A Chareidi Rapprochment with Israel
by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 13, 2009
Recent media coverage of the chareidi community in Israel has naturally focused on the rioting over the opening of a municipal parking garage on Shabbat. Media attention follows action, as the night the day, and that is true both of the secular and chareidi media.
Yet curiously once one leaves the confines of Meah Shearim, which is something of an outlier even in the chareidi world, one does not find the issue dominating private discussions. I was in the United States at the height of the demonstrations. But upon my return, I did not hear much talk about them. Such discussion as there was tended to involve recriminations over the political manueverings within the haredi community that helped bring Nir Barkat to the mayor's office.
Obviously, no chareidi Jew condones the opening of the parking lot, but the issue is not a burning one. That most of the Israeli population, even the majority of Jerusalemites, are not Sabbath observant is, after all, hardly news. Protests will not reverse that fact, and may even exacerbate the situation.
With Sabbath demonstrations dominating news coverage, it would have been easy to overlook a small recent item in these pages. Yet the latter story may tell us more about the future of haredi-secular relations than the recent protests. The Post's military correspondent Yaakov Katz reported on a special program under which the IAF has been recruiting chareidi men, most already married and with children. Already there are 250 chareidi men in the air force, and military intelligence and the navy are gearing up for their own comparable programs. Of those enlisted in the air force program, over 60% have applied for officer training school, the highest rate of any group of enlisted men in the IDF.
Obviously this program serves the interests of both the IDF and the chareidim. The former, faced with declining enlistment, is able to tap into a vast reservoir of intellectual talent. The latter receive high level training in sought after professions and the possibility of relatively secure jobs in the IDF. Even the beginning IDF salaries are higher than most would receive in kollel.
Yet even if self-interest plays a large role in the bargain between the IDF and the chareidi soldiers, this program could only have come into being in the wake of changing attitudes to the State within the chareidi community. Today, it no longer occasions surprise in many chareicdi neighborhoods to see bearded men, who until recently were learning full-time in kollel, walking around in uniform. That would not have happened twenty years ago.
The reasons for the change are many. One is the waning of Zionist ideology. Who today thinks about the classical Zionist project of creating a "new Jew," who will be the antithesis of everything with which the name Jew was associated in galut? The demise of Zionist ideologues is mirrored by the decline of anti-Zionist ideology. Meah Shearim and a few offshoot communities are the last bastions of classical "anti-Zionist" ideology.
No chareidi would describe Israel as "the Jewish state," and certainly not as the "reishit tzmichat geulateinu – the first flowering of the Redemption." But there is a general recognition that the fate of six million Jews cannot be separated from the security of Israel. As traditional anti-Semitism increasingly takes the form of demonization of Israel and the application of standards to Israel's defense of its citizens to which no other nation in the world is subjected, chareidim, whose historical consciousness of Jewish persecution at the hands of the nations is well-nurtured, find themselves identifying with Israel. And finally, Israel is the center of an undreamed of renaissance in Torah learning after the Holocaust. Government support has played a not inconsiderable role in that rebirth.
MY FRIEND Professor Moshe Koppel of Bar Ilan University published a long essay last year in which he lamented the creation of a hyphenated religious-Zionism, in which Zionism and Judaism are viewed not only as compatible but the same. The problem with religious Zionism, he opined, is that it was largely taken over by the rabbis and theologians, for whom the State and its institutions are divine agents, no matter how imperfect they may be in the execution of their agency.
He prefers the commonsensical attitude of the average religious tailor or shoemaker in Eastern Europe upon first hearing of the fledgling Zionist movement. On the whole, thought the tailor or shoemaker, it would be better for Jews to be economically self-sufficient rather than subsisting at the fringes of the gentile economy. A public square reflecting Jewish values would be preferable to living with a public square shaped by the symbols of an alien religion. Better for the institutions of the state to protect Jewish freedom than to threaten it. And if all this could happen in Eretz Yisrael, so much the better.
To this minimalistic vision, I suspect many chareidim could subscribe. And they might even add to this list the advantages of Israel as a place of refuge for threatened Jews and of Jews possessing the military strength to defend themselves rather than being dependent upon the kindness of strangers.
UNLIKE MOST CHAREIDIM, I was raised in an ardently Zionist home, and that may color my views. The only anti-Zionists I ever heard of growing up were those of the Reform American Council of Judaism..
Recently, I had occasion to experience again my childhood identification with Israel. I had just finished watching The Third Jihad, a powerful new documentary on radical Islam. Towards the end of the film, Bernard Lewis, the great Princeton University orientalist, offers the chilling insight that for the leaders of Iran "mutual assured destruction might constitute an incentive rather than a deterrent" from a theological point of view. That happy thought led me to ask myself the question: Why are we staying here?
My first answer to that question is always that offered by my father: "I would not wish to remain alive in a world that was prepared to watch six million Jews destroyed once again." But a more positive thought occurred to me as well: Israel is the only country in the world the majority of whose citizens are determined to confront evil rather than appease it. True, we have had some advantages in reaching this point. We have seen evil close up in the form of an entire society whipped into paroxysms of death-seeking fury. And our every experience since the heady days of Oslo has reinforced the recognition that we have no choice but to be prepared for war.
Finally, a ba'al teshuva in Brooklyn, who comments under the unlikely name Spengler, points out something remarkable about Israel. If one plots a graph of industrialized nations using birthrates as the vertical axis and suicide rates as the horizontal axis, Israel, with by far the highest birthrates and the second lowest suicide rate, occupies a quadrant of the graph all by itself, with no other nation remotely nearby.
Something of the traditional, life-affirming Jewish faith in a better future still permeates the air of Eretz Yisrael. And that is reason enough to stay.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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