Magazine

Desecrating Judaism in the name of God

Haredi leaders have adopted the Palestinians’ worst traits: tolerating violence and rejecting compromise.

Women of the Wall protest
Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post
Last Tuesday, Palestinian rioters threw rocks and chairs at a group of Jews who offended them by visiting Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount. Last Friday, haredi rioters threw rocks and chairs at a group of Jews who offended them by holding a women’s prayer service at Judaism’s second-holiest site, the Western Wall. Can anyone spot the difference?

True, many haredim view Women of the Wall’s services as a desecration of Judaism. But many Muslims view Jews on the Temple Mount as a desecration of their religion. And both groups feel justified in using violence to enforce their own interpretation of their religion’s mandates.

In fairness, there is one difference: Unlike Palestinians, haredim don’t lionize their violent thugs; indeed, many find them appalling. Yet this distinction is meaningless in practice, because those decent, appalled haredim nevertheless unswervingly support a leadership that at best tacitly condones, and at worst actively encourages, this behavior.

Leading haredi rabbis have no problem making their displeasure known when they want to. In February, for instance, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman published a broadside in the haredi daily Yated Neeman deeming it unacceptable for haredim to help protect their fellow Jews (including their own community) by joining the Israel Defense Forces. Can anyone remember the last time a leading haredi rabbi published a front-page broadside deeming it unacceptable to stone cars on Shabbat?

Nor is tolerance for violence the only similarity:  Haredi leaders also share the Palestinians’ approach to negotiations. Both groups view themselves as aggrieved victims who aren’t obliged to contribute anything to a solution, and for whom no concession is ever enough.

That was driven home to me by Jonathan Rosenblum’s column in this paper in February advocating a “pragmatic” approach to drafting haredim. Rosenblum, despite his own more moderate views, generally seeks to explain the haredi leadership’s thinking. Regarding army service, he wrote, “‘confidence-building’ steps will be required. In particular, the haredi community must be convinced that the goal of the larger society is not to destroy Torah learning and with it the haredi community for whom the study of Torah is the highest societal value. The haredim must be assured that service in the IDF is not designed to fashion them into ‘new Jews’.”

Ten years ago, I’d have considered that a valid fear. But since then, both the Knesset and the IDF have made it clear that isn’t their goal.

First, the IDF set up special haredi units where the men are separated from women, get haredi-approved kosher food and study Talmud every day in addition to their army work. In these units, the goal is explicitly to ensure that haredim remain haredi, because, as one officer explained, “the greatest threat to the project [of getting more haredim to serve] would be if they leave the army as non-haredim.”

Second, leaders of every single Jewish Knesset faction have acknowledged the importance of full-time Torah study in the most concrete possible fashion: agreeing that any new law should include both draft exemptions and government stipends for hundreds or thousands of top Torah students every year (different proposals have different numbers; the coalition’s current proposal is 1,800).

Mainstream Israel has thus demonstrated that it wants to destroy neither Torah learning nor the haredi lifestyle: It merely wants to ensure that both are economically sustainable over the long run by getting more haredim into the army and workforce. What further “confidence-building” measures could it offer, short of complete capitulation to the unsustainable proposition that every haredi who so wishes be permanently exempt from army service and work – which in fact is what haredi leaders are demanding? 

That’s the Palestinian approach, too: Israel must first accept the 1967 borders and free all Palestinian terrorists; then, when there’s nothing left to discuss, they’ll consider beginning negotiations.

Also like the Palestinians, the haredim apparently see no need to offer any “confidence-building” measures of their own. Take Rosenblum’s claim that “Most haredim agree that those not learning Torah should theoretically serve in the IDF”: That would definitely build confidence if it were true, but it isn’t. Far from sending such men to the army, haredi rabbis consistently engage in cover-ups to prevent them from being drafted, fraudulently reporting them as full-time students even if they rarely set foot in yeshiva.

Indeed, in his Yated broadside in February, Shteinman said explicitly that army service is unacceptable for any haredi, even those not learning Torah. “The very act of living in the army framework causes terrible spiritual danger,” he wrote. Not much room for compromise there.

Like Rosenblum, I think a pragmatic compromise would be infinitely preferable to a destructive war of principle. But it takes two to compromise, and so far, haredi leaders have shown no willingness to do so.

And though many ordinary haredim are less intransigent than their leaders, that’s irrelevant as long as they continue backing those leaders to the hilt – which they do. In January’s election, United Torah Judaism campaigned primarily on keeping haredim out the army. Yet ordinary haredim voted for it in such numbers that they boosted it from five Knesset seats to seven.

I have always believed that haredim have much to contribute to Israel: love of learning, generosity to the poor, valuing the spiritual over the material. But in mimicking the Palestinian leadership’s worst traits – tacit support for violence and refusal to compromise – haredi leaders are desecrating Judaism by making it contemptible to other Jews.

And if their public continues to back them in this behavior, mainstream Israel will have no choice but to treat them as it does the Palestinians: Let them stew in their own juices, and meanwhile do what seems best for the rest of us. In this case, that would mean jailing the stone-throwing thugs, slashing funding for yeshivas, ending funding for schools that don’t teach the core curriculum, drafting all haredi men and penalizing those who evade service.

I abhor that solution, and I wish all the decent, moderate haredim would work with their non-haredi counterparts to find another way. But as long as they keep backing their extremist leaders, I don’t see how that’s possible.

The writer is a journalist and commentator.


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