As Rosh Hashanah approaches, one senses an impending explosion between Israeli mainstream society and the ultra-Orthodox.
For years, tensions have steadily grown as influential haredi rabbis strived to prevent their followers from integrating into Israeli society. Unlike their counterparts in the Diaspora and contrary to historical precedent, these rabbis discourage gainful employment and encourage reliance on social welfare, insisting that their followers engage in “full-time” learning. Aside from the poverty this imposes, it presents an ever-growing burden on the economy. These rabbis also issue edicts adamantly opposing the draft. This generates enormous resentment among the vast majority of Israelis who are enraged that their taxes are employed to subsidize those who reject productive employment and refuse to share the defense burden.
Moreover, these radicals have hijacked the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts and have imposed the most stringent interpretations of Jewish law on the nation. This has already had catastrophic consequences in relation to issues of marriage, divorce and conversion.
In recent months, the sheer vulgarity and gutter language expressed by some haredi rabbis and politicians against other Jewish groups has exceeded all boundaries. This is particularly despicable behavior when it emanates from those purporting to uphold the banner of religiosity and Jewish tradition.
Unfortunately, their success is largely the result of our current dysfunctional political system in which haredim retain the balance of power and are in a position to effectively blackmail governments into making unprincipled concessions.
Those who criticize Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud for surrendering to the haredim fail to recall that most other parties were similarly willing to concede to the ultra-Orthodox when they were in power.
The previous government in which haredim were excluded was an exception, and the progress and reforms achieved during that term were all reversed when this current coalition again became dependent on the haredim. This was exemplified by the annulment in some extreme haredi schools of core curriculum obligations and the neutralization of efforts to encourage haredim to volunteer for army service. They triumphantly exulted at this “success.”
We have also witnessed unprecedented attempts to retroactively annul conversions, the rejection of conversions from respected Orthodox rabbis who do not share their stringent approach, the attempt to exclude rabbis associated with the Tzohar organization and Modern Orthodoxy from conducting marriage ceremonies, the vile level of hostility aimed at non-Orthodox groups, the breached negotiations over access to the Western Wall by non-Orthodox groups, and more.
The arrogant and ruthless approach of the haredim to these and other issues has intensified public anger against them.
Most of us take pride in the fact that, while the religious and secular camps would each prefer that the pendulum swing further in its own direction, over the years we have succeeded in reaching an accommodation. By and large, while varying somewhat in observance according to the composition of residents, a unique Shabbat atmosphere prevails throughout Israel and remains the core of our religious and national tradition — but it remains the most contentious issue which requires give and take. However, this should not lead to freely opening up commerce on Shabbat, which would make it almost impossible for observant Jews to remain in business.
Feeling triumphant, the haredi political parties presumed that they could now move further in their coercive efforts of intensified Shabbat observance. Their recent attempt to close down road and rail work on Shabbat massively inconvenienced and outraged hundreds of thousands of Israelis whose trains were halted the following day. Although the issue was finally resolved by the intervention of the High Court, it created unprecedented resentment throughout the nation.
The impact of the rage was reflected in opinion polls, showing the anti-haredi Yesh Atid party headed by Yair Lapid — for the first time — enjoying greater electoral support than the dominant Likud.
Unless they alter their course, haredim could face a severe backlash. An anti-religious government could seek to impose a complete separation of religion and state. This would undermine the delicate balance achieved over the years which has enabled observant and secular Jews to live in harmony and mutual respect. Anti-haredi extremists would seek to obliterate haredi society overnight and in all likelihood blur the distinction between religious extremists and religious moderates who represent a crucial component of Israeli society. They could undermine the basic Jewish foundation of the state.
Let it be said that the majority of haredim are an asset to Jewish society — the antithesis of the highly vocal Hebrew-speaking Canaanites, many of whom are effectively post-Zionists. The ultra-Orthodox devotion to spiritual issues and their exemplary charitable endeavors in supporting those in need are a welcome contrast to the materialism and hedonism that prevails in our society. In the Diaspora, they were an important component of community life. But they also took pride in earning a livelihood, as well as becoming learned Jews.
In the early days of the state, the Chief Rabbinate was headed by worldly personalities such as Rabbis Yitzhak Herzog and Shlomo Goren. They and many others, such as Haifa Chief Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, who recently passed away, were also proud religious Zionists who sought to interpret Halachah (Jewish law) in line with the requirements of a modern, evolving industrial state.
Unfortunately, the ultra-Orthodox parties assumed a pivotal position and were able to control the destiny of governments, purging the moderates and imposing their ultra-stringent ideas on the nation in regard to issues of conversion, marriage, army service and participation in the workforce.
Now, the upsurge of public rage against the haredim which arose in response to the closure of the railways, should be considered a wake-up call.
Some of the more visionary haredi leaders are already implementing changes, such as providing secular studies to enable increased gainful employment. There are also small but growing numbers entering the IDF.
Ironically, despite the resentment against haredi extremism, the country has undergone a major spiritual revival and the respect displayed to religious Jews, even by secular authorities, is unprecedented. Among rank-and-file haredi youngsters, there is evidence of a decline in the impact of the anti-Zionist rhetoric of their rabbis.
The economic impact of a growing number of haredim who are dependent on state welfare because they are discouraged from engaging in productive labor will ultimately create an explosive situation.
What is needed to move forward is the formation of a united front against coercion. Needless to say, in the Knesset that remains a pipe dream.
Habayit Hayehudi is in a position to promote a national discourse that would create an awareness of the need to reform the current structure and promote a moderate, noncoercive religious environment.
While Education Minister Naftali Bennett is doing a good job, this would be his real challenge. His most important mandate is to ensure that religious Zionism assumes the central moderating role in Israeli society. This was the main factor motivating the creation of the party. By initiating such a discourse, engaging worldly national religious intellectuals and rabbis such as Yosef Carmel, David Stav, Shlomo Riskin and others from the more liberal-minded Tzohar group, as well as enlightened haredim, Bennett could avert a major upheaval which has the explosive potential to wreak untold havoc on our long-range social fabric. He could achieve a significant contribution toward healing the rift between religious extremists and the mainstream community and truly make his mark in history.
These are complex issues which can only be resolved by rational discourse, tolerance and accommodation. Utmost efforts must be made to minimize coercion and engage in dialogue in which all parties compromise.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom