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