Religious Affairs: Settling for less-than-pure principles

Today, haredi rabbis - via their political proxies - are pushing for more building, more "facts on the ground" that would rule out future territorial concessions.

haredi family 88 (photo credit:)
haredi family 88
(photo credit: )
United Torah Judaism (UTJ), a political party that brings together a hodgepodge of haredi groups, both Hassidic and Lithuanian, joined forces this week with settlement leaders to fight a freeze in building beyond the Green Line. Veteran settlement leader Ze'ev "Zambish" Chever sat with UTJ Chairman Ya'acov Litzman of the Gerer Hassidic sect and discussed strategies for lifting the freeze, as they toured Betar Illit in one of Betar's "kosher" buses that separates men and women passengers. Ma'aleh Adumim Mayor - and former Yesha Council head - Benny Kashriel floated ideas on how to put pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to permit "natural growth" construction in Judea and Samaria with MK Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, a former Talmud teacher in a Lithuanian Yeshiva. Witnesses to the meeting lacking in historical perspective would have missed the irony: Haredim who opposed the Zionist enterprise from the outset as a dangerous antagonizing of the gentiles of the world are now spearheading the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, arguably the most controversial endeavor ever undertaken by the modern Jewish nation. The fact that the meeting took place in Betar added to the irony. Betar was the scene of the last major Jewish rebellion against the Roman conquerors of ancient Israel. After the bloody defeat there, Jews were unceremoniously expelled from their homeland to embark on nearly 2,000 years of exile, during which Jews reconciled themselves to homelessness. This week, Betar was the scene of a renewed battle to maintain a hold on Judea, as if the haredim were ushering in a new era of nationalist activism. Past haredi leaders viewed the Zionist founders of Israel as rebels against God's will. As they saw it, instead of waiting for God to initiate the messianic era, the Zionists had thrown off the Jewish yoke of exile and powerlessness, and were trying to prematurely bring about a secular version of redemption. Today, haredi rabbis - via their political proxies - are pushing for more building, more "facts on the ground" that would rule out future territorial concessions. They have joined forces with religious Zionists who interpret the expansion of settlements in Judea and Samaria as a clear sign from God that the Jewish people is already on the path to spiritual redemption. MK Meir Porush, probably the most hawkish among UTJ's MKs, who was instrumental in settlement construction during his stints as deputy housing minister, first in the late 1990's and later between 2001-2002, noted the sea change that had taken place in his party over the years. "I don't mind that my colleagues think like me today that we should be in all of Judea and Samaria, though right now we are talking about Betar," said Porush. True, UTJ's decision to hold its weekly faction meeting in Betar Illit together with settlement leaders was partly a political move. It was an opportunity to attack Shas, the Sephardi haredi party, for remaining in a government coalition that freezes construction in Judea and Samaria. UTJ managed, for a short time, to place Shas in an uncomfortable situation, by claiming that the Sephardim were not using their political clout to lift the building freeze. But Shas, which held its own weekly faction meeting in Betar Illit the day after that of UTJ, managed to turn UTJ's attack into a political victory. During a tour of Betar Illit's aborted building sites, Shas Chairman Eli Yishai received a telephone call from Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's office. "Olmert promised our teacher, rabbi Ovadia, that building would continue around Jerusalem, including Betar Illit," related Yishai to the jubilant crowd. HOWEVER, IT would be a mistake to say that haredi leaders have suddenly undergone a radical ideological transformation. As Betar Illit Mayor Meir Rubinstein put it this week, "We don't buy into the settler ideology. People came here because it is close to Jerusalem and housing is cheap. If we were asked by the government to leave Betar today, no one would put up a fight, as long we were economically compensated," said Rubinstein, contrasting Betar's populace to ideological settlers who are prepared to fight any government attempts to evacuate. "But as long as were are allowed to stay here, it is not fair to strangulate us." In other words, the change in the haredi approach to settlement activity is primarily a product of circumstances and convenience. As Dror Etkes, Settlements Watch Director for Peace Now, wrote two years ago in a report posted on the organization's Web site: "The ultra-Orthodox settlers are likely to identify increasingly with the religious-nationalist settlers… Impacts of the intifada and threats to settler subsidies are also likely to reinforce a sense of common interests and common threats among these historically distinct groups." Etges argued that as the haredim's security became directly affected by concessions to Palestinians - such as the removal of checkpoints, like that outside Betar - their political opinions were likely to become more right-wing. Money is another factor. Maintaining a steady pace of growth in Betar has become a major economic interest of the haredi community. Porush said this week that due to the building freeze in Betar, "prices for a three-room flat have shot up from $115,000 just a few months ago to $160,000 today." Obviously, some of this has to do with the depreciation of the dollar in relation to the shekel. But there is a real fear among haredim of an impending housing shortage, unless a brisk pace of building is maintained in Betar and other haredi towns. This fear is well-founded. According to Hebrew University demographer Professor Sergio DellaPergola, the average haredi family has 6.5 children, way above the national Jewish average of 2.6. In fact, much of the population growth and building beyond the Green Line, which is seen by the US administration (and all its predecessors since Judea, Samaria and Gaza were conquered by Israel in the Six Day War) as an obstacle to peace, can be attributed to two haredi settlements. Betar Illit is the third largest settlement in Judea and Samaria, with a population of 36,000. Modi'in Illit, or Kiryat Sefer, is the largest settlement, with a population of more than 40,000. Betar and Kiryat Sefer are also the fastest-growing settlements. AS DEPENDENCE on cheap housing beyond the Green Line has grown, the purist haredi apprehension about inciting the gentiles has been replaced by various rationalizations. For instance, Betar's mayor said he was aware that building inside Betar made his Palestinian neighbors angry. "We do everything we can to stay on good terms with our neighbors," he said. "We even built them a special access road that enables them to get to their fields. But it is unreasonable for us to stop building inside Betar. To tell you the truth, I doubt they would be happy, even if we moved back inside the Green Line." According to a senior editor at the haredi daily, Yated Ne'eman - the mouthpiece for the Lithuanian Degel Hatorah faction in the UTJ - some spiritual leaders were afraid that Betar would cause the haredi community to stray from its ideological principles. He said that Rabbi Elazar Menachem Man Shach, the most influential haredi spiritual leader in Israel until his death in 2001, was very uncomfortable about establishing a haredi town in Betar. "Rabbi Shach was a very smart man," said the editor, who preferred to remain anonymous. "He knew that the inertia of daily life is stronger than abstract principles."