[Editor's note: An earlier post provided the video link to Yair Lapid's presentation to the haredi law track at Kiryat Ono College. Realizing that many readers were eager to evaluate the message without investing a half-hour's worth of time to watch the video, I obtained an English- language transcript of the speech, through MakomIsrael.org which created the English subtitles for the video. Our thanks to Robbie Gringras of Makom for making the transcript available.]
There was a competition in Israel for Israeli-ness that lasted over a century, since the second wave of immigration, and in the end you won.
We lost and you won.
For decades it was a Mexican standoff, where each one waits for the other guy to give in,about which Avi Ravitsky, a religious man, wrote: “The status quo was based on the false assumption” which was accepted by both sides, “that the opposition camp was doomed to dwindle away “and perhaps even disappear.”
I know that’s what the Haredim thought about the secular, that they’re doomed to extinction. But that’s what we thought about you, too, that you’re a sort of living museum, like the Ramat Gan Zoo. There’s a place where they have a rare species, almost extinct, that has to be protected so we can take our grandkids there and show them and tell them: “You see, kids? That’s how Jews used to look.”
Let me remind you, when Ben Gurion agreed to exempt yeshiva students from military service the original number was 700. That was supposed to be the entire yeshiva population, 700, and today in the Mir Yeshiva alone there are over 3,500 men.
By the way, the idea that Jews once looked this way is a fallacy. It comes from the fact that the secular Jews bought the story that the Haredim represent a Judaism that had existed for thousands of years, but in historical terms the Haredi movement is relatively new. It can be traced back to the 18th century when the Hatam Sofer established the principle that “the Torah forbids the new.” But the real breakthrough of the Haredi movement came in the 19th century when the rabbis were frightened when a new concept penetrated the Jewish world, the concept of secularism. Secular Jews came in two forms, one was the enlightenment movement and the other was the Zionist movement, and against these two movements arose a counter-movement of religious Jews. This counter-movement created you, the Haredim.
I know this isn’t what they taught you so I suggest that you don’t believe me, check it out for yourselves. Look at history honestly and you’ll find that the real story is that not only is secularism a response to Haredi-ism, but Haredi-ism is a response to secularism.
And from the very first, these two movements were in constant conflict until they reached the point of confrontation, and you won that confrontation.
You won, not only in terms of numbers, but also in the Haredi presence in politics and the settlement movement and as a consumer force and in the streets and the culture and the educational system, you won in all these places. And looking at you here, having heard the statistics, I expect you to win in the job market as well.
Because it turns out there’s no way to build Israeli-ness without you.
No matter how hard we tried, Israeli-ness can’t exist without Judaism and Judaism can’t exist without Haredi-ism, so you win.
There are two reasons for your victory: The first reason is demographic, of course. When the State of Israel was founded the founders had a certain vision, a clear perception of what it should be like. It should be a socialist, secular, European state. That was the mainstream vision, and it held out for 50 years, but different tribes gradually formed around the mainstream.
The Haredi-Ashkenazi tribe and the Haredi-Sephardi tribe and the national-religious tribe and the Beitar tribe, and in the ’50s tribes came here from North Africa that turned into the tribes of the periphery, and in the early ’90s the Russian tribe came here and then the Ethiopian tribe, and each tribe had its needs and demanded something from the mainstream.
Some of them had religious needs, like your tribe, the Haredi tribe, and others had political needs like the national-religious tribe, which instituted the settlement effort after 1967, or there were economic needs such as those of the tribes of the periphery or the Russian and Ethiopian tribes. Each tribe wanted something and each ate away at the mainstream and the tribes gradually infiltrated all the traditional mainstream axes of power, at first in the IDF, then in academia, then in business.
And when the mainstream of Israeli-ness tried to defend itself, because every group instinctually defends its own interests, the other said: Look, you oppressed us, you denied us our rights, and we won’t accept that. And they were right, because the mainstream really did oppress them and denied them their rights and they really shouldn’t have had to tolerate that.
And something else happened besides, the mainstream was no longer the majority. By the late ’70s there were more Sephardim in Israel than Ashkenazim, and since the ’80s there are many more people who consider themselves traditional or religious than secular. And Jerusalem is a much bigger city than Tel Aviv, and since 1977 the capitalist right wing has been in power most of the time, 34 out of 40 years, and a survey from 1994 showed that 56 percent of the public believes that the Torah was given at Mt. Sinai.
It became clear that the balance between the tribes and the mainstream has been upset. The mainstream is no longer the majority. Neither numerically, nor economically, nor politically, nor ideologically.
Then, in the late ’90s, significantly late, something predictable happened: the mainstream got fed up. The mainstream looked to the left and the right and said to itself: I’m sick of everyone demanding things of me, if they want me to lead the country, let them lead it themselves, because I have a new solution: from now on, I’m a tribe too.
And the mainstream turned into a tribe.
For our purposes, and this is very topical, you can call it “the middle-class tribe.”
It said to itself: I don’t need the government in order to do business, I can get married in Cyprus in a civil ceremony, and I have to defend democracy because the other tribes, instinctively, are either non-democratic or less democratic, and I’m sick of the fact that a boy in Bnei Brak and a boy in Um El-Fahm whom I’ve never met are funded by my taxes, and I certainly don’t need to be told that I oppressed them.
If I’m so oppressive, let them get along without me. I’ll do what everyone else does. I’ll look out for Number One. I’ll take care of myself and my people. And that’s how things have stood in recent years.
Instead of a state with one mainstream surrounded by tribes, we’ve become a country of nothing but tribes.
And there’s just one small problem with that: The country won’t survive like this. Not only Israel but no country in the world can survive without a common center, without a broad base on which every can agree.
And that leads me to the second reason why we lost and you won: the spiritual reason. When the Zionist fathers came to Israel they said they wanted to build a melting pot for the Jews, and they truly looked for a broad base of agreement between the different sectors. They ignored the fact that the Jewish people already had such a base. Because the Jewish people had a Father. They wanted to build a secular, socialist melting pot and ignored the fact that the Jews had an ancient Father who had maintained and protected them for 2,000 years, and this ancient Father of course is the God of Israel.
I want to emphasize that I’m not talking about faith, because faith is something else, I’m talking about the question: What is the societal and cultural foundation of the Israeli ethos?
The founding fathers tried to skip from the Bible straight to modern times. They wanted to establish a Biblical ethos, not a Talmudic one. Because the Bible took place here. Because King Saul went to find his donkeys on Highway 443. Open a map and you’ll see where he looked. They planned to base the bond between the Israeli people and the Land of Israel on the Bible because almost all of them were yeshiva scholars who took off their kippot and to them, the Talmudic tradition belonged to the exile, to the home they had decided to leave.
So in order to establish this Biblical ethos they decided to skip over the Mishnah and the Midrash and the Talmud and the Golden Age of Spain and the Ramhal and the Hatam Sofer, as well as Bashevis Singer and Shalom Aleichem and Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. And instead of a multi-dimensional, multi-sectoral vision that could include all the different types of Jews, they created an ethos that suited secular Ashkenazi socialists and they wanted all the other tribes to submit to this ethos. This wasn’t done out of malice or stupidity, it was… secular thinking. The founding fathers’ way of thinking was: If God hasn’t brought the Jews to Israel in 2,000 years, it’s time to let someone else try, it’s time to create a new myth. And when the Holocaust came they saw it as proof that you can’t rely on the God of the Jews because he’s an unreliable father, we can only rely on ourselves.
So we tried to rely only on ourselves, but our attempt failed. If failed because it caused everyone who wasn’t secular, Ashkenazi and socialist to withdraw even more into his tribe, especially when he realized that the vision he was being offered had no room for what was most precious to him – his God. And it failed even more because the founding fathers’ explanation was… unsatisfactory. It didn’t justify our being here. Because if we take our ancient Father out of the picture, what are we doing here? Why would a secular person choose to live in the worst neighborhood in the world, among a billion Muslems who hate him, in this heat, if he doesn’t believe in an external power that makes it worth living here. We realized that this was a problem in 1967, just after the Six-Day War.
Because although the war was run by secular people, the reaction to the war was utterly religious. Following the conquest of regions of our historical homeland… You’re too young to remember this,
but there was a tremendous outburst of religious sentiment that led to the founding of the settlement movement, but even more so, it led to a sense of the miraculous. It was felt by widespread sectors of the nation, a feeling that was lost in the Holocaust: that there’s someone watching over us, that there’s a reason we’re here that we may not understand, that may not oblige us to keep all 613 commandments, but we have to admit that it isn’t arbitrary.
And once we admitted that life isn’t arbitrary, we lost. So we lost and you won. It’s a fresh victory, just a few years old, but it’s already here. And the initial significance of this victory is that we, the secular Jews, have to admit that our vision, the vision of a state that we run without you and in which you’re only guests, was a failure. Because we can’t run the Israeli economy without you as partners,
and it’s no coincidence that the “cottage cheese revolution” was started by a Haredi from Bnei Brak.
And we can’t decide where Israeli education is going if you won’t be our partners, and we can’t decide where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going and we can’t decide what the democratic nature of the country will be, or the relationship between the citizen and the Supreme Court, if you aren’t partners.
If an Ethiopian child in Netivot is hungry, it’s your responsibility as much as mine. And you can’t say: I only give to Haredi charities. If missiles are being fired at Ashkelon or Kiryat Shemona, it’s your responsibility as much as mine. You can’t just send ambulances, you’re responsible as a sector, you’re responsible as part of the State of Israel. And if another huge fire breaks out on Mt. Carmel
I want to know what you plan to do about it, because it’s your responsibility as much as mine.
You won, and that means the time has past when you could stand on the sidelines and say: “You have to consider my needs.” You’re the winners, which means I can say to you: You have to consider my needs, too. You’re responsible for me, too, isn’t not only me who’s responsible for you. It’s not only me who has to find a way to make your life possible in this country, you also have to find a way
to make my life possible in this country.
Because victory has its costs. Losing has no cost. Losing is always its own cost. But victory has its cost because it imposes responsibility. You’re responsible because you’re no longer a tribe or a museum or a zoo, you’re the State of Israel just like me and you influence the Israeli way of life just as much as me, so you have to ask yourselves the question: What responsibility does this impose on you? You’re the lords of the land. What does this oblige you to do? Can you still tell yourselves that only secular Jews should join the army because it’s not your business? Can you still tell yourselves that the only poor people you care about are poor Haredim, and you don’t care if secular poor people die of starvation? Can you still look at the problems that concern Israel, first and foremost the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as secular people’s problems? Can you allow yourselves to remain silent when a group of Haredi extremists tries to force the State to endanger human lives and move the Emergency Ward at Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon?
Because taking responsibility means you can’t automatically support Haredim just because they’re Haredim. You’ll be just as supportive of doctors who save lives there every day because you’ll be just as Israeli as them, and that makes you responsible for their children because you have to help their children where your parents wouldn’t help them.
I’m not casting aspersions, heaven forbid, on your parents, I’m sure they were good parents and they loved you and tried to give you the skills that children need who belong to a privileged minority living among an indifferent or hostile majority. Your parents taught you to protect yourselves and your friends and relatives and your lifestyle.
One of the classic Haredi claims against core studies is that they’re not necessary because Talmud study sharpens the mind and Haredi students can easily make up for them later. This claim has two parts, one true and one untrue. The true part is that Talmud study sharpens the mind. We’re talking about thousands of years of wisdom, and whoever studies it becomes both a better person and better trained intellectually.
And the very untrue part is that if you don’t teach children math and English they have no trouble making up for it. They do, because the human mind simply takes in languages and sciences
much more easily at an early age. A few months ago there was a big conference at the Technion on employment in the Haredi sector. Shimon Weiss spoke, he’s the principal of the Jerusalem College of Technology, the oldest academic institution for training Haredim, and Shimon Weiss revealed the incredible statistic that more than 50 percent of Haredi men who are accepted to the college prep program in the technological fields drop out before they graduate. More than half. Among Haredi women who do study math and English the dropout rate is between 5 and 7 percent.
When Weiss was asked why they drop out he said: “They’re basic things. Simple math and fractions and basic spelling in English.” You’re familiar with this. I realize you want your children to study Torah too,
who am I to argue? But just in case they don’t grow up to be great rabbis, give them a chance. 6 hours a week. 4 hours a week. Something. After all, you want to give your children the skills of winners.
They should know not only math and English but also what financial planning is and what law is, a propos this department, so they’ll know what their rights and obligations are, and they should understand technology because they live in a technological world which will be much more technological when they grow up.
And they should know something else, they should know their neighbors across the street, they should know us.
I’ll give you an example that I always use when talking about Haredi-secular relations in Israel, which is the Yom Kippur Law. Israel has the hametz Law, but still, all over Israel people eat hametz on Passover and buy and sell leaven on Passover. And Israel has the Pork Law, but still, all over Israel people eat pork and buy and sell pork. And the only law that they keep scrupulously is the Yom Kippur Law.
On Yom Kippur, not one secular Jew in Israel drives out of his driveway. And not one secular Jew in Israel would even dream of eating in public on Yom Kippur. Do you know why secular Jews keep the Yom Kippur Law so stringently? Because there is no such law. The Yom Kippur Law was never passed in Israel. It doesn’t exist. All that happened was that it’s clear to us that it’s important to our religious and Haredi neighbors that we don’t drive or have barbecues on Yom Kippur. And we’re glad to keep it because they asked us to, because it’s a neighborly act of mutual respect and it’s part of our responsibility towards you to do our best to enable you to live your lives in your way and based on your beliefs.
Yom Kippur is an example of how someone who doesn’t only care about his own tribe acts, someone who sees himself as part of a broader society, as part of a nation. It obliges you to act with the kind of generosity and courtesy that oppressed minorities may not be able to afford, but you can afford.
I don’t want you to be shocked by the fact that you won. Victory has tremendous advantages, this campus is a good example of that, because thanks to this victory the next generation of Haredim, or at least many of them, won’t suffer from the kind of poverty that is intolerable in a modern society.
And thanks to this victory you can speak to us about public space in Israel which will eventually break down the Haredi ghettos. I realize you don’t want your kids to play with my kids in the public playground, and I try very hard not to take offense. But there’s no reason why we can’t find a way to live next door to each other without my having to fear that you’ll proselytize my kids and without your having to fear that I’ll corrupt your kids. Because winners can always afford to fear less. Thanks to your victory you’ll never feel like guests or foreigners in this country which is just as much yours as mine,
and thanks to your victory you’ll never feel threatened again.
And maybe then it won’t be the extremists in your society who set the tone in issues such as modesty or Kashrut or women’s rights. Because if we secular Jews aren’t so threatening any more, your lives don’t have to be such a reaction against secularity and you can ask yourselves questions that you couldn’t ask before. About the general culture and poverty and how extremists rule every aspect of your lives.
Just as wherever you Haredim don’t threaten us we can respect you. We can honor Yom Kippur and circumcise our sons, which isn’t a law either, yet secular parents circumcise their sons.
And we can hold midnight study sessions on Shavuot with thousands of secular participants dressed in white who come to study Talmud and Judaism. By the same token, now that we don’t threaten you,
you can take your future in your hands and decide what your relationship to us will be. This victory enables you to be first class citizens, not second class citizens, but you’ll find that first class citizens
work quite a lot for their country. First class citizens take responsibility for its security, for the welfare of its people, for equality, for its international relations, and more than anything else they’re responsible for enabling people who are very different from them, just as I’m different from you, to live side by side with them.
Thank you very much.