Haredim and state

Haredim take issue with secularism rather than secularists, it was revealed at a session on haredi citizenship and identity at the Van Leer Institute this week.

Haredi 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Haredi 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In light of his propensity for provocative statements, it is perhaps unsurprising that Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef deemed the Supreme Court devoid of knowledge or judgment and its members deserving of all of Israel's suffering, in an interview in 1999. According to Dr. Aviad Hacohen, dean of Shaarei Mishpat Law College, such sentiments are representative of the haredi approach to Israel's secular legal system, at least in public. Hacohen cited Yosef's denunciation in his lecture on haredim and the Israeli legal system, part of a two-day conference at the Van Leer Institute entitled "Haredim and Haredism in Israel: Encounters, Influences and Changes." The most telling aspect of this derisory approach, Hacohen says, is that haredim acknowledge the Supreme Court at all. "Haredi communities have recognized the Supreme Court's existence only in the past 10 to 15 years, a development which is the result of their continued Israelization [integration into Israeli society] during this period," he says. "This is demonstrated in the increasing numbers of haredim in the work force, the gradual decline of their use of Yiddish in favor of Hebrew and their increasing participation in politics, among other factors." The haredi community's vociferous criticism of the Supreme Court is not the only factor characterizing their attitude to the Israeli courts. "Despite the widespread condemnation of the courts by haredi leaders and newspaper columnists, my research shows that haredim appeal to their decision-making powers when they deem necessary," Hacohen says. He gave as an example the ongoing leadership dispute between two rabbis at the renowned Ponevezh Yeshiva that found its way to the Tel Aviv District Court in 2006, and the Betar Illit Municipality's 2005 petitioning of the court for the provision of free meals for schoolchildren. Hacohen also referred to the establishment of haredi legal aid organizations, another development of the past 15 years. The establishment of such bodies is the result of an increasing numbers of haredi lawyers, a consequence, according to Hacohen, of the growing number of haredim who recognize the financial necessity of a profession. "Law is popular among haredim because unlike many other professions it doesn't require knowledge of math, physics or even much English, which are subjects haredim have little knowledge of." Another factor that attracts haredim to law, he explains, is the similarity it bears to Talmud. "Like Talmud, the study of law requires the scrutiny of ancient statutes and principles." Those seeking a law career must first gain the approval of their rabbis, Hacohen says. "Authorization is granted only to those deemed fit to pursue the profession and even in these cases it is accorded in private so as not to contradict the rabbis' public stance against the secular legal system." The rabbis' limited endorsement of the study of law, Hacohen says, "stems from their acknowledgment, albeit unofficially, of the necessity for haredi lawyers who can serve the needs of their community." Hacohen also cited the input of various Shas MKs in government discussions on changes to the Israeli constitution, as an example of their participation in a legal system they supposedly reject. The establishment of Shas and its function as a social movement was the subject of Dr. Batya Zivichner's presentation. According to Zivichner, a Hebrew University lecturer, Shas created a voice for the Sephardi haredi community disillusioned by discrimination at Ashkenazi-run haredi institutions. Shas's stand against Ashkenazi discrimination also gained it popularity among non-haredi Sephardim, contributing to its consistent status as the most popular haredi party. Zivichner argues, however, that Shas's haredi image is superficial. She explains that Shas functions beyond the realms of a political party, providing scope for redefinition of the peripheral status of Sephardim, haredi or otherwise, in Israeli society, and therein lies its popularity. Information gathered from interviews with haredim on their national and religious identities constituted the topic of Ilana Paul's lecture. Paul, who teaches at Beit Berl College, found a "flag-burning element encompassing members of hassidic sets such as Gur and Belz, which rejected any notion of identity with a secular, Jewish state and its Zionist inhabitants." The majority of her interviewees experienced an uneasy ambivalence toward the state. "Many haredim take issue with secularism rather than secularists," she explains. "They are grateful to live among Jews in the Jewish homeland and therefore feel a sense of goodwill toward the IDF for their continued protection of the country as well as an affiliation with their Jewish brethren. "At the same time they object to a Jewish homeland run on secular principles," she says.