Haredi disarray: The tensions behind the ultra-orthodox protests

Have we just witnessed a major crack in the ultra-Orthodox edifice, or just temporary disruptions from a handful of extremists?

ULTRA-ORTHODOX men sit on a road during the ‘day of rage’ protest near Modi’in on October 19 (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
ULTRA-ORTHODOX men sit on a road during the ‘day of rage’ protest near Modi’in on October 19
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)
Angry shrieks, curses, stone throwers, arrests – these are the scenes in Jerusalem in recent days, and the ruckus is not about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Haredi (ultra- Orthodox) protesters have taken to the streets with a vengeance. Their demonstrations have disrupted the lives of Jerusalemites and may have created even more animosity toward the haredim from the general public.
Amid such chaotic scenes, one wonders what tourists unfamiliar with the country’s internal affairs think when they see waves of formally attired men yelling, choking off traffic and tussling with police. To an outsider, the haredim must certainly rank high on the list of the most respectably dressed, unsuspecting rioters.
Though we have seen their rallies before and know the basic points of contention, it is hard to deny that we are in the midst of an uptick, maybe even on the edge of a hurricane. And if so, the first gales have been intense.
Reports have surfaced of violent acts and threats.
Protesters have attacked police officers, drivers and female pedestrians, while some officers are being questioned about their own tactics. Video footage has emerged showing one officer pointing his handgun at protesters, asking “Who wants a bullet?” It doesn’t bode well for the social fabric, but surely the storm will pass.
Ultra-Orthodox protesters heavily outnumber police in Jerusalem anti-draft protest. October 19, 2017 (Seth J. Frantzman)
Or will it? In last issue’s Observations column, Rabbi Stewart Weiss wrote, “The menace that now faces us may be the greatest threat we have ever encountered. We are on the verge of a civil war in this country, between a large and growing segment of the haredi population and just about everyone else.”
His words raise alarm. How can we diagnose this threat? Can we just dismiss those causing the trouble as extremists? Or should we look for symptoms of a deeper malaise in the wider ultra-Orthodox world? On the surface, leaders of the “Jerusalem Faction” – part of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach’s “Lithuanian” community – called for a protest about two weeks ago following the arrest of two yeshiva students who refused to show up at an IDF recruitment center to sign their exemption forms. Shortly after, more than 1,000 members of the faction turned out for what they called a “day of rage.” They blocked Jerusalem’s Light Rail and key thoroughfares, causing massive traffic disruptions, with haredi protesters around the country following their lead.
Since then, there have been smaller protests. I went to one last week, hoping to get a clearer sense of what’s fueling the rage. It took place not far from Mea She’arim on Heil Hahandasa Street, the major artery running between eastern and western Jerusalem.
Just hearing their furious chants, punctuated with a communal roar when an incident takes place – usually something violent – one wonders: Why are they protesting as though their lives are hanging from a string? As it now stands, they can easily obtain an exemption from military service. All they have to do is show up at an IDF induction center and sign off on a few forms.
That’s it. But even this simple act is rebuffed with vitriol.
Take a few of the signs they held up during their first big rally on October 19. One read, “Orthodox Jews will proudly go to jail rather than join the Zionist army,” another: “We would rather die than be drafted.”
I approach the crowd cautiously and ask some haredim on the fringes if they can direct me to higher- ups in the Jerusalem Faction. Instead, as we all know well from life in Israel – secular or religious notwithstanding – the onlookers eagerly offer their own opinions about the unfolding drama. Soon, we form a circle as others join in. Opinions are loudly fired off from all directions and it is becomes hard to rein them in.
“One at a time, please.”
Scenes from an ultra-Orthodox protest in Jerusalem, September 17, 2017 (Credit: Yisroel Cohen)
They speak English fairly well. One of them, a young man with a red beard who was born in Brooklyn but speaks English with a peculiar accent, gains the upper hand and launches into a long soliloquy. The others fidget impatiently.
“There won’t be an exemption in the future,” he says, “now that the Supreme Court has overruled it.”
He then quickly goes beyond the ostensible reason for the protest in the first place. “Zionism is about keeping the country without Hashem, without God. The seculars hate religion.”
But aren’t there special IDF units for haredi or observant soldiers? “This is true, but for the first three years they learn only the logic of Zionism, the pride of Zionism, that we don’t need God, we can do everything alone. This will never work. The secular people want to make the religious people secular too.”
Can’t you have both – God and Zionism? “The logic of Zionism is based on this: Only we can help ourselves. We don’t need God. Nobody is even allowed to say ‘God’ or ‘Hashem’ in the parliament of Israel. The seculars only want to bring down the nation of Jews. Their logic is to be a Jew without Hashem.”
But aren’t there religious parties in the government, like Shas? Certainly one can say “God” in the Knesset.
“Yes, maybe you can, but they are fighting from the inside. They [the religious parties] are doing many things behind the scenes.”
Let’s turn to these protests, which have caused massive inconveniences for people, for families picking up their kids, for example. Do you have a right to protest in this manner? Another younger man chimes in this time, speaking in a more recognizable Brooklyn accent: “We are peaceful. We didn’t punch out any windows and break into stores.”
At this point, an older, softer-spoken gentleman joined in. He compared the 2011 “cottage-cheese boycott” and the huge protest it sparked in Tel Aviv with what is happening now. He also mentioned the ongoing protests by people with disabilities who are calling on the government for a higher monthly stipend.
“Everyone understands these protests. Nobody questions them. You understand they are about money: people not being able to afford apartments and food.
Nothing worked to change the situation, so they went out in the streets. For us religious people, it’s about life.
If you want to take away our life, we go out into the streets. And this is seen as less legitimate?” While he is talking, the protesters around us let out another deafening collective roar. Just minutes before, they managed to bring the light rail to a halt, but now face brawny police officers angrily bearing down on them. We feel the surge of bodies as the protesters beat a hasty retreat.
We find our own space on the sidewalk and resume our talk while the raucous crowd moves off in another direction. Soon enough, our little circle is all alone.
Many resent the haredim because they get government stipends to study, while the rest of us work for a living. What is your view on that? The soft-spoken one is quick to answer: “I know there are thousands of haredi families that don’t take any money from the government. This will never be mentioned in The Jerusalem Post, but they pay out of their own pockets. They pay for their children’s education.”
We move onto the next question. Some journalists believe these protests are really about a leadership struggle at the heart of the haredi Ashkenazi non-hassidic community. After the death of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv in 2012, two rabbis fought it out for the helm. Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, at the ripe age of 104, eventually emerged victorious over the younger Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach. And now it is Auerbach, 86, who is causing the balagan (mess), because he and his followers feel isolated.
Is this so? “Well, yes, maybe that is right,” says the red-bearded one. “But they generally agree on the big points. It’s a fight about how to fight.”
Are you part of this faction? “No, because I’m afraid. I don’t want to get arrested.
My mother told me that if I get arrested she won’t know what to do with me.” The others cackle with laughter.
And you? The one with the Brooklyn accent shoots back: “The Jerusalem faction... no, no... I’m not so wacky. They’re a little more over the top.”
Why over the top? “Because they are ready to fight. They are the commandos of the community.”
Last question: You all said you are not part of this faction, but do you agree with them, with their protests and tactics? Let’s try a simple “yes” or “no” response please.
Each of them gives a resounding “yes.”
What to make of their remarks and the general situation? For answers, I turned to three prominent writers who have weighed in on the state of haredi affairs. The first is Prof. Dan Ben-David, president of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research and an economist at Tel Aviv University. Ben-David explains that the haredi sector is by far the fastest growing one, and with the next generation coming, there will be no way for the state to afford its current level of subsidies. This is why the government is encouraging them to enter the workforce.
In some ways, he explains, their shift toward the labor market is well under way. “One of the things that happened during the [second] intifada and the major recession we had about a decade and a half ago, was that there were massive cuts in welfare assistance, from child benefits to income supplements and so on,” Ben-David says. “That induced many Israelis who have never worked, primarily those with low education levels, into the job market, among them many haredim.”
This shift has caused a lot of turmoil in the ultra-Orthodox community, he adds. As more haredim take on jobs and get exposed to life outside their community, their leaders can no longer keep them in the dark about the rest of the world, especially the secular world.
“There is also the advent of technology,” Ben-David says. “You can control newspapers and even Internet providers, but you cannot control young people from having more than one iPhone or smartphone. One device is connected to a haredi-approved Internet provider that shields you off like Communist China... but then you can have another phone that is open to the rest of the world.”
He explains that one can easily flash the “kosher phone” to allay suspicions that he or she is circumventing the rules, but can use the other phone in private to surf freely. “This is after all a free country. You can get a phone anywhere.”
Apparently, this is a widespread phenomenon, he adds. “And that’s a good thing... You cannot keep your people in the dark in the 21st century. It doesn’t work.”
Along with rapid technological change, Ben-David believes that younger haredim are increasingly seeing beyond the rhetoric of their leaders and elders, and no longer see those outside their community as Sodom and Gomorrah.
On the issue of the “day of rage” and other riots, he sees it all as just a reason to protest. The real dilemma for the haredim is not the IDF draft, he explains, for they can easily get a deferment. “They are not complaining about that, regardless of what they tell you or are being told by their leaders. What it appears to be is internal issues, among them, between them.”
Ben-David ends the interview on an unnerving note. Referring to the work of the Shoresh Institution, which tries to explain complex social and economic phenomena, he says that many researchers are deeply concerned, especially about haredi demographics.
“The bottom line is that about half the kids in Israel are receiving a third-world education, among them the haredim.” Those children belong to the fastest- growing segment of the population, he explains.
When they grow up they will only be able to support a third-world economy, and a third-world economy cannot support a first-world army. In this dangerous neighborhood of the world, he adds, we will have a problem.
“We are the only country in the developed world that permits parents to deprive their children of a basic right to a core curriculum, to knowledge. That’s unconscionable; going forward it becomes existential.”
Before going any further, it should be pointed out that many mainstream haredi leaders have issued public statements criticizing the Jerusalem Faction. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a leader of the “Lithuanian” ultra- Orthodox community, recently called the faction “sheep without a shepherd.”
Rabbi Yigal Rosen, a yeshiva head who was allegedly attacked by members of the faction, was harsher.
“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” he said.
“Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, could learn from them. Even the secular media and the mafia have rules and laws.”
What about sympathizers like the ones I met last week? Or should we be so concerned about a small but vocal clique of extremists, not at all representative of the wider haredi sector? Shoshanna Keats Jaskoll is a writer who has taken up such issues in her many columns. She says the Jerusalem Faction is a very specific sect. Its members and leaders are reacting to the fact that the rest of the haredi world is starting to integrate into the broader society. They are going into higher education and are serving in the army thanks to the special units created for them.
The members of the faction are the last holdouts of integration. “They don’t believe in the state, Zionism and the army at all,” Jaskoll says. “They are definitely not the majority of haredim.”
She concedes that there might be sympathizers who agree on the ends but not on the faction’s means. Nevertheless, she gives examples of haredim who held counter-protests during the “day of rage,” and hopes these moderate ultra-Orthodox will rein in the extremists.
But what does Jaskoll think is fueling the faction’s fury? “It’s about control,” she says. Given the ease of the IDF deferment process, that is not the problem, she explains.
Instead, the leaders are telling these men not to recognize the state and are feeding them with misinformation, so they remain under the leadership’s control.
“They give them an enemy, so they look outside and not behind them at what’s happening inside.”
The protesters, she adds, “are not thinking for themselves in any way. They simply do what their rabbis tell them... It is certainly not only about the two young men who were arrested for the draft.”
MICAH GOODMAN is the author of the best-selling book Catch 67. He makes clear he is not a sociologist or historian, but hopes only to offer some philosophical and historical reflections on the current protests.
“Ultra-Orthodoxy in the 19th century was founded as a reaction to modernity,” Goodman starts off, citing the theory of Jacob Katz, who was a prominent historian at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. “Modernity was experienced as a nuclear threat to Jewish identity and continuity. The only way Judaism could protect itself from this threat was to seal itself off from modern influences.”
This impulse, he explains, was evident in ultra-Orthodox circles all over the world, but particularly strong in Israel. The reason was that the ultra-Orthodox here felt they needed to protect themselves from modern Israeli Jews, who posed a larger threat. Modern Jews provided a safe haven for those who wanted to escape the haredi world, and, a scarier thought for the haredim, they might succeed in modernizing and transforming the entire Jewish faith.
“So, modern, secular Israel presented the greatest temptation for the haredim. They therefore made their greatest attempt to defend themselves from that temptation,” Goodman says. This explains why Israel is home to some of the most extreme brands of ultra-Orthodoxy, he adds.
In the past 10 years, however, we are witnessing something very interesting, he continues. Citing another source, this time historian Benjamin Brown, Goodman says this attempt to close off Judaism from modernity is starting to crack.
This is happening for three reasons, he explains. One, the Internet. The great rabbis went to war to prevent the haredim from accessing it, and they lost that war. “The whole project of blocking foreign influences from entering the hearts and minds of young people is lost once you have the Internet.”
But don’t their leaders channel the Internet and its content through certain providers?
Goodman responds that unlike TV, with its very visible antennae protruding from one’s home, the Internet is far more subversive. You can have access to it without people noticing. This means that the attempt to regulate the Internet in the haredi world is failing.
Goodman raises the second point – economics. Non-Orthodox Jews no longer want to support the haredim, while the latter want a better life, which is why more and more of them hope to find it by joining the workforce.
Thirdly, it’s about leaders, Goodman explains. After Rabbi Elyashiv died, the “Lithuanian” world no longer has a united leadership.
The confluence of these three effects, Goodman believes, is creating a deep fissure in the haredi world.
On the issue of the protests and what’s propelling them, he says that looks can be deceiving.
“There’s an optical illusion here.” He explains that increasing numbers of haredim are asking how they can become more modern and still remain ultra-Orthodox. They are terrified because the changes are happening within their community. “From the outside it looks like the haredim are becoming more extreme than ever. No, this is their reaction to haredim becoming less extreme than ever.”
This revolt, he adds, is experienced through the political battles of rabbis who have their own competing newspapers, but it’s a broader phenomenon, as leaders and followers alike confront the big issues of whether to enter the workforce or army.
“The tension between the rabbis is a reflection of the tension between the trends within the haredi community,” Goodman says.
Many rabbis have condemned the Jerusalem Faction. But does it attract many sympathizers outside of its ranks? “Yes,” Goodman responds. Quoting Brown again, he says the ultra-Orthodox community has a tradition of appreciating those willing to suffer for a cause, even if they do not identify with it.
So, is this really about the IDF draft?
“This is where a schism within the haredi community is starting to express itself. It’s not them protesting against Israel. It’s an internal haredi argument, which is expressed as an external one.”