Ultra-Orthodox Zionism – is a new era dawning?

The Zionism of yore, an ideology that haredim did not really bother to study or differentiate into factions, has become more of a historic relic to both the secular and haredi communities.

A ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stands behind a voting booth at a polling station  (photo credit: REUTERS)
A ultra-Orthodox Jewish man stands behind a voting booth at a polling station
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In Hebrew, the High Holy Days are called “Yamim Noraim,” which means “Days of Awe” but in contemporary Hebrew also “awful days” – and for many haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews in Israel, ranging from anti Zionist to borderline messianic, the period immediately following the holidays is, if not actually awful, certainly a source of angst.
This is the time of year when the relatively benign coexistence of haredim and secular Israelis is challenged both from within the community and without; the secular media have made it a tradition to document random haredim walking on despite the memorial sirens of Holocaust Remembrance Day and Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars, in an effort to highlight the latter’s supposed disrespect for Israeli and Zionist symbols.
This inevitably puts the focus on what to the secular mind is a glaring inequality between the average secular Israeli, who is required to serve in the IDF to defend the country, and the standard draft deferment – basically a blanket exemption from that same service – for haredim.
At the same time, the haredi world, with its various factions, is called upon to uphold a separatist approach that becomes more difficult to defend as the years go by and the young generation comes to view Zionism and Israel in a radically different light than its predecessors.
The Zionism of yore, an ideology that haredim did not really bother to study or differentiate into factions, has become more of a historic relic to both the secular and haredi communities. The discussions and answers provided to previous generations are no less than ridiculous to second- and even third-generation haredim in Israel who simply view the state as an existing reality which has proven itself on the whole to be an improving factor for the Torah world, even if unwittingly so.
Fire-and-brimstone-style orations are lost on ears more concerned with issues such as the use of modern communication technology, racism in schools, employment and the challenges of daily life. On the other side, secular Israelis are no longer drying the proverbial swamps and their haredi counterparts are not called upon for an ideological or theoretical dispute.
As young haredim take to social media, they adopt an Israeli identity alongside their haredi one, and alternative ceremonies that are specifically haredi have gained popularity to mark the official memorial days. Some younger haredim are concerned with showing solidarity with Israeli society at large, expressing appreciation for the sacrifices made in the defense of home and country. Others are soldiers past and present in the slowly expanding haredi IDF units.
Some have undergone the ultimate Israeli tragedy of losing friends and family in battle.
On a personal note, I attended the torch-lighting ceremony on Mount Herzl with my daughters this year. Fainy Sukenik, a haredi sister, was invited to light a torch to note her significant contribution in founding an organization that helps single haredi mothers cope with the divorce process and its aftermath.
When she told me she had tickets for me and my daughters, I didn’t hesitate – of course we would be there.
It’s possible that with American parents I was raised with a slightly more positive attitude toward patriotic – not religious – Zionism than the average haredi. But there you have it: haredi women taking prominent roles and infinite pride in the Israeli state and its accomplishments.
This paradigm shift begs the question of how these changes are affecting Israeli society politically and socially, if at all. Chaim Danino, also haredi, shared his recent research with colleagues at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the topic.
Not surprisingly, he found that as involvement in Israeli general society increases, so does a sense of Israeli identity. What Danino also found was that the largest group (43%) identify as right wing, while 27% identify as Center, 14% identify as Left and the same number (14%) have no political orientation.
While haredim are significantly more “Israeli” than in the past, their civic education is typically lacking.
The haredi school system avoids any civic studies as a rule. This vacuum has created a radical right-wing effect that is apparent to the layman as well as academics in the field.
There are three intertwined explanations for these findings, two of which are not uniquely haredi. One is the general right-wing shift in Israeli society at large, the second is that haredi society is a young society and young people tend more to the Right. The third explanation I’d like to propose is the natural affinity that a young haredi person, who has in some way begun developing an Israeli identity – be it through army service, national service, academic studies or even the general daily reality – has with the National Religious.
This affinity is not personal; haredim are not any more likely to be personally connected to National Religious individuals that secular people. But the similar religious lifestyle brings to the table an agency that the secular Israeli identity cannot.
This affinity, while natural, should be seriously considered by both haredi leadership that seeks to preserve a separate haredi identity and value system, and by Israeli leaders who are becoming aware of the shifting demographic in favor of the haredi group and the potential it holds.
Allowing radical and theological right-wing ideology to infiltrate and overtake mainstream haredi society would be the kiss of death for any possible resolution of the regional conflict in the future. With the bleak reality we currently face, I would like to hold on to a ray of hope.
The writer is a haredi Jerusalemite who is working to raise awareness within the haredi community on national politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.