More subconsciously than consciously (perhaps), I’d had always been a seeker, and part of my quest had manifested itself as a wanderlust, which in the late 1970s led me to a kibbutz in Galilee called Gadot.(Back then, a lot of wandering souls looking for the meaning of life, or seeking to find themselves, or whatever, ended up on a kibbutz.)My quest, though, didn’t stop among the avocado fields of the upper Galilee, where I toiled; and, amid my spiritual/philosophical musing, I had mentioned to one of my friends on the kibbutz, an American Jew named Jack Conde, that I might go to Jerusalem and become an ultra-Orthodox Haredi.
“You do that,” Jack warned, “and I will never speak to you again.”
Wow! Though aware that secular Jews in Israel didn’t particularly appreciate their black-hatted ultra-Orthodox fellow citizens, I wasn’t ready for that reaction from a Jew about other Jews. Only later, grasping better the history of Israel and the ultra-Orthodox, as well as the present political/religious dynamic between them and other Israelis, did his reaction make sense. From the foundation of modern Israel (no, actually, from before the foundation) to the present, the religious divide between the secular Jews in Israel and the Haredim, “those . . . who tremble” at the Word of God (Isaiah 66:2, NIV),* continues to dominate political, religious, and social life in Israel.
And though manifesting itself in the unique context not only of Israel but of Jews and Judaism, this conflict reflects something similar, particularly in modern liberal democracies such as the United States, where even now the clash between religious and secular values, though nowhere as acute and in-your-face as in the Zionist state, is nevertheless real.
What is happening in Israel, and what can we learn from it, if anything?
To Serve or Not to Serve
An article, not atypical, in the Times of Israel (November 2017) began like this: “Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox youths from a fringe religious group took to the streets of Jerusalem on Sunday, causing traffic mayhem and shutting down the capital’s light rail service to protest the jailing of young seminary students for draft-dodging. The demonstrators blocked the main entrance to the capital for three hours.
“The fresh disruptions sparked anger, with public figures calling on police to take a tougher stance against the protesters.”
The protest, though angering Jerusalem’s mayor, Nir Barkat (who called the demonstration “illegal” and told the police to end it), didn’t dampen the protesters’ enthusiasm.On the contrary, Orthodox rabbi Shmuel Auerbach warned that his people had a religious duty, before G-d, to return to the streets and “protest for the dignity of the Torah, which has been ground into dust by the incarceration of 12 prisoners of the Torah world for extended periods.”
Secular Israelis, of course, were infuriated. Even many Orthodox Jewish Zionists, constantly at odds with their secular fellow citizens, were opposed, not just to the protests themselves but to the exemption from military service that some ultra-Orthodox, based on deep-seated religious values, demand for themselves. Orthodox rabbi Yehudah Glick, who heads a campaign to allow Jews more access to the Temple Mount (thus, hardly a secularist), tweeted that these demonstrations have “no connection to Torah. It is simply hooliganism.”
However, for the Haredim, the practice of their young men studying Torah, which means “the law” (think Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), is a sacred duty that provides the best service that they could render to the Jewish state, because it brings the nation closer to God, who alone can protect it.Others against service in the military, however, are fervent anti-Zionists, who don’t want to support the Jewish state in any way, especially with military service. And though they have no time for Israel as a political entity, they do believe that their young men studying Torah is all that separates the Jewish people as a whole, whether in Israel or in the diaspora, from impending disaster. “The single, razor-sharp historic truth,” wrote the editor of Mishpacha (an Orthodox weekly), “is that Torah study is the secret of Jewish survival.”
Most Israelis would argue that the key to Jewish survival, at least in Israel, is the IDF, the Israeli Defense Forces. Because the nation is surrounded by enemies who have tried, more than once, to destroy it, and because some of those enemies’ raison d’être is to push Israel into the sea—the IDF, not Haredim studying Deuteronomy, is all that stands between Israel and annihilation.And because there can be no military without soldiers, Haredim refusal to serve hits a raw nerve in Israel.On the other hand, if you believe that the Lord Himself, Hashem (which means “the hame”), demands that your young men study Torah, well, whom do you obey: the hated secular Zionists, or Hashem?
All in a day in modern Israel.
The battle over military deferments for the Haredim is just one manifestation of the gut-wrenching religious divide in this tiny nation—a divide made even worse because of a theological challenge, from the Haredim, against the legitimacy of the Jewish state itself.
It’s one thing to argue over “the right of return,” or over pre- or post-1967 borders; it’s another to claim that only the Messiah Himself, when He comes, can establish the Jewish state. For these Haredim, the present Zionist state, essentially a secular liberal democracy, is a blasphemous counterfeit to the one that Moschiah (Yiddish for the Messiah) will establish and reign over when He comes.
These Jews remain Israel’s most implacable internal foes, harboring the kind of anti-Zionist hostility found among Israel’s Arab enemies. In fact, some of the more extreme Haredim went to Iran in 2006 to participate in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust Denial Conference.Others have met with Louis Farrakhan, and some have marched hand in hand with people waving Hezbollah flags.Though these are the most extreme, that’s all they are, extreme, which means others are sympathetic in their hatred of Israel.And when many live in Israel itself, it’s not indeed hard to understand the depth of the religious divide there.
A Divided Society
This lack of love cuts both ways, of course.A majority of Israelis, though calling themselves Jews whether or not they practice the faith, despise, if not the Haredim personally (though many do), then at least the political stranglehold that the ultra-Orthodox can have on the government and, hence, Israeli society as a whole.
Israel is a parliamentary democracy, which means proportional representation, and the major political parties simply cannot afford to ignore the representational clout of the ultra-Orthodox, who have long enjoyed a political gravitas far beyond their numbers. As a result, the ultra-Orthodox have received concessions from the government that infuriates secular Israelis. Their power is seen in many areas of life: strict kosher laws, strict Sabbath closing laws, restrictions on marriage, special conditions for conversions to Judaism, to name a few areas where the influence of Haredim can be felt, painfully, by Israelis
Take one: marriage.
“Diana Mirtsin and Alexander Skudalo, Israeli citizens who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, live together, with their baby, in Tel Aviv.” Thus begins a recent article in myjewishlearning.com. “Very much in love, they would like to marry–but they cannot make it official in Israel. This is because the Israeli rabbinate does not recognize Alexander as Jewish, because although his father is Jewish, his mother is not Jewish. Diana points out the irony in their frustrating family situation: ‘If there is a war tomorrow, he’ll be Jewish enough to fight for Israel. But he’s not Jewish enough to marry here.’ ”
What’s the problem?Israel’s “Law of Return” grants anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent, and his or her spouse, the right to immigrate to Israel and become automatic citizens.However, because of the clout of the ultra-Orthodox, only the Israeli rabbinate can marry Jewish couples.And because Israeli’s official rabbinate is exclusively Orthodox, all marriage must be according to its interpretation of Jewish law, which states that a Jew is someone born to a Jewish mother or who converted through the Orthodox rabbinate. This concept leaves thousands, like Alexander Skudalo, in matrimonial limbo.
A full-fledged citizen, a father, married to a Jew, and who can fight in the IDF but can’t be legally married?No wonder tensions are high.
When you add these things, and more (including the exemption from the military), secular Jews rage with hostility against the Haredim, a hostility that runs deep and that explains Jack’s reaction to my musing about becoming part of that hated group. According to a Pew Forum survey, “secular Jews in Israel are more uncomfortable with the notion that a child of theirs might someday marry an ultra-Orthodox Jew than they are with the prospect of their child marrying a Christian.”
Trust me—that’s bad.
A Secular Zionist Democracy?
How did this nation, founded by many men who were secular, even socialist, end up like this, in the throes of a quasi-theocracy? The answer goes back to the origins of modern Israel, when Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, believed that these ultra-Orthodox could help give the fledgling state its Jewish character. Because ultra-Orthodox were already living in the land, had been for a long time (they weren’t against settling their old homeland; they were just against a political, secular state being established there), and because more came after the Holocaust, Ben-Gurion wanted to enlist their support, to whatever degree possible.Though some refused any cooperation, other ultra-Orthodox made their peace with Zionism, but only after numerous concessions were granted them—concessions that, to this day, help form the secular-religious divide.
Called the “Status Quo Agreement of 1947,” these concessions included things like protecting the seventh-day Sabbath as a national day of rest, providing both religious public and private education, enforcing kosher dietary laws in public and government-sponsored institutions, and assuring Orthodox religious control over marriage, divorce, and conversion to Judaism. The assumption behind such concessions was that because these Jews were so backward and unmodern, they would, eventually, just fade away and these rules would, eventually, be rescinded.
But that’s not what happened.On the contrary, the Orthodox continued to grow, both by immigration and by high birth rates.Far from disappearing, the ultra-Orthodox (to people’s surprise) formed their own political parties that, at times, have given a string of prime ministers the votes needed to guarantee a parliamentary majority.But they didn’t do so out of the goodness of their hearts; they wanted support for their vision of a quasi-theocracy, a vision bitterly resented by many other Israelis, who fear for the fate of their liberal democracy.
A Civil War?
And yet, no matter how strong the animosity, Israel society still thrives, perhaps because of the external threat that they all, secular or religious, face.In Chaim Potok’s 1967 best-selling novel The Chosen, he wrote about fervent anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews and how they reacted when, in 1947, Arab nations launched an attack on Israel.Though constantly deriding the fledgling nation, these Jews suddenly changed their attitude when it appeared that Israel could be destroyed right at the start. Wrote Potok: “The faces of the anti-Zionist Hasidic students in the school became tense and pained, and all anti-Zionist talk ceased. I watched them every day at lunch as they read to each other accounts of the bloodshed reported in the Jewish press and then talked about it among themselves. I could hear sighs, see heads shaking and eyes filling with sadness. ‘Again, Jewish blood is being spilled,’ they whispered to one another. ‘Hitler wasn’t enough. Now more Jewish blood, more slaughter. What does the world want from us? Six million isn’t enough?More Jews have to die?’ ”
Though The Chosen was fiction, this scene delivered a powerful dose of truth, at least in regard to Israel’s divided society today.No question, the secular-Haredi divide cuts deep. Some pundits have warned about a potential civil war (that’s how deep). But nothing close to one has yet come, if for no other reason than, perhaps, the constant threat of an external war with Israel’s external enemies. However much they don’t like each other, the ultra-Orthodox (most of whom are not fervent anti-Zionists) and the rest of Israel’s Jews (and even non-Jewish citizens and residents) face a much greater danger than debates over kosher laws in government kitchens, and no question the constant realization of the existential threat posed by Iran and the like helps (as revealed in Potok’s fictional scene) keep the society functioning as well as it does, despite the internal tensions.
How Far Is Far Enough?
Though still a minority in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox is a growing one, and the more it grows, the greater its political clout becomes, which hardly bodes well for the future. Until then, things plug along, with occasional flare-ups that include civil disobedience, such as the protests over the conviction in 2017 of draft-dodger Haredim (the Haredim are allowed exemptions, but they must apply for the exemptions in a legal manner), who refused to cooperate with the IDF in any manner.
In one sense, what’s happening is Israel is a reflection of any liberal democracy: different people expressing different political and religious views, flexing their electoral muscle.
Of course, things get real tense when it comes to religious issues, which is nothing new, either.More than 200 years ago America’s Founders built into the United States Constitution, if not the exact words, then at least the principle, of church-state separation.Yes, you as a religious citizen have the right to vote your convictions and even, with enough votes, see them implemented. But only to a point.Exactly what that point is, or what it should be, has been at the heart of secular-religious divide here in America as well.
And though we haven’t experienced in a long time the kind of ultraconservative religious influence in America (not for lack of trying) that the Haredim have exerted in Israel, the threat remains as real.However well meaning religious people can be, their zeal has not always been tempered with knowledge.At the same time, the opposite extreme (don’t say “Merry Christmas!”—that kind of thing) could become so entrenched that the nation takes a decidedly anti-religious turn.Neither is the case—yet. America has found, at least for now, a pretty good balance between church and state.Let’s hope we can keep it.
I never did become a Haredi, so I never faced Jack’s wrath. I did, however, become a believer in Jesus, which, in his eyes, though not good, was better than me donning a black coat and hat and then using my electoral clout to enforce a way of life upon a nation that does not want it.
*Bible texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
Article Author: Clifford R. Goldstein
Clifford Goldstein writes from Mt. Airy, Maryland. A previous editor of Liberty, he now edits Bible study lessons for the Seventh-day Adventist Church.