The Global Jewish Forum: Facts and Vectors about Haredim and the Jewish Collective

by Yonatan Ariel

Rabbi Uri Regev writes about the Jewish Agency’s Global Jewish Forum on Haredim and the Jewish Collective. His chief concern is that the participants were shielded from contentious facts and clear statistical trends. This he suggests leads to a distorted picture of reality and an inappropriate base upon which to assess interventions – which in Rabbi Regev’s view are urgent.

I think that his perspective represents a misplaced view of what was offered. Those present at the Forum were exposed to data and Rabbi Regev’s characterization of Dr. Neri Horowitz’s expertise and its relationship to such data is mistaken. There are shortcomings with the Global Jewish Forum and choices are made amongst compelling alternatives. However the shortcoming claimed by Rabbi Regev is not one I easily recognize.

In the interests of promoting wider understanding of how the new Jewish Agency is trying to do this part of its work, I offer these comments. Full disclosure – I direct Makom, an educational initiative and not a policy or advocacy unit, so our work does not seek to advance a particular course of action. Instead we seek an honest grappling with the complexity of Jewish life in Israel and around the world.

GLOBAL JEWISH FORUM – The GJF grew out of a concern that the global discourse among Jews on issues of fundamental importance tends to be mostly shallow, mostly polarized, and mostly counter-productive. More and more of our young people would prefer to avoid engagement altogether than be part of a never-ending shouting match.

The Global Jewish Forum is a day spent moving beyond the headlines to examine the deep issues that drive them. It is a day of international Jewish leaders deliberately not taking decisions, but together exploring possibilities. It is a day where young adults sit around the table with institutional leaders, sharing perspectives and gaining understanding. The purpose is to enable engagement with the big ideas that underlie our pressing problems in order to foreshadow shifts in policy and program.

URGENCY and IMPORTANCE – a topic or issue does not get to be a subject for the Global Jewish Forum unless it is important. Often the important is also urgent, but not always so. The participants in the Forum are either residents of Israel or very frequent visitors and each has multiple sources of access to information and commentary. This new framework is still finding its meter and strives to address the contemporary Jewish agenda with care. For example, many arrived at this particular Forum having read numerous commentaries, heard sermons and briefings and participated in conversations about the flare up in Beit Shemesh and all that it embodies. Our educational challenge was not to present the urgency of the issue – that was self-evident from the events of the preceding months. It was rather to help people weigh stances for healthy resolution of the Israel they want to see emerge with the realities on the ground.

MULTI-VOCALITY – Makom offered an eclectic range of voices both prior to and at the Forum on the history, ideology, demography and current headlines of the challenge in thinking about Haredim and the Jewish Collective. There were multiple voices in print, on a specially prepared video and at the roundtables themselves, where invited participants swapped perspectives. Throughout the Forum we presented Haredi voices arguing for separation, and those recommending the creation of a long process to arrive at a new social covenant in Israel. We presented non-Haredi voices arguing for a principled stand against positions adopted by the various strands of the Haredi community(ies) using the full force of the law to achieve compliance, and those who fervently recommend incremental approaches that strive to encourage more Haredim to adopt the responsibilities of Israeli citizenship. There were key statistics, sharp critiques of Israeli government policies, and both subtle and strident voices from the field. These voices agreed, disagreed and agreed to disagree.

FORUM and PROCESS – the Global Jewish Forum is not a policy-making body. Within the Jewish Agency there is a range of committees and the full Board that determine policy. A particular group – the highly-visible Unity of the Jewish People Committee – was designated as the policy-maker for this issue. They have established a Task Force that is charged with returning to the Board this June with recommendations as to how the Jewish Collective in general and the Jewish Agency in particular can best contribute in this arena. It has membership from the senior tier of Israeli society and Jewish communities, and is resourced with the analytic power of the Jewish People Policy Institute.

Interestingly, the Forum surfaced options to involve the Haredim of the Jewish communities around the world in search of progress in Israel. Yet, as one astute participant made clear “Federations and their kindred organizations elsewhere in the world have not exactly done well at building productive relations with the Haredim in our own communities”. Similarly, one sabra reminded us that the tension with Haredim in Israel is hardly a new issue and that given that Israeli society has not yet galvanized itself then what role for world Jewry? As he said: “Haredi Knesset members play so well and by the rules of the game that were set by modernist Israel.”

VECTORS – Makom takes a stance on the vitality of the Haredi community and it is a positive one. As I mentioned at the Forum, in the wake of the Shoah we should view with wonder the rebirth and resilience of a way of life that has led the members of the various Haredi groups to prosper and thrive. It is a blessing for the Jewish People and another lesson in how determined human acts can shape our future. And I say this as one who has chosen to live according to a vastly different set of norms and values that often collide head on with Haredi norms and values.

We identified three different circles within the Haredi community in Israel.

  • The Rejectionists – those who wish to isolate themselves from Israel and the mechanisms of statehood.
  • The Residents – those who wish to isolate themselves from Israeli society but wish the state and its organs to provide for them.
  • The Citizens – those who wish to be educated to a high level both in classical Judaica and in secular subjects that can fuel their ability to work, pay taxes, do some kind of national service and to live a Haredi life.

We asked what it would take to move more Haredim to the category of self- perception as Israeli Citizens, rather than as Israeli Residents. Such thinking does not ignore the demographic realities and trends but it does highlight the fluid nature of self-perception. The recent trend to degree-level study in Haredi Colleges is not an overwhelming number in absolute terms – but look at the vector from when it started a decade ago! What would it take to increase that trend?

And we mentioned too that the Haredi world is in the midst of a general change in leadership. Many of the dominant rabbinic personalities that bestrode the Haredi world for decades are passing on. Insightful observers are commenting that the new generation of leaders is of a different type and stature. Indeed, one of the presenters at the Forum is leading efforts to nurture a new type of leadership that is prepared to engage with the wider Jewish world – both in Israel and beyond.

Are these efforts powerful enough to respond to the demographic pressures? No, not yet. Hence, the Global Jewish Forum and the Task Force. Yet, even those efforts will only reach full potential once Israeli society is willing and able to devote sufficient share of mind as to how it wishes to live with itself.

There is something subtle at play in the Forum’s work which seeks to shift the ground of discussion and to spotlight frames of reference that foreshadow the real work that various organs of the Jewish Agency and Jewish communities around the world might do – with increased insight, integrity and humility. Real change starts with novel conversation. The kind that leads to action. The Global Jewish Forum ignites that conversation.

Yonatan Ariel is the Executive Director of Makom, an initiative of the Jewish Agency, which creates and presents the Global Jewish Forum.