The late Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz was considered a hugely critical voice, a curmudgeon, especially regarding the religious community in Israel. Not that he was not himself extremely punctilious as far as his religious obligations were concerned. It’s just that he was super critical of religious institutions and in particular the way they related to politics.
In an early essay, “State and Religion,” he wrote against religious involvement with the state. In his analysis he confronts the religious political parties of the time (we are talking about the 1960s and 1970s) and berates them as only he could. He asks them what the advantages are of being part of the government, and supplies his own caustic response. The more they are embedded in the political structure, he argues, the less apparent their influence. Only by being totally independent of government will they have the sort of influence they desire for the population as a whole.
In Leibowitz’s words: “Only in the State of Israel, which has turned religion into a departmental service of the secular government, has the Orthodox community become corrupted and become used to receiving funds for maintaining its religious institutions from the secular authority, and in this way making its very existence dependent on this authority.”(Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Thought, Winter-Spring 1972).
Criticism of the religious establishment was not Leibowitz’s main activity. He was a professor in many areas of science. It is said that had he concentrated on one of his areas he would surely have been a candidate for a Nobel Prize. But to many in Israel he was a re-calibration of an old-style prophet as regards his unrelenting view of Judaism in the Jewish state.
Fast forward to Israel’s contemporary situation, where religious parties are still very much part of the government. But there is a huge difference from the scenario that Leibowitz discusses. The parties in the government are not religious Zionist, as they were in Leibowitz’s day, if anything they are anti-government, even anti-state, or just indifferent. As such they have an influence far greater than their numbers suggest. They use their pivotal strength to punch above their weight.
Although in the government the main party concerned – United Torah Judaism – may not have a large number of seats in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, they are wielding a great deal of power in that they are guaranteeing Netanyahu’s Likud Party’s hegemony in the country.
Even though they are split among themselves (into Agudat Yisrael and Degel Hatorah factions), Netanyahu relies on them for keeping him in power and voting for him in elections. In return, he grants them a wide variety of “goodies.”
Along with the Sephardi religious party of Shas, the full-time students of the Torah are entitled to receive monthly subsistence checks for not working, to skip army service, either fully or partially, and to receive generous subsidies on housing and child welfare (typically they have large families). Many of the family heads (reckoned to be about 40%) desist from paid work, preferring instead to invest all their time and energy in studying the sacred texts of Torah. This is in contravention of the long held Jewish tradition of combining work and Torah study. They are not fazed by such a tradition, mainly because they are ideologically opposed to the State of Israel. So although they are part of the political structure of the country they are indifferent to its wider national needs. As long as they and their institutions are supported financially, they will do the government’s biding.
The COVID pandemic has however thrown some of the haredi community into a different light. Almost weekly large crowds of haredim are shown on national television or on video, not keeping the acceptable social distancing, which is about two yards, and often appearing to be without regulatory masks. Such events as funerals or weddings can and do bring very large crowds together, sometimes in the tens of thousands. All this alienates even more the vast majority of secular Israelis, as well as more tolerant religious groups, from the haredi community as a whole. There are rumors, as well as newspaper articles, which speak of more “liberal” elements within the haredi community who are as upset as everyone else at this flagrant disrespect of national norms. An apocryphal story has a haredi father walking with his naughty son, when on the opposite side of the road a big, tough Israeli paratrooper passes by. “If you don’t behave yourself” says the father to the son, “You’ll end up like that!”
How this plays itself out in the elections is not easy to predict. It is possible that Prime Minister Netanyahu sees these demonstrations of “haredi power” as a threat to his chances at the polls. What formerly was a mainstay of his support appears to be an albatross around his neck. This is the last thing he needs as he approaches his own trial for a number of corruption scandals.
The more liberal press are calling for the dismantling of Netanyahu’s regime along with the haredi presence in the government. One now retired professor, a religious expert on the haredi world puts it simply: “If the haredi world carries on the way it does it will bankrupt the country. We simply can’t afford them.”
The new leader of UTJ, Moshe Gafni, was recently interviewed about his party and the community they represent. The interview, in Yediot Aharonot, one of the country’s largest newspapers, showed the way the haredi world attempts to justify itself.
Gafni was full of denials: that there was a special problem regarding COVID and the haredim (they have a much higher percentage of fatalities than the general population); he withdrew his criticism of the haredim who set fire to a bus, at first denying that those responsible were “Not ours,” only to backtrack and admit that they were “a marginal part of his community;” denies the possibility that haredi rabbis have an obligation to tell their followers not to attend large gatherings whether weddings or funerals; denies the fact that the haredi community receive far fewer fines for breaking the laws regarding COVID than do the rest of the population and asks whether this matters; denies that the police closes its eyes to the haredi disregard of the rules of behavior regarding COVID; denies that haredi men and women don’t seek to work, and gives examples of haredi people turning to him with requests to find work (the fact is that since they are not allowed to study basic subjects such as mathematics or English, they are totally unprepared to take on more higher paid work, and those that do enter higher education experience a high drop-out rate); he denies that haredi women need or want to represent themselves in the political arena, their place is in the home; he denies that the haredim are not Zionist.
Against this, Gafni also was extremely critical of the non-religious, so-called secular Israelis, pointing out that there were many situations in which they, too, disregard COVID regulations; for example at the many demonstrations against Netanyahu’s government. He complains, too, that the reason for the high number of corona cases in their sector is because they are forced to live in small apartments and therefore more prone to infections!
No one is denying the haredi right to study Torah. But alongside this they have to support themselves by working, and in Israel, at least, fulfilling their social obligations, such as joining the army for a required amount of time. At the moment the rest of Israeli society is perplexed, and not a little angry, at their cavalier attitude to the national necessities. While their sons and daughters are drafted into the army, where they literally put their lives on the line, they see the haredi youngsters studying and not taking their part in the country’s basic needs.
Partly in response to this interview, one of the chief spokesmen of the haredi community, Rabbi Dov Halbertal, poured scorn on the behavior of not only his fellow haredim, but also on the police whom he claims are protecting them with the backing of the prime minister. This is the conclusion he has drawn from the fact that, as wild as some members of the community have become, the police have been less and less inclined to stop them, fine them, or in fact prevent them from breaking the new norms.
In a public declaration, Halbertal asked to apologize to his fellow Israelis for the behavior of the community he represents. He brings down upon them the ultimate insult of being a desecration of God’s name. Neither does he know where it will end. What is particularly interesting here is that Halbertal, who is also a lawyer, has been a fervent defender of everything that the haredi world stands for, including his opposition to women joining the army or – perish the thought – of female soldiers singing before their male counterparts. Maybe he is having a change of heart.
In the volatile atmosphere which vitiates Israel’s political environment these sort of trends can only exasperate the desire of most of the population for a democratic society, one in which everyone shares the responsibility of the collective. When a small, vocal minority such as the haredi community (who comprise about 14% of the population) can hold to ransom the entire society then something has gone wrong with the mechanism of governance.
This is perhaps worse than Leibowitz’s predictions. His ire would be turned against religious Zionists, who at least support the state, perhaps too much, but no one can complain about their loyalty. The haredim by contrast, show contempt for the government even as it feeds and houses them. It is in the last resort the government of Netanyahu that has handed over power to them, despite the fact that they deny science, rationality, or democracy.
If this is the way of things now, then we have a rocky road ahead of us. We have entered the third Book of Kings, and we know how the first two books ended.