The complex dissonance of Israel’s Hardalim

Israeli secularism has largely abandoned the ideal of the “new Jew” in recent decades, but religious Zionism has remained fervently loyal to it.

Yigal Canaan (photo credit: screenshot)
Yigal Canaan
(photo credit: screenshot)
A new phenomenon is on the scene: Israel’s national-ultra-Orthodox population (“Hardalim”) community – combining right-wing nationalism with religious zealotry, and it is attracting far more attention than its size would seem to merit (around 2% of the country’s Jewish population).
This is largely because its members fiercely challenge the accepted norms of liberal Israel, particularly with regard to sensitive issues relating to sexuality and gender. One recent example involved Yigal Canaan, who was originally placed third on the electoral list of the Noam Party put forward by the Hardalim during Israel’s last elections, but was taken off the list at the last minute due to fears of the party suffering an embarrassing defeat.
Canaan sent shock waves through the national-religious community when he published a post about Adi Altschuler, the founder of Krembo Wings, a youth movement for young people with disabilities, and one of the honorees asked to light a torch at the recent state Independence Day ceremony. Canaan is not a fan of Altshuler and her work, as he claims it glorifies weakness and disability and even has had an impact on other youth movements, which in recent years have also made efforts to include young people with disabilities in their activities.
The possibility that efforts to help the weak might come at the expense of fostering a masculine nationalist identity in youth movement hikes and summer camps, drives Canaan to distraction. In his anger, he views this trend as being another success of what he considers to be a satanic organization, the New Israel Fund, which has managed to slide its tentacles into the heart of the Israeli establishment and take hold of the nation’s torch-lighting ceremony.
Many different spokespeople for religious Zionism have made every effort to denounce Canaan. But it is worth recognizing that extremist figures from a particular camp often provide an exaggerated, even grotesque, reflection of certain views that in reality – very much categorize the camp as a whole. This is not always necessarily so, but I would argue that it is true in this case.
In recent years, I have spent a great deal of time studying the Hardali community of which the most extreme figurehead is Rabbi Zvi Thau – Canaan’s rabbi – toward writing a book that is due to be published shortly by the Israel Democracy Institute. Among my conclusions was that one of the most significant phenomena in religious Zionism as a whole, and in the Hardali community in particular, is the fear of being identified with ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Judaism. Zionism has fiercely rejected ultra-Orthodoxy, using terms that border on antisemitic, portraying ultra-Orthodoxy as a symbol of Jewish exile, and perceiving its commitment to Torah study as a symbol of non-productive Judaism, and indeed, as un-masculine. By contrast, the ideal of the “new Jew” comes close in spirit, and perhaps even in appearance, to the Aryan ideal: the handsome, muscular, hardworking man of action.
Israeli secularism has largely abandoned this ideal in recent decades, but religious Zionism has remained fervently loyal to it. This is the main reason why, of the three components of religious Zionist identity – religious, national, and liberal – it is the national component that has become the brand name.
Male graduates of the religious Zionist school system may be either Hardalim, or more liberal in their religious observance, or even have completely abandoned a religious lifestyle, but they find it very difficult to rebel against the right-wing nationalist worldview, as for them, it is the very expression of the masculine ethos.
This ethos presents a special challenge for the Hardalim, because their religious world view is close to that of ultra-Orthodoxy. Despite this proximity, the Hardali community does not want to be identified with ultra-Orthodoxy, since the latter is perceived as so far from masculine. Several solutions have been found for this: maximalist stances on Zionism, security, and the settlement program alongside religious extremism, and an emphasis on halachic observance rather than on the ultra-Orthodox ethos of Torah study.
Similarities can be found in the libertarian financial ethos that has been a feature of religious Zionism in recent years: In line with ideas promoted by US Republicans, this ethos idealizes financially successful people, Nietzschean men of power, who don’t tie themselves up in knots over moral questions of social justice. Charity, not justice, is the accepted way for the powerful and successful to treat those weaker than them. Thus, not only ultra-Orthodox Judaism, but also Jewish ethics as a whole, which we still praise instinctively by rote, is becoming identified as a form of the despised identity of Jews in exile.
P.S. Ultra-Orthodox readers of this article are in no position to use it in order to once again take the moral high ground over the religious-Zionist community. The phenomenon described here is also becoming more prevalent in ultra-Orthodox society: the masculine ethos of the EMT volunteer, or even the successful businessman, is gaining ground, at the expense of the old ethos of Torah study. Right-wing extremism has also become a feature of younger members of the haredi community, in stark contrast to their predecessors – not to speak of the fact that ultra-Orthodox gyms are booming.
The writer is a research fellow in the Religion, Nation, and State Program at the Israel Democracy Institute