Israel is teetering toward theocracy, with the rise of the Haredim
An armed ultra-orthodox Jewish settler walks in the mountains overlooking
the Palestinian village of Burin in the West Bank. AFP
Jerusalem — From Saturday’s Globe and Mail Last updated on Monday, Sep. 28, 2009 02:14AM EDT
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has come a long way.
No longer are they the inward-looking anti-Zionists who only cared that the government provide them with money for their separate schools, welfare and exemptions from military service. These days, many of the Haredim – the word means “those who tremble” in awe of God” – have joined with right-wing religious Zionists to become a powerful political force.
They now are equipped to redefine the country’s politics and to set a new agenda.
Two decades ago, they were confined mostly to a few neighbourhoods in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Today, they have spread throughout the country, in substantial numbers in several major communities, as well as building completely new towns only for their followers.
One Haredi leader who almost won Jerusalem’s mayoralty race last fall, boasts that, within 20 years, the ultra-Orthodox will control the municipal government of every city in the country. And why not? Of the Jewish Israeli children entering primary school for the first time this month, more than 25 per cent are Haredi, and that proportion will keep growing. There are between 600,000 and 700,000 Haredim in Israel, and they average 8.8 children a family.
A decade ago, there were almost no Haredim in the West Bank settlements. Today, the two largest settlements are entirely ultra-Orthodox, and the Haredim are about a third of the almost 300,000 settlers.
Now that they have tightened the rules on who can be a Jew and have forced the public bus company to provide gender-segregated buses in many communities, a discouraged secular community is starting to emigrate.
Nehemia Shtrasler, a business and political columnist for the Haaretz newspaper, wrote this summer that the country is risking destruction. “We will survive the conflict with the Palestinians and even the nuclear threats from Iran,” he wrote. “But the increasing rupture between the secular and ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel will be the end of us.” Mr. Shtrasler said: “It’s a struggle between two contradictory worldviews that cannot exist side by side.
Will Israel adhere to its founding secular values or will it become a theocratic Jewish state?
Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu has been toiling for decades to make Israel a Halachic state (one that adheres to Jewish religious law). The former chief Sephardi rabbi (from 1983 to 1993) was one of five men who founded the Brit Hakanaim – the Covenant of Zealots – an underground organization of the early 1950s that attacked non-kosher butcher shops and torched cars that were driven on the Sabbath.
Rabbi Eliyahu was imprisoned for 10 months after an apparent plot to attack the Knesset was uncovered. He said at his trial that Israel was turning against God’s will when it proposed a law to draft women into the military. Their place is in the home, he insisted, and still insists.
He was the spiritual adviser to Meir Kahane, founder of the racist Kach Party that was banned from the Knesset, and later outlawed completely when one of its members murdered 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron in 1994. He has long urged the release from prison of Yigal Amir, who assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Rabbi Eliyahu had his greatest impact as spiritual leader of Israel’s National Religious Party. He believed that the line separating the Orthodox from the Haredim was artificial and that many Haredim could be brought into the nationalist camp.
The rabbi has an exclusive view of who really is a Jew, having denounced Reform and Conservative synagogues as “reeking of hell.” And he has often said that democracy has no place in Judaism.
Rabbi Eliyahu and his followers have succeeded in tying the knot between Haredim and religious nationalists. There is even a new name for the new group, the Hardal, derived from Haredim and Mafdal (the acronym for the National Religious Party).
While the NRP has disappeared, the ideas and the name have grown. The powerful Shas Party, of Sephardi and Haredi disciples, is the best example.
Together, the Hardal are 20 per cent of the Jewish population, says Nachman Ben Yehuda, a sociologist at Hebrew University whose book on the Haredim, Theocratic Democracy , is to be published next year.
Such a merger is quite a feat, considering the anti-Zionist origins of the Haredim.
During the age of enlightenment in the 18th century, the first Haredi communities took shape, as an attempt to maintain distinctive Jewish communities when many Jews were being lured into liberal European culture. Haredi rabbis targeted, first, the Reform Jewish movement and, later, the Zionist movement, as abominations counter to God’s will.
They opposed the creation of Israel, arguing that using the holy Hebrew language for daily discourse and having “unbelievers” proclaim a “Jewish state” were sacrilegious. Some insisted that the Zionist project brought down the wrath of God in the form of the Holocaust.
For Israel’s first four decades, Haredi leaders continued to oppose it, even as many gravitated to the state.
“There still is a strong anti-Zionist aspect,” said Prof. Ben Yehuda, “but most Haredi leaders have been persuaded that if there must be a Jewish state, then it should be run properly, as a theocracy.”
In the Haredim, the religious Zionists have acquired potent allies. Their followers obey orders without question. “They fear excommunication,” explained Prof. Ben Yehuda. “They are largely unprepared for surviving outside their tight-knit communities.”
The two groups are united in wanting greater religiosity in Israel.
They seek strict adherence to Biblical rules governing the Sabbath, to Halachic rules concerning food, to age-old traditions of separating men from women, and to the strict observance of Orthodoxy in all aspects of people’s lives, from birth, through education, marriage and death to burial.
They also want their rules to be followed in deciding just who is a Jew and who therefore can enjoy the privileges of a Jewish state.
To obtain these goals they have influenced the platforms and growth of political parties, appointments to the rabbinical courts and government policy.
As a result, religious schools get a disproportionate share of the education budget, El Al planes don’t fly on the Sabbath and publicly run buses are segregated on a growing number of runs.
DEMOCRACY IN QUESTION
Ironically, considering these religious leaders have made such use of the democratic process, they continue to say democracy is not consistent with Halacha.
“In many ways these guys are closer to Islamic fundamentalists than to anything else,” Prof. Ben Yehuda said.
They also do not shrink from violence.
Prof. Ben Yehuda’s research found that violence is the number-one criminal infraction among Haredim. He also found that most of that violence is for political purposes.
This past summer witnessed many vivid examples. Thousands of Haredim rioted on several successive Saturdays to protest the opening on the Sabbath of a privately owned parking garage near the Old City of Jerusalem; thousands more rioted when social-services personnel arrested a Haredi woman in Jerusalem who was starving her child.
This week, a young woman was beaten for not being dressed modestly enough in the central Israeli town of Beit Shemish. The town, where many Sephardi refugees settled in the 1950s, recently has had an influx of Haredim. Earlier this month, a man and woman were beaten by Haredi youth when the two sat next to each other on a bus bound for the town.
Violence has become so widespread that there are Haredi communities where the police won’t go. This summer, a police car was torched and several officers injured when attacked by a rock-throwing mob, when the police responded to a call for help.
It’s upsetting to many Israelis, such as the columnist Nehemia Shtrasler, but when Haredi neighbourhoods become no-go zones for authorities, and when people must think twice before opening a private business on the Sabbath, the violence is having its desired effect.
And, as the Haredi community expands and finds government funding harder to come by, growing numbers of Haredi women and men will be compelled to enter the work force. The impact of that, says Prof. Ben Yehuda, is that businesses and workplaces will be forced to comply with the religious demands of their new workers.
Already, he said, in high-tech workplaces, where many Haredim work, the offices are segregated and cafeteria food is kosher.
Even in the Israel Defence Forces, the Haredim are having an effect. An exclusive Haredi battalion has been created, to accommodate a growing number of ultra-Orthodox who want to serve.
In other battalions, religious Zionists have refused to ride in military vehicles driven by women. Their demands have reportedly been met.
With the demographic shift in favour of the Haredim only going up, those in the private sector, government and the military who decline to accommodate Haredi demands will become fewer and fewer.
And with growing numbers of Haredim in West Bank settlements, Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians takes on an increasingly religious fervour.
Prof. Ben Yehuda has no doubt that many of the country’s emigrants are leaving, in part, because of the rise of the Hardal. But it’s not the major reason, he says.
“However, as this place becomes more and more like Iran, the secular community will leave in droves.”
So, is Israel to be a Jewish state, or a state of the Jews?
“Jews come in many forms,” notes Prof. Ben Yehuda: “Reform, Conservative, traditional, secular, as well as Orthodox.”
Should one group get to determine what rules the country will follow?