Ultra-Orthodoxy comes of age
While their politicians languish in opposition, the community itself will
inch closer to the social mainstream.
HAREDI DEMONSTRATORS protest in Jerusalem against performing national service. Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
‘Anyone with eyes,” warned a group of rabbis in a public statement at the turn
of the 20th century, “will recognize that Zionism is more ruinous to the Jews
than all the false messiahs who arose in our nation.”
Having spent much
of the 19th century fighting the Reform movement, ultra-Orthodoxy later detected
a new enemy, Zionism, which it chose to fight with equal zeal.
Talmudic authority of the generation, Rabbi Chayim Halevi Soloveitchik of Brisk,
warned “the Jewish masses” to avoid “connecting to what amounts to religion’s
destruction and an obstacle to the house of Israel” while, on the hassidic side
of the shtetel, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn – the fifth rebbe of Lubavitch –
wrote that even if the Zionists had been observant, and even “had there been
room to believe they will achieve their aim, we should not listen to them in
this matter of bringing about our redemption by ourselves” because the Talmud
forbade the Jews to abandon exile by the force of their arm, and the Jews’ “real
hope” is that “our redemption will be brought about by God himself.”
(S.Z.Landa, Y. Rabinovitch (Eds.), Or Li-Yesharim (Hebrew), Warsaw 1900)
This spirit of defiance survived the Holocaust and also Israel’s emergence.
Ultra-Orthodoxy avoided joining coalitions, and to this day its Ashkenazi
lawmakers refuse ministerial appointments because that would imply they
recognize the secular Jewish state.
Still, ultra-Orthodoxy has come a
long way since its original anti-Zionist broadsides – so much so that the
compromises it made with Zionism since Israel’s establishment are now expected
to produce a social crisis, which will then be followed with even greater
THE CRISIS will arrive in the wake of the next
government’s fiscal constraints and the ultra-Orthodox factions expected return
to the opposition.
A harsh budget cut is imperative because the outgoing
government has accumulated a 4.2 percent-of- GDP budget deficit. Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu and his prospective coalition partners are all economic
conservatives who agree this deficit must be quickly erased. This means slashing
from this year’s budget NIS 10 billion and NIS 20b. from next
While parts of this cut will affect defense spending,
public-sector wages, transportation projects and assorted tax breaks, other cuts
will target budgets that over the decades became a staple of ultra-Orthodox
Plans include slashing child allottments from their current level
of NIS 7.5b. by some 30% and even sharper cuts in the annual NIS 1b. budget for
yeshiva support. In addition, the new coalition will likely trim budget
transfers to ultra- Orthodox boarding schools and make a slew of benefits – from
mortgage assistance and reduced healthcare fees to lower property taxes and
kindergarten tuition – conditional on its recipients going to work.
top of this will come a renewed drive to pass legislation for drafting most
conscription-age ultra- Orthodox men – if even gradually, not necessarily to the
IDF, not at age 18 and not for a full three years.
this is causing panic among ultra-Orthodox politicians. Reports this week that
Rabbi Ovadia Yosef asked to be taken to meet Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich in
order to persuade her to join the coalition instead of Yair Lapid, have
underscored a sense of emergency in the face of a civic onslaught that might
undo years of political gains.
While such alarmism is exaggerated,
ultra-Orthodoxy indeed arrives now at a turning point in its relationship with
the Jewish state; it is one that its leaders cannot evade and their followers
should not fear.
THE GREAT turning point in ultra-Orthodoxy’s
relationship with the Jewish state came in 1977, when what then was called
Agudat Yisrael struck an alliance with the newly elected Menachem
The modest arrangements of the previous three decades, whereby
several hundred yeshiva students’ military service was deferred, gradually
became thousands and then tens of thousands of deferrals.
politicians served those years as chairmen of the coalition and the Knesset
Finance Committee, positions in which they began to create the system of
benefits and tax breaks that is now threatened by the approaching budget cuts.
It was ultra-Orthodoxy’s New Deal – a pact with the Zionist devil that allowed
maximum fiscal benefits with minimum civic contribution, whether as soldiers or
taxpayers, as most ultra-Orthodox men were encouraged by their leaders to study
rather than work.
During the New Deal’s first seven years, ultra-
Orthodoxy comprised only 5% of the electorate.
Then, in 1984, Shas
entered the scene, gradually adding thousands of non-Ashkenazi families into
that New Deal. Meanwhile, the ultra-Orthodox electorate trebled and now
represents more than one million Israelis, whereas in the state’s first years it
numbered some 50,000.
With such dramatic growth of the voluntarily
underemployed population that benefits from the working public’s tax money,
ultra-Orthodoxy’s New Deal could not last forever.
A decade ago, this New
Deal reached crisis when Ariel Sharon left both ultra-Orthodox parties out of
his government. The centrist Shinui Party managed to get the Religious Affairs
Ministry shut down while then-finance minister Netanyahu cut child allotments
Yet that exclusion was largely circumstantial.
he left Shas and United Torah Judaism out of his coalition, Sharon explained
that the economy, which at the time was in deep recession, demanded harsh
measures that the ultra-Orthodox would have opposed. In addition, he said he
thought Israel needed to attract one million immigrants within a decade, and
ultra-Orthodox understanding of Jewishness would weigh on this aim as
Sharon did not say, but everyone knew, that in addition to these
considerations he had been infuriated by Shas’s vote the previous year against
his budget while they sat in his coalition.
Such, in sum, were the
circumstance a decade ago. Since then, however, two more developments entered
the scene and dramatized ultra-Orthodoxy’s political predicament.
happened in the Supreme Court, the other down in the street.
Court’s ruling last year that letting ultra-Orthodox men work without serving
was unconstitutional meant that what until then was a political bone of
contention now became a legal mess as well.
Before then, as thousands
took to the streets to protest the cost of living, it became clear that the
middle class was no longer prepared to abandon its pocketbooks to the
politicians’ devices. Though the demonstrators did not focus on the
ultra-Orthodox role in this, the recent election demonstrated that many linked
their economic disgruntlement to ultra-Orthodoxy’s New Deal.
even as they weighed economically on the middle class, ultra-Orthodox leaders
routinely insulted modern- Orthodoxy religiously – for instance, when Rabbi
Ovadiah Yosef said that voting for Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett was tantamount
to heresy and when UTJ’s newspapers referred to respectable rabbis like Haim
Druckman without referring to them as “rabbi.” More substantively, as modern-
Orthodox rabbis see it, ultra-Orthodoxy wrested and debased religious Zionism’s
dearest institution, the Chief Rabbinate, besides taking over most religious
councils and city rabbinates.
In sum, the forces ultra-Orthodoxy provoked
over the decades – and now faces – are social, economic, political and
It adds up to a groundswell. And since their politicians are
practical people, they can be expected to eventually face this challenge with
Yes, there will be a great deal of acrimony in the
19th Knesset, but in its aftermath ultra-Orthodoxy will be even closer to the
social mainstream than it already is.
ULTRA-ORTHODOX LEADERS have long
understood that their constituents can no longer live off of the handout system
that emerged gradually since 1977, back when the budgets at stake, and the
number of their beneficiaries, were but a fraction of what they later became.
That is why they have quietly approved, and now also encourage, the
establishment of vocational schools and colleges where ultra-Orthodox men and
women study free professions, like law, accounting, and computer
Now, political pressure and fiscal constraints will force
thousands more to seek ways to join the workforce. The result will be a voting
by the feet, and all this while new legislation will lead a growing number of
young ultra-Orthodox men to the military, police, fire brigades, or assorted
venues of national service.
Ultra-Orthodoxy began as a reaction to the
rise of the Reform movement, and then developed as a reaction to
Opposition to Reform remains unflinching, but with Zionism a
great accommodation has long been under way. It began a century ago, with the
usage of Hebrew despite previous rabbinical prohibitions. It then continued with
ultra-Orthodox rabbis signing the Declaration of Independence and fielding
candidates to the young Knesset, a compromise that was later followed with the
New Deal whereby ultra- Orthodox politicians effectively joined Israel's
The next phase, whereby ultra-Orthodoxy joins the social
mainstream, will take decades to mature, but as will become apparent during the
nineteenth Knesset's term – it is already well under
The writer is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman