadful affliction that often torments them to the end of their lives; tortured as to why they lived while so many others did not. The burden they carry is biblical in magnitude and incomprehensible.
Jewish communities in North America and Israel, once (and improbably) contemptuous of the remnants of European Jewry, also internalized a different guilt. Particularly in North America, where life more or less carried on as usual, the extremes were guilt-inducing, to say the least. My nonagenarian mother describes rushing home every day from high school in Toronto in the early 40s, listening to BBC radio for news on Nazi advances, defeats and the unspeakable plight of the Jews – then doing her homework and going to sleep. 
From this experience it seems there arose a potent collective alchemy of emotion that combined to create a wildly powerful myth among Jews everywhere. 
Think of it as the Fiddler on the Roof factor that somehow transforms the oppressive poverty and misery of the shtetl into a Disney-esque idyll of purity of life purpose, fulfillment and happiness. Forget the fact that millions of Jews fled central and eastern Europe within a few decades at the turn of the previous century, escaping while they could. They did not revel in or strive to recreate the constraints of post-Enlightenment escapist Hassidism or the rigors of the stringent Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox world in the goldene medina. And they represented the majority – Jews who were moderate, for the time, in honoring and observing tradition.
But all Jews since the Shoah seem to have bought into this notion, according to Prof. Shuki Friedman, director of the Center for Religion, Nation and State at the Israel Democracy Institute, of an ideal of a “romantic nostalgic attitude toward the culture which had been.” Particularly among the halachically adherent, Friedman notes, “this expressed itself in a clearcut tendency to see the society that was [seen in the past] as having been composed of righteous people, a society in which the daily life and the tradition of the book were in full harmony with each other.”
This interpretation is what Caplan, and many scholars of haredi and Jewish culture, term the “authenticity” factor; that ultra-Orthodox Jews are seen to be the most “legitimate.”
In the context of a modern, democratic state, this makes for a supreme mess, which has been amplified by the coronavirus crisis. Everything is immediate, happening in real time, impossible to defer.
WHAT BECAME blindingly clear in Israel this past year was that in the haredi communities, it is the word and authority of rabbinical leaders that determines collective conduct. Individualism and equality, foundational principles of the State of Israel, are anathema to the ultra-Orthodox. Their society thrums on a rhythm that demands strict conformity to group standards, which in turn requires extreme deference to the most revered authority: the rabbis.
And where the two systems clash – state and haredi – as they have so frequently in recent months, it is Jewish, halachic law – as interpreted and explained by rabbinic leadership – that holds sway among the ultra-Orthodox, not the heterodox aberration of the secular, Zionist government or judiciary.
A recent poll conducted by the Israeli Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank studying critical trends and issues in Israel, confirmed that the vast majority of haredim – more than 90% – are of the view that for corona-related health policy to be legitimate, decision-making authorities must include rabbis. In other words, if rabbis are not key participants in shaping public health policy, they feel less inclined to honor the state law.
Israelis, famously, disagree about everything. But, in times of national emergency, they stifle the grumbles and become a very compliant lot. Haredi leaders have taken to comparing the weekly demonstrations outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem to haredi riots, public violence and mass civic rebellion in various forms. 
“Same thing,” say the rabbis and political leaders. “You’re just picking on us because we’re haredim.”
Any suggestion of an equivalency of conduct – and harm – is grotesque. During a pandemic, consequence is immediate and irreverent. Viruses don’t give a damn about race, creed or level of religious observance. Haredi leadership contends that without Torah study their lives have no purpose. And, so, they will live with the cause and effect, even if it means that many more haredim die. It is a price they are willing to pay.
But we live in a densely populated country. The haredi tolerance for risk becomes all of ours by default. What they seem prepared to ignore is their responsibility to society as a whole.
COVID is the great equalizer, exposing the inequities in society on many levels. Many have speculated that this experience will challenge the faith of many haredim. That, I doubt. But it is the wildly disparate standards in terms of entitlement and autonomy that have incensed the broader population.
And therein is the real challenge: how the 88% will respond to what is increasingly being referred to as haredi autonomy within the state – a state within a state, with no accountability or readiness to accommodate the will of the majority. 
This, more than anything, presents the greatest challenge to the future of a Jewish, democratic nation-state.
The writer was the Canadian ambassador to Israel from 2014 to 2016. A former lawyer, she consults for international clients on a range of issues and resides in Tel Aviv.