Passover 2015, I was in the midst of my term as Canadian ambassador to Israel, facing a dilemma that so many do, particularly those finding themselves without a home or family.
I had a lovely house, which in the diplomatic bubble is called an “official residence.” It was grand by any standard, complete with pool, staff and more square footage than I had ever known. In our more modest Toronto digs, my teenage daughters and I hosted big, boisterous Seders, giving over our main floor for days. We mixed family among friends and strangers, which was actually a failproof formula for ensuring that grumbling from the usual suspects was kept to a minimum.
In Israel, we had many friends and acquaintances but not the range of family that we realized was really the “secret sauce.” My daughter was less than enthusiastic about attending anywhere as the “ambassador’s daughter.” It’s a teenager thing. But she had a good point. The position changed how people behaved with and around us. We wanted something “real.”
So we decided to shake things up a bit.
A generous sponsor donated a chef, food and small gifts to share with our unknown invitees. Through various channels we invited lone soldiers to attend our Seder and had absolutely no idea who, if anyone, would show up. Truthfully, I expected a gaggle of lonely North Americans. Instead, what turned up were more than 20 men and women, most of whom were from Israeli haredi families who wanted nothing to do with them. These young adults had chosen a different life from the strict, controlling environment in which they had been raised and, in response, their families disowned them.
Initially, our impromptu Seder was impossibly awkward, and a perfect metaphor for the ingathering of exiles. Our common language was Hebrew, but our proficiency varied wildly. There were at least five different “mother tongues” in the room and it seemed that each person also arrived with their own particular Passover customs which, of course, they expected to be the same as everyone else’s. Babel redefined.
My daughter and I had brought along our North American Reform Haggadot for everyone, which were received with bemused dismissiveness. “Like, what is this?” I tried to lead this ragtag bunch in ceremony but, in no time, order became barely organized chaos, with each person jumping in with their tune or custom or question.
After a splash or two of wine, and wildly delicious food, the room was lively and buzzing with conversation and warmth. People chair-hopped and everyone wanted to speak with everyone else. We shared very personal stories and pain, about being alienated from the places we should be most welcome, of trying to find a way in a world that shunned us.
It was truly a transformative evening. The guests took home their surprise gifts – toasters and useful things that they would need – and my daughter and I contemplated how much we had lost and gained.
The obvious tragedy in all this is that these young people were cast out as pariahs by their families for abandoning the ultra-Orthodox path. The consequences and pressures to which they were subjected are unthinkable: They are homeless; burdened with the guilt of having impaired the likelihood of any unmarried siblings to arrange a “good marriage match”; and they are shunned by everyone and everything they knew. Many are sentenced to a life in limbo, belonging nowhere and yearning for the smells, sights and familiar touches of home.
They live among us in exile.
FOR EACH ultra-Orthodox person who leaves the fold there are many more who remain stuck. And therein, perhaps, is the code to recalibrating the extreme tensions in Israeli society between haredim and everyone else: understanding and accommodating those who wish to leave or moderate their ultra-Orthodoxy and working with haredi leadership to impress upon them that this is how we do things in a liberal democracy.
As we have experienced in this past year, haredi leadership rules with a very heavy hand. Not only is individualism not tolerated but their dealings with the broader Israeli society have now been undeniably exposed to be equally dictatorial, unbending and contemptuous.
Haredim are free to choose to live as they please but they cannot dictate the rules to the majority of Israelis. Nor are they at liberty to carve out autonomous zones where state laws are ignored. Pretty basic stuff.
There is a building consensus among a diverse range of Israelis: academics, public intellectuals, journalists, political figures, pollsters, leftists, rightists, centrists – and even regular folk – that we are at a critical juncture and cannot blithely carry on as we have done for more than 70 years. The audacious demands and expectations of the haredi population have only increased over time, threatening the financial and democratic integrity of the state.
Israeli-American writer Yossi Klein-Halevi, a moderate, reflective voice, expressed the palpable anger of so many in these pages a week ago, referring to the lessons of the corona crisis as “Israel’s wake-up call,” and adding, “The haredi state within a state threatens our long-term viability.”
We are told that the haredi population is diverse, but what we tend to see is a monolith. And for good reason. Haredi fealty is first and foremost to its rabbi and community. Even if individuals disagree, they will defer to rabbinical decrees, putting their faith in the wisdom of the Torah sages. So many haredim have told me privately in recent months that they felt their political and religious leadership had let them down, but even then, wouldn’t dare to criticize their rabbis. It is beyond difficult to understand how a community can at once be so submissive but also be independently minded, as so many assert.
The disconnect among the ultra-Orthodox from the civic responsibility of the individual to the state could not be more staggering. Generally speaking, haredim are ambivalent about the modern state. Historically, they have been indifferent at best, often hostile to Zionism, but ever-expert at manipulating their minority position to extract financial and other favors from the majority. The genesis of this Faustian bargain was in prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s determination to present a unified Jewish view to the United Nations leading up to the vote to establish the State of Israel. Having haredim oppose this historic opportunity on the basis that the secular state was an offense to “real” Jews would not have played well with the outside world. So, Ben-Gurion acceded to the haredi demand that the state support full-time Torah study for the few thousand ultra-Orthodox men who had survived the Holocaust.
Their demands have proliferated in tandem with their population count. In addition to the decades-old grievances against haredim – for shirking IDF duty and national service, and demanding state support for married men studying Torah full-time – the year-long corona crisis exposed the extent of their assumed autonomy in a manner and degree that shocked the nation.
RABBIS REPEATEDLY told their people to flout public health directives, even as the contagion and death statistics among their people spiked and were wildly disproportionate to their share of the population. They rioted, attacked law enforcement officers and journalists. Recently, the senior MK for UTJ, Moshe Gafni, was furious when a television reporter asked him repeatedly if his community was following public health rules. He became agitated, aggressive and refused to answer. The meeting ended abruptly. Such conduct from a senior member of the Knesset, who chairs the all-powerful finance committee, is simply deplorable.
In a flash, Gafni demonstrated, one year on from the onset of the pandemic, that he does not consider himself to be either accountable or answerable to the state or the nation at large. No, he cares only about maintaining the confidence and votes of his ultra-Orthodox constituents. It is a shamelessly cut-throat approach to politics that haredi MKs have refined to an art.
In the early years of the state, the emphasis of the very few surviving haredim was to be fruitful and multiply, which they certainly did. After the destruction of the Holocaust they were desperate to ensure the survival of Torah learning and, perhaps, recapture a speck of the former glory of their brand, so entrenched among Central and Eastern European Jewry.
And so, this small community got down to business. Women managed the home and very large families. Men learned. Poverty was the norm but the mission was sacred. The state stepped in as surrogate financial provider and supplemented the small kollel allowance allocated to each married Torah student.
Dr. Lee Cahaner, researcher in the ultra-Orthodox program at the Israel Democracy Institute, has spent years studying trends among haredi families. She describes three distinct “waves” since 1948 among haredim that have been typified by particular and evolving family structures.
Following the initial period, when haredim worked to build foundations for their community, they became more confident and established. During the ‘70s and ‘80s, the ultra-Orthodox were encouraged by the generous state support lavished upon their communities, particularly pronounced following the 1977 election of Likud. Life was good. Hashem, somehow, provided.
This second wave, however, saw the early signs of economic pressure setting in. In order for the men to study full-time – an unprecedented entitlement in the history of Jewish life – their burgeoning numbers and large families meant a life of penury, no matter the generosity of the state or overseas philanthropists. So, the rabbis adapted.
They encouraged women to work outside of the home, preferably as teachers. This meant they could be available in the afternoons and on school holidays to take care of the children.
Women were taught to accept this added responsibility as the highest honor: to support a man in his sacred devotion to Torah study. And so, during these decades, it became incumbent upon the women to not only bear and care for the children and home, but also to add to their growing responsibilities the duty to become the family’s primary income-earner.
Rabbis further explained this as being harmonious with the different natures of men and women, with the latter being more intellectually limited and, therefore, not suited to serious study of the great religious texts. Their minds were better applied to secular subjects, which were understood (ironically by a rabbinical class that had never studied such matters) to be simpler. For a man to fritter his intellect on math and science and English was sinful.
By and large, the girls were good and rolled up their sleeves and studied hard. They eclipsed the boys in numbers taking their matriculation exams.
And then came the third wave, which has been building since the turn of the century, more or less. The unexpected happened.
THERE ARE ONLY so many teachers a country can employ, so girls were encouraged to consider a broader range of employment prospects. Many continued on to higher education in areas like accounting, medicine and law. Large numbers trained for jobs in the burgeoning hi-tech sector and were lauded for their superior work ethic and productivity.
Women, unintentionally, were leading an unforeseen early integrative effort in Israeli society; they were at the forefront of a new enlightenment among haredim, one which, ironically, had been supported by the rabbis.
This quiet but significant trend is more prevalent among the 50% or so of haredi women living more modern lives. It also, however, comes with tensions. Divorce among this class is slowly climbing, fertility rates have dipped slightly and their incomes are growing dramatically. Women are bringing home the much-needed bacon. They are also emboldened by confidence and independence.
There is a quiet but hugely impactful shift ongoing in haredi society which, if managed proactively, could promote a level of co-existence and integration with relative ease. And, if that were to pass it would be a supreme irony for so many reasons, because it arises from the very measures imposed on haredi families by their rabbinic leadership backfiring. Spectacularly. They certainly never intended to open the eyes of working haredi women quite so appreciably.
This quiet revolution could quite possibly be what Yohanan Plesner, president of IDI, refers to as the “next wave of aliyah, from within the country.” The possibility of involving large parts of haredi Israelis in economic and civic opportunity need not compromise their religious practice or belief but would see them contribute fully and equally to all aspects of national life.
Israel is at a critical juncture. Without a determined policy intervention, the prosperous, progressive, democratic nation will unravel, unable to sustain the level of spending and support demanded by haredim with the burden imposed on so few.
The coming election is in many ways much more a referendum on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s capitulation to haredi threats throughout the year of corona. Before the pandemic there was significantly more attention being paid to his alleged corruption and trial. Today, the disgust with his pandering to haredi MKs seems to have overtaken all other issues.
Likud and the haredi parties talk up their “right-wing,” inviolable alliance. But, really, it’s a joke. Until this Gordian bond with Bibi was brokered, haredi MKs were quite amenable to sit in any government, as long as their demands were met. This “right-wing” thing is a load of bunk.
They have no interest in defense, security or foreign policy. I have yet to hear them hold forth on the free-market economy or socialism. No, their singular political goal is to secure state funds to support their demands and license their refusal to participate fully in the obligations of citizenship. Without aggressive management, their contempt for the secular state has the potential to destroy this great national experiment. Extremism corrodes.
Haredi Judaism, as it is practiced in Israel, is a harsh, unforgiving expression of faith. It knows no compromise, not within families, communities or the nation-state. As we look to celebrate Passover soon, I wonder where the pariahs I hosted in 2015 are today; whether they have found an identity and safe harbor.
When the Messiah comes, then we will all submit, with unfettered joy to the regime of Jewish law. The lion will lie with the lamb and the haredi extremist with the treif secular – maybe even gay – Jew. Until then, our collective duty is to participate in the nation-state we have built and which aspires to function as a liberal democracy, not a theocracy. Otherwise, it just will not last.