The ‘haredi’ opportunity: changing the political map in Israel

I had, in my naiveté, assumed that an Israeli politician of so many years’ standing would have developed some sort of opinion on the matter...I was completely wrong.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew gestures during a protest in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
An ultra-Orthodox Jew gestures during a protest in the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a recent conversation with the son of a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) MK, I asked the following: If I were to meet your father, on a good day, and ask him what he proposes we do about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what would he suggest? The answer he gave me was as unexpected as it was astounding: He had absolutely no idea.
I had, in my naiveté, assumed that an Israeli politician of so many years’ standing would have developed some sort of opinion on the matter, outside his official role in representing his haredi constituents. I was completely wrong.
It’s entirely possible that not everyone would have been as astounded. In fact, the official and traditional haredi stance on matters pertaining to security, national policy and the seemingly never-ending conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is the lack of same.
A little background and history: The haredim are represented by two political parties, Shas, representing the Mizrachi haredim, and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) representing the Ashkenazi haredim. (UTJ is actually comprised of two separate parties, the yeshiva world’s Degel HaTorah and the Hassidic sects’ Agudat Yisrael). Agudat Yisrael is the veteran haredi party. It joined the Knesset with the founding of the state in 1948. It is the party that signed the famous religious “Status Quo” agreement. Also worth a mention are haredim who do not participate in the Israeli political game. Those hail from Mea She’arim and its offshoots. This group does not vote in any election, and is outspoken in its opposition to the Israeli state.
Back to the haredi mainstream: Its attitude toward the state can best be described as ambivalent. When Israel was established as a state, the idea of joining the Knesset was up for debate, the decision as we know it was made and the complicated relationship that endures to this day began.
Viewed mainly as a necessary evil, the haredi representation in the Knesset functions as an interest group focused on its community’s needs. And on upholding the aforementioned religious status quo.
However, the river runs deep and wide between official positions and reality on the ground. As the years go by, and the haredi community gains size and traction, this policy is clearly being challenged from both within and without.
A recent and excellent example would be the case Yair Lapid brought before the High Court,which resulted in a ruling essentially forcing UTJ MK Ya’akov Litzman to accept a promotion to the position of health minister. Litzman had followed traditional UTJ policy of rejecting the office, as a symbolic show of independence from the Zionist state. This is the first time a UJT MK is serving in the capacity of minister (instead of the past arrangement of serving as deputy minister without a minister, a de facto ministerial position).
Another example is the latest installment in the haredi IDF draft saga: An agreement that includes a draft quota has been signed by the haredi MKs, providing a window into the changing attitude of the political elite in the haredi sector. While some rhetoric remains virulently oppositional, there is tacit understanding of an inevitable process that cannot be turned back.
To an outsider, change seems slight and slow, but to me, and many other haredim, these changes herald no less than the beginning of a new era. The haredi sector has arrived, albeit kicking and screaming, as an integral part of Israeli society.
And here is my question: Do any of the haredi MKs have opinions on national policy and, more specifically, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Also, and just as importantly, Does the haredi “man or woman on the street” have an opinion on the matter? The answer, to both, is a resounding “yes.”
Let me explain: A month ago, I opened a Facebook group specifically targeted at haredim, to discuss national political matters and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In the period since, it has garnered close to 500 members and an average activity rate of a dozen posts a day, all acknowledged and discussed. And mine in not the only haredi group on the subject. There is another one, with similar membership.
While one might expect opinions on the right-wing scale, the range is actually anything from far Right to anti-Zionist, with everything in between.
Obviously, two Facebook group do not a study make.
And I have a long way to go until I can talk about a trend, but here’s an idea I’d like to put out there: We haredim are not Right, nor are we Left. We have a unique set of values. The reason for the current affiliation with the right-wing parties is both historical and cultural. The historical aspect includes the scars embedded in haredi consciousness of the old Left’s trampling of minority rights, including those of haredim.
Coupled with the Left’s increasingly pan-national and more secular values, a natural affinity has developed for the more religious-leaning and traditional right wing.
Having said that, haredi right-wing tendencies are not etched in stone. In fact, the late and revered Rabbi Menachem Eliezer Shach clearly opposed the settlements, and forbade his followers from purchasing apartments outside the green line (as a side note, many did exactly that, and the haredi city of Kiryat Sefer is now the largest settlement. As mentioned, reality and policy are not always one and the same). Additionally, both Rav Shach and Rav Ovadia Yossef stated that land could and should be negotiated over, in the event that bloodshed would thus be prevented.
As the haredi world embraces its growing role in Israeli national politics, its influence in these matters will only increase. In lieu of poring over uncontrollable demographics and worrying pointlessly about their future effect on Israeli society, now would be a good time for the big parties to reevaluate their current relationship with the haredim who, unlike the National Religious camp on the ideological Right, offer an opportunity for more creative dialogue and cooperation.
It’s time for a real conversation that will benefit both haredim and Israeli society at large.
The writer is a haredi Jerusalemite who is working to raise awareness within the haredi community on national politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.