Already five years ago, a prominent American rosh yeshiva told me that we might be approaching the end of a miraculous period in which the secular Israeli government became the prime supporter of Torah learning on a scale unprecedented in Jewish history. If the new coalition guidelines are implemented, that moment has arrived.
The incoming government coalition results from a concatenation of long-range political trends and a series of inexplicable blunders by veteran politicians. First, we’ll consider the long-range trends. From 1977 until 2005, the Israeli public was divided primarily over the “peace process,” a trend that became even more pronounced after the signing of the Oslo Accords. Each side was willing to offer the chareidi parties whatever was required to join their coalition to prevail on the issue of paramount importance to them.
Since the failure of the 2005 Gaza withdrawal, Israelis have soured on the possibility of peace and concluded that further territorial withdrawals will only result in the creation of another launching pad for rocket and terrorist attacks. That consensus closed the great fissure in Israeli politics. With issues of war and peace dormant, the possibility of new coalitions around other issues arose. Chareidi parties no longer hold the balance of power on the issue of paramount importance to most voters. Indeed for much of the non-chareidi public, the chareidim themselves are the most important issue.
Still, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was eager to retain the traditional alliance between Likud and the chareidi parties, in forming his new government. One does not sever old and reliable allies when the political roadmap ahead is filled with potholes. Unfortunately, the math did not work out. For one thing, Netanyahu made two bad decisions: He did not time new elections to coincide with the height of his popularity, and he decided to merge Likud and Yisrael Beitanu, whose leader, Avigdor Lieberman, immediately found himself under criminal indictment. As a result, Netanyahu ended up with ten less mandates than anticipated.
Second, Shas leader Rabbi Aryeh Deri feared having Bayit Yehudi headed by Naftali Bennett in the coalition, where it would threaten Shas’s control of the state religious establishment. Netanyahu had his own reasons for not wanting Bennett in the cabinet. The result was to drive Bennett’s settler party into the arms of the yuppies of Yesh Atid party, whose leader Yair Lapid has been a persistent critic of the settlement enterprise.
That unlikely pairing could unravel rapidly if President Obama pressures Israel for concessions to the Palestinians in return for American action on Iran. But it held rock firm throughout the drawn out coalition negotiations. The issue upon which Lapid and Bennett found common ground was “equality of service” – shorthand for greater chareidi participation in the IDF or national service. Interestingly, in an interview with Mishpacha during the campaign, Bennett did not once mention “equality of service.” He presented himself as someone who would provide Netanyahu’s “backbone” against negotiations leading to a Palestinian terror state.
NEVERTHELESS, Lapid and Bennett definitely tapped into a rich lode of built-up animus towards the chareidi community. One poll during the first round of coalition negotiations showed that Lapid would win the largest number of mandates – 30 – with Netanyahu plunging to 22, if new elections were held. That means the Israeli public – at least in that one-time snapshot – was prepared to contemplate a prime minister with no military or political experience and no substantive expertise, and who did not complete his high school matriculation exams, at a time when the prime minister will be faced with perhaps the most difficult decision ever to face an Israeli prime minister – whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities – and have to deal with the possibility of Syria’s vast stores of chemical and biological weapons falling into the hands of Islamic jihadists or being transferred to Hizbullah. Yet somehow chareidi army service trumped those threats to our existence.
My second indication of how deep-seated the resentments run came when I sent a national religious colleague my piece in Mishpacha on the chareidi draft issue. I consider this woman to be Israel’s finest columnist. She always writes in a measured style, building her argument block by block, like the engineer she is by training. I was sure she would approve of my pragmatic argument for allowing processes well under way to develop.
I was wrong. Perhaps she would have agreed five years ago, she wrote, but now she was fed up and fully behind Bennett. Even a statement by Rav Aharon Leib Steinman, shlita, that army service represents a spiritual threat to chareidi recruits – an unassailable sociological fact in the current IDF environment – elicited paroxysms of anger. The evident frustration coming from someone normally so temperate and with a number of chareidi friends clued me in to the depth of feeling in the national religious world.
A third clue. A close friend was in Hadassah Hospital last week with his son. He mentioned to the nurse on duty that there was an overpowering stench in his son’s room coming from the other bed in the room. The nurse snapped at him, “That’s the problem with you people, all you do is take.” My friend, despite his Chassidic dress, happens to be the CEO of an international company and has served in high government posts. I do not know anyone who thinks more about being a Kiddush Hashem in all interactions with non-chareidim. There are always a number of non-religious and national religious Jews, with whom he has developed close relationships, at his smachot. In short, the nurse’s outburst was not provoked by his failure to speak nicely.
IN THE FACE OF SUCH ANIMOSITY, the easiest and most consoling response is to absolve ourselves of all responsibility and dismiss the hatred as that of an am ha’aretz for a talmid chacham or as yet another manifestation of the well-documented desire of the Zionist forefathers to fashion “new Jews” removed from Torah – a goal turned into policy by the Jewish Agency and the fledgling State in its treatment of religious immigrants from Arab lands.
The depth of the proposed cuts in government aid to poor chareidi families and the magnitude of the transformation they seek to effect are more punitive than rational social policy. Families of convicted terrorists, MK Moshe Gafni claimed, will be entitled to social benefits while families of poor avreichim will be denied on the grounds that they are not actively seeking employment. Nor is it possible to justify the decision to cut off all subsidies for foreign students studying at Mir Yeshiva but not for those studying at “Zionist” Kerem B’Yavneh and Shalavim.
Nevertheless, it is worth asking whether there is anything we can do going forward to lessen the hatred. Have we sufficiently shown the secular public that even if few chareidi parents are spending sleepless nights worried about their own children on the front lines that we are deeply concerned with the fate of every Jewish soldier? Have we as a community internalized the sensitivity to the feelings of our fellow Jews of Rabbi Chaim Shmuelewitz, who refused to let Mirrer bochurim spend more than the briefest time outside of the beis medrash during the Yom Kippur War, even to look for the dalet minim, in order that no mother of a soldier at the front see yeshiva bochurim looking as if they did not have a care in the world? Did we sufficiently listen to the secular public and try to understand why the slogan “equality of burdens” has such emotional power – the first step in any dialogue? Or did we make things too easy for ourselves by dismissing every complaint as nothing but “hatred of Torah”?
It should hurt us the secular public knows that most chareidi shuls do not recite a special prayer for the safety of soldiers, but nothing of the numerous chareidi chesed organizations, such as Yad Sarah and Ezer M’Tzion, serving the entire population.
THE CHAREIDI PUBLIC is in pain and dread of what lies ahead. But nothing will be gained at this moment by name-calling and giving vent to our own anger. Threats of revenge do not dignify us nor will they avail.
If there is any silver lining in the present situation, it is that the decline in chareidi political power affords new opportunities to meet our fellow Jews on the individual level. Their hatred is not primarily for Torah Jews as individuals, but for the corporate chareidi enterprise represented in the Knesset. Now that we no longer threaten them, they may be more open them to getting behind the stereotypes that fuel the animus. On a one-to-one basis, we can show them what Torah means to us, what we are prepared to sacrifice for it, and what it might mean for them as well.
Every interaction with a non-chareidi Jew is an opportunity to change pre-conceptions, and we should seek out those opportunities. The chavrusa programs of Kesher Yehudi and Ayelet HaShachar are one such opportunity.
Over the last decade, the Karlin-Stolin community, led by the Rebbe himself, has hosted between 10-15,000 Jews in small groups for Shabbos meals. Last week, one of the Torah flyers distributed in national religious synagogues on leil Shabbos included a letter from a waiter at Shabbos gathering of 370 Karlin-Stolin chassidim. He wrote of the warmth and respect the chassidim showed him, of how they saved a seat for him at the table and invited him to join them in their dancing, of how they washed so neatly so as to minimize the clean-up.
“Shabbos ended and so did all my stereotypes,” the waiter wrote. So moved was the waiter that he called the Rebbe himself, who cried with joy and exclaimed, “That’s how I educated them for decades — in ahavas Yisrael and mutual respect.”
An example worth emulating.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha.