A Jewish State: The Challenge of Haredim

by Donniel Hartman

One of the givens of Israel as expressed both in its founding document, the Declaration of Independence, and as expressed in the will of the majority of its citizens is that Israel is or must be a Jewish state. By Jewish two core elements are implied: the first, empirically, that the majority of its citizens are members of the Jewish people, and the second is that it is legitimate for Jewish traditions, culture, values, and even in some cases, Jewish law, to be integrated into the public, political, and legal structures of the society.

So long as the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities are protected and the inalienable rights of individuals to freedom of religion are preserved, these principles of a Jewish state can coincide with Israel’s other defining aspiration, and that is to be a democratic state.

The actions, policies, and aspirations being expressed and promulgated within sections of the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community of late, coupled with the “Doomsday” predictions of their rapid demographic growth, have caused many to question whether the Jewish and democratic synthesis is being threatened.

How has it come about that a small segment of Israeli society can threaten to undermine the identity of a country over and against the will of the majority? How is it that we have created a reality in which many Israelis and Jews around the world believe their country is being stolen from them? Now, there is no doubt that democracy within Israel is not high on the value priorities of the haredi community, unless it serves to further its needs and interests at this time. However, their relative insignificant size at the present should make them a much more manageable and benign phenomenon, at least until or if the demographics radically shift.

To understand the current Israeli predicament requires that one recognize that the place and role of haredim in Israeli society has been shaped by a complex array of decisions and policies which need to be understood if we are both to comprehend the current reality and shape our future. We make, I believe, a fundamental error when we ascribe much blame to the haredim themselves and portray them solely as a group that skillfully manipulates a flawed political system to bring Israel to its knees and succumb to its wishes.

As a minority, the secret to its success and power lies in the way it is perceived and, in fact, tolerated by the majority. I would argue that the source of the challenge posed by haredim to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state lies first and foremost in the failure of the larger Israeli society to define for itself the meaning and limits of the Jewishness of the Jewish state. When it comes to defining Jewish citizenship, the State of Israel adopted the most pluralistic and tolerant definition of any community in Jewish history. Following the Nuremberg Laws, Israeli law basically states that anyone who would be persecuted for their Jewishness has a right to be a citizen in the national homeland of the Jewish people. As a result, matrilineal or patrilineal descent, conversion to Judaism by any of the recognized denominations, being married to a Jew, or even having one Jewish grandparent, all suffice to award a person citizenship in Israel. The problem and in fact failure of modern Israel is that this standard of pluralism and tolerance was not applied to the second feature of the Jewishness of Israel, that is, as a place where Jewish traditions, values, and laws can be integrated into the public sphere.

Instead of limiting these expressions to those areas of Judaism on which there exists unanimity of opinion or at the very least a broad consensus, Israelis gave over the authority to determine these questions to the Orthodox. As an expression of the Zionist ambivalence with traditional Judaism, especially in its “religious” forms, non-Orthodox Israelis relinquished their voice and place at the table, allowing others to determine policy on issues from which many Israelis felt distant. So long as the price tag was not too high and the commensurate coalition payback higher, Israelis were willing to sell their birthright when it came to the Jewishness of the public square. In so doing, Israelis were not only alienating themselves but were willing to violate the fundamental principles of liberal democracy, which guarantee the inalienable rights and liberties of individuals.

To this day the Supreme Court of Israel will utilize the Basic Law of Human Rights and Dignity, a form of Israeli Constitution, to protect the rights of national minorities and political freedoms but will never utilize it to undermine the singular power and dictatorship of the Israeli Rabbinate on issues of marriage, divorce, and conversion. The haredi “invasion” into the public sphere is not the result of their increased power but the perpetuation of passivity on the part of Israeli society when it comes to the Jewishness of public life in Israel. People may complain, but that only leads to the ascribing of blame to a third party, and never to the fundamental flaw which has taken root in the Jewish expression of the Jewishness of Israel. If there is a will, all it will take is one election to completely reverse the current reality and status quo.

The second defining feature of the place of haredim in Israeli society was as a minority, in some ways almost a separate ethnic minority within the larger Israeli Jewish society. Zionism wanted to create a “new Jew” and a new Judaism, and the haredim had no part in this future. As much as the haredim were fearful of assimilating, Israelis were fearful of their ideology penetrating into and influencing the new modern State. Haredim were allowed and even encouraged to create their own ghettoes under the hope that one day they would simply disappear.

A system of allowances was put into place to allow them to preserve their distinct identity, so long as “they” left “us” alone. Much lip service was and is still offered advocating for full military service and integration into the job market on the part of the haredim. But the truth is that the majority of non-Orthodox Israelis neither wants haredim in their workplace nor are willing to live with the consequences of integrated military units.

The fundamental fault of the haredim under this plan was that they did not disappear and instead, grew, and as a result, have created a Catch-22: We don’t want “them” in our workforce, but we can no longer support their unemployment. Their size now dictates that they more fully integrate as contributing members of Israeli society, but the truth is that most Israelis want them to change either before their integration or as a result of it.

Israeli society needs to begin a new conversation, not merely with the haredim, but first and foremost with itself. This conversation must entail a confronting of the reality of Israel as a multicultural Jewish society, not to speak of Israel as a multi-national society. We must learn to think and talk about the rights of minorities and the spaces they may be allowed within which to pursue their distinct cultural, religious, and national identities.

Together with this conversation, however, we must also begin to think about the boundaries of multiculturalism and multi-nationalism within Israel. We must think about not merely the rights of minorities but also the rights of the majority, as well as the protection of the inalienable rights of individuals not merely from the majority but from other minorities, as well. The fundamental rights of women, minorities, and non-Orthodox Jews, as well as a commitment to democracy and Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people must become constitutional values which no particular ideology or group is allowed to trample or ignore. To be a part of modern Israel means not only to accept the benefit of its economic and military resources but to accept its core principles.

In short, we must recognize that being a Jewish and democratic state will not be the result of a declaration but the consequence of a well thought-out policy and public discourse. Being a sovereign people means that instead of ascribing blame one takes responsibility.

Read and watch more on this subject from Shalom Hartman Institute scholars and fellows of the Engaging Israel Project:

Donniel Hartman is President of Shalom Hartman Institute and Director of the Engaging Israel Project.

Cross-posted on The Shalom Hartman Institute blog.

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