The haredim, Israel’s moderates

To some, this might sound like heresy and lunacy in equal measure. The haredim have been called many things in their time – but moderate?

August 11, 2019 20:57
4 minute read.
The haredim, Israel’s moderates

SHLOMO CHRISTOPHER POZNER’S Shabbos video work looks at the delicate balancing act between Jerusalem’s haredi residents and the secular establishment.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

If Israel’s national conversation about haredim was ice cream, it would come in two flavors.

Red-hot angry flavor is currently in election-season vogue. Avigdor Liberman and Yair Lapid paint the haredi sector as draft-dodging, work-avoiding extremists who want to impose an Iranian-style halachic state, while extracting every last shekel from Israel’s moderate majority.

Somewhere down the line, the news cycle will move on and a saccharin-sweet flavor will take its place. Yes, this version agrees, haredim unfairly extract more than their share by playing coalition kingmakers. But rescuing the haredim from their self-inflicted economic predicament is a national interest – and social justice, besides.

Both red-hot and saccharin-sweet are wrong. The fact that haredim often hold the balance of coalition power is actually a good thing for Israel. That’s because the ultra-Orthodox are Israel’s political moderates.

To some, this might sound like heresy and lunacy in equal measure. The haredim have been called many things in their time – but moderate?

But when you strip away the media baiting, it’s true. The haredim aren’t actually the main issue facing the country. Israel’s electorate knows how to rank the challenges that the country faces. Security, including terrorism and Iranian expansionism, and the high cost of living matter far more. Above all, the electorate splits along Right-Left lines – or in other words, the Palestinian issue.

And on this critical question, Israel’s haredim are bang in the middle. They may be “natural partners” of the Right as coalition partners, but they are not creatures of the Right. They are Israel’s moderate center.

Haredim haven’t taken part in the Right’s muscle flexing over the past few years. The muezzin law did not originate with the haredi parties, nor could it have. The initiative to apply Israeli sovereignty in Area C could not have come from the haredi parties. That’s because historically, haredi politicians have been extremely sensitive to the way that Israel’s actions are perceived abroad. Even the large haredi settlement blocs over the Green Line such as Betar Illit and Modi’in Ilit were marketed as affordable housing options, not as settlement projects. And even then, they incurred the displeasure of the great Lithuanian Torah sage, Rav Elazar Shach.

The mainstream haredi approach, established at the beginning of the state, has been to view Israel through a practical lens as the largest modern-day Jewish community. There is no messianism in this worldview. “Galut Jew” was hurled as a Zionist slur against the ultra-Orthodox – but haredim are comfortable with that label. They know that what Jews do in the West Bank can have repercussions in Brooklyn.

SO IN Israel’s zero sum politics, surely this qualifies the haredim as left-wingers. No, because as much as they don’t participate in right-wing messianism, haredim can’t partake of left-wing utopianism. The Torah views life as too precious to risk on grand peace projects that ignore the reality of the hate-filled societies around us.

Haredi pragmatism is not a one-trick Oslo pony. Over in the grubby world of politics, religious MKs distinguish themselves by governing in the national interest. Anyone who spends time, as I have, in UTJ MK Moshe Gafni’s Knesset Finance Committee can see a highly-experienced lawmaker whose sole interest is to make Israel’s financial plumbing work. When then health minister Ya’acov Litzman legislated free dental care for kids, he had in mind Tomer from Tel Aviv as much as Yanky from Jerusalem.

For those brought up on a media version of haredi otherness, this may come as a surprise – but it shouldn’t. Haredim may not agree with the left- or right-wing versions of secular Zionism, but they are signed up for love and responsibility for the Jewish people and the Jewish future. That’s called moderation.

Perhaps secular Israel’s biggest source of anger against the haredi establishment is the Chief Rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce. Maintaining that arrangement costs the haredi parties much political capital. The Shas Party routinely asks for the Interior Ministry in coalition negotiations, precisely to protect the Chief Rabbinate. This, despite growing calls within the haredi world to go for the Housing Ministry, which would enable politicians to focus on alleviating a severe housing crisis in the haredi sector.

Time and again, the status quo allows secularists to paint haredim as benighted theocrats bent on regulating ordinary peoples’ lives. As a matter of PR, it’s a spectacular own-goal. So why do they do it?

What it boils down to, once again, is responsibility for a Jewish future. Religious people would marry through the rabbinate anyway; but some secular Israelis wouldn’t. And a free-market in marriage would mean thousands of lives ruined as children face insurmountable halachic problems inflicted by their parents.

Protecting the integrity of the Jewish people inevitably turns the haredim into a political punching-bag – and it’s a price they knowingly pay. The word for that kind of responsibility is moderation, and it originates with the great rabbinic leaders with whom the haredi politicians consult.

Sadly, Israel’s secular-haredi friction won’t disappear anytime soon. A secular worldview can’t easily comprehend the centrality of Torah study to Jewish survival, or the uniqueness of Jewish marriage. So the haredi bashing will continue.

But one thing has to change: painting the haredim as extreme. The two words simply don’t belong together.

Whether on Israel’s crucial foreign or domestic policy issues, the haredim are in the moderate middle – and the country is all the better for them.

The writer is co-founder of ITV, a Jewish learning and community center in Tel Aviv, and a journalist at Mishpacha magazine.

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