Recently, I met one of Israel’s leading brain surgeons – a doctor who has dedicated his life to saving others. He, his father, and his children all contribute significantly to the State of Israel. He told me that he feels depressed, hopeless, and full of rage toward the community to which I belong: Israel’s ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community. He feels that his country and the Zionist dream are being trampled. He was overwhelmed with pain.
We sat together and talked, and experienced a transformation, understanding each other, and hugging at the end of our conversation.
When the State was established, Jewish leaders from across the political spectrum worked together in order to declare the establishment of the Jewish state. Despite the differences between them, they understood the importance of a secure homeland for the Jewish people. Today, they would be disappointed that we have abandoned their responsible approach.
The people of Israel all have the right to live differently. The differences between us are not negative, but can actually be a source of blessing. Disagreement can lead to creativity and curiosity, and should encourage depth and empathy in our society.
Abraham, our ancestor, pleaded with G-d to save Sodom. He argued with G-d in the boldest terms found in the entire Torah: "Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?!" He had the chutzpah to argue, but used words of caring that impressed G-d.
The statistics do not lie. The reality is that the Haredi sector is expanding, and will likely eventually become the majority in Israel. This successful and prosperous country may soon be entrusted to a religiously observant majority. And who is most concerned about this dramatic possibility? We are! We have no idea how to run a country. There is no precedent in Jewish sources for how to do this. We need to learn the art of responsibility!
This reality threatens Israeli society. The feeling that there is a large community that does not pull its weight in Israeli society is frustrating, and very concerning. But it’s important to understand that Haredi citizens of Israel are also apprehensive. They fear external influences that threaten to weaken their hold on their halachic traditions, and their commitment and dedication to the Torah and its values. They live with a sense of danger. But they also see themselves as having a mission to restore the Torah world that was destroyed in the Holocaust.
At the same time, there has never been a more fruitful period for Haredi society. Many yeshivas, synagogues, communities, Torah centers and frameworks for vibrant religious services have been established under the auspices of the State.
However, significant parts of Israel’s non-Haredi society are not prepared to bear the economic burden of the Haredi community. They are exhausted. The gaps are growing between the Haredi and non-Haredi community in national service rates, contributions to the economy, and the sharing of general social responsibilities, because of their many conflicting values. People are becoming more and more distressed.
This unraveling of Israel’s social cohesion is undermining our national resilience. It threatens our existence in Israel and damages our entire society. We seem to have reached a watershed. The metaphor of the full wagon and the empty wagon –used by the Chazon Ish to describe a wagon full of Jewish values on a collision course with an empty wagon– is no longer relevant. We’re trapped in a dialogue of the deaf in which neither side can hear the other.
It’s important to know that there are tens of thousands of Haredim who recognize this reality. They are ready to take responsibility, and they are committed to dialogue and to finding the common ground between all citizens in the State of Israel.
This is big news. There are Haredi Jews today who recognize the importance of dialogue. They are no longer defined by who they are not and what they disagree with, but by who they are. Their identity is based on affirmation. They have deep feelings of gratitude to the State, and they know that their era of privilege as a minority is over.
We are entering a new era, in which the minority is going to become the majority. As such, we must sit together and formulate a social covenant based on respect, solidarity, and fraternity. However, there can be no agreement without compromise. Each group must be willing to compromise. Even the religious fanatics who are shouting in the streets, who have left the Beit Midrash in order to have their voices heard in public, must agree to compromise.
As a Haredi Israeli who regards my Jewish identity as a crucial condition for my existence in Israel, I am embarrassed by the behavior of some of my brothers. I would love to turn back the clock to the yeshiva of Hillel, 2,000 years ago, where a non-Jew asked to learn the entire Torah while standing on one leg and Hillel replied: "Whatever is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man.”
We aspire to have a Jewish State, where Jews do not act hatefully toward other people. The word ”stranger” is mentioned 36 times in the Torah, to emphasize the importance of being compassionate toward other people. How much more so should we embrace our brothers and sisters. We should be showing pure, unconditional love to our fellow Jews.
The call of the hour is to call an immediate ceasefire in the internal wars that are destroying Israeli society. As an ordinary citizen, I call on President Isaac Herzog to use all of his power to negotiate agreements that can be accepted by the majority of the people, from both the right and the left, religious and secular.
Whether conservative or liberal, we look forward to a new dawn, when we can proudly announce: “We have compromised!” That is what we must all do so that we can live in a Jewish and democratic country, and build a more united and stronger Israel.
This article is based on a speech given by Rabbi Menachem Bombach at a demonstration calling for a broad consensus between the different groups within Israeli society that are currently in conflict, which took place outside the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 26, 2023, at the end of Israel’s Independence Day.