iENGAGE: Needed, Israeli dialogue of mutual gratitude

Mainstream and haredi Israelis must start by acknowledging how the other has contributed to the astonishing post-Holocaust rebirth of the Jewish people.

By
April 4, 2013 22:10
Neturei karta couple prepares for Shabbat

Neturei karta couple prepares for Shabbat 370. (photo credit: Ronen Zvulun / Reuters)

No time of year emphasizes the radical separateness of the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community from the Israeli mainstream than the post-Passover cycle of commemorations that begins with Holocaust Remembrance Day, through Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars, and culminates with Independence Day.

Passover reminds us that we are, despite everything, one people: Almost every Israeli Jew attends a Seder of one form or another. But then come the three commemorations of modern Jewish history to dispel the glow of unity.

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For non-haredi Israelis, those three days are experienced as an emotional trajectory. On Holocaust Remembrance Day we mourn the price of powerlessness; on Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars we mourn the price of power, and on Independence Day we celebrate our improbable resurrection. Taken together, those days offer many Israelis the most tangible experience of fulfilling the injunction of the Passover Haggada – to feel as though we ourselves left Egypt.

Yet for the haredi community, at least officially, these three days have little significance. They are, instead, awkward moments, impositions of a secular authority lacking the legitimacy to tamper with the sacred Jewish calendar.

And so every year, we experience the same rituals of mutual alienation.

Inevitably, on Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars, an Israeli TV news camera will be sent into a haredi neighborhood to film the latest installment of the Violation of the Siren. The memorial siren will sound, and the camera will record haredim going about their business, seemingly indifferent to the memory of the fallen. Then will come the denunciations by secular politicians, followed by the explanations of haredi politicians that the siren is a gentile custom and so of no significance to the faithful. Still others will note that many haredim do stand at attention during the siren, if only to avoid strife among Jews and attacks against their community.

That largely contrived scandal conceals a genuine one: the failure of the ultra-Orthodox community – and especially of its yeshivot, whose students enjoy both government subsidies and draft deferments – to regularly pray for the well-being of Israel’s soldiers. If, as haredim insist, their Torah study and prayer offer protection, then how to deny that protection to our soldiers? That failure is a profound expression of haredi lack of gratitude to those who defend us all.

After the media scandal of the Remembrance Day Siren comes the media scandal of the Independence Day Flag-Burning. Invariably, a photographer for one of the major newspapers will be on hand to record the ritual burning of an Israeli flag by an extremist anti- Zionist haredi faction. Here too will follow secular outrage and then the explanation by haredi spokesmen that the flag-burners are in fact a tiny and non representative minority.

That is certainly true. But once again the obvious scandal conceals a more profound one. The problem isn’t some fanatics burning an Israeli flag, but the failure of haredi institutions to hang the flag, especially on Independence Day.

Showing the flag is not an ideological statement, an acceptance of secular Zionism, but an expression of simple gratitude to the country that actively helped the haredi world recover and thrive after the Holocaust.

But gratitude, at least when it comes to the State of Israel, isn’t part of official haredi discourse.

And so, as the new government prepares to reexamine the wholesale draft deferments of haredi young men and cut the budgets of the sector’s institutions, the response among haredi politicians has been outrage, hysteria. The worst epithets from the traumas of Jewish history are being dredged up against the politicians who have dared question the privileges that the haredi community takes for granted but which would be unthinkable in any other society.

Imagine if haredi leaders had instead said something like this: While anti-haredi attitudes obviously pain us, we recognize that we too have contributed our share to the growing misunderstanding between our communities. And we want to begin the healing process with a long-delayed expression of gratitude to our fellow Israelis for carrying the burden of this country’s physical defense and allowing us to carry the burden of the Jewish people’s spiritual defense.

True, that argument would not likely convince most of us to maintain the current arrangement between the haredim and the state. But the discourse here would change – perhaps creating opportunities for compromise.

We non-haredim have also been remiss in expressing gratitude – to the haredi world. Haredim deserve our respect and appreciation for being the only community in Israel to sacrifice its economic well being for its ideals. Once there were the kibbutzniks who accepted voluntary poverty, and, in the early years of their movement, so did the settlers. But now the haredi community is our last role model of material sacrifice.

Haredim also deserve our gratitude for preserving what was among the core Jewish values for thousands of years: the injunction to live holy lives, both personally and collectively.

A life lived in striving for holiness – for the presence of God – is not the same as a moral life, though that is surely a prerequisite for a holy life.

Holiness means living apart from the ephemeral values of the material world, committing oneself to the primacy of the unseen over the visible.

Whether or not many haredim actually embody that value, the haredi community reminds us of who we are supposed to be, or at least what Jews always believed they were supposed to be.

Finally, haredim deserve our gratitude for the uncompromising affirmation of Jewish identity with which they responded to the Holocaust.

Broadly speaking, the Jewish people responded to the Holocaust in two ways. The first was to embrace Zionism – which until the Holocaust had been a minority position within world Jewry. After the Holocaust, most Jews understood that something profound must change in the Jewish condition – that an unprecedented assault demanded an unprecedented response.

The second response – the haredi way – was to rebuild, to create precise replicas of the communities that had been destroyed.

The disagreements between those two ways are profound. They include how we read Jewish history, how we relate to the non-Jewish world, whether Jewish law should evolve or remain frozen in time, how women are treated in Judaism, and, not least, the responsibilities of an Israeli citizen to the physical defense of the state.

These differences cannot be blurred through appeals for Jewish unity.

Our debate with the haredi world is an argument that must be pursued, because it is, ultimately, an argument l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. But the question is, with what spirit should we conduct that debate? For all our vast differences, we need a new conversation between haredim and non-haredim. If we can’t agree on observing the cycle of days that mark the Jewish experience in the 20th century, perhaps we can at least recognize how each side has contributed, in its way, to the astonishing post-Holocaust rebirth of the Jewish people.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, and a member of its iEngage research team. Find out more about the iEngage Project at iengage.org.il. He is author of the forthcoming book, Like Dreamers: The Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, to be published by HarperCollins.


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