It’s been a rough few months, deservedly so, for the most militant members of Israel’s fervently Orthodox community and their enablers. Outrage over the harassment of an eight-year-old girl sparked international condemnation of haredi misdeeds and religious coercion in Israel, and debates in the Israeli press over the relationship there between religion and state. The story has been widely discussed outside the Jewish and Israeli media, but the most pointed commentary has come from Jews and Israelis, loudly proclaiming their outrage in op-eds and blog posts.
This week an American haredi spokesman had enough, complaining that it had become “open season on haredim.” Rabbi Avi Shafran singled out a typical op-ed that in “classic bigot’s style…parlayed the bad behavior of a few into a tarring of an entire group.”
Well, maybe. It’s not just a few op-ed writers who see something terribly wrong with the insular, coercive behavior of the religious fringe, and it is not just a fringe who promote a disdain for non-Orthodox, and differently Orthodox, Jews that is itself bigoted. As Israel’s “black hats” become more stringent, and build their ghetto walls ever higher, clashes with the rest of Israel are inevitable.
But I am sympathetic to Shafran’s charge, up to a point. You do get a sense that the usual rules of pro-Israel engagement are suspended when it comes to the haredim. NGOs like the New Israel Fund and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel have for years been alleging the ways Israel falls short of its democratic and Jewish ideals. The thanks they get for this is condemnation from the Right, and indifference from the middle. Many American Jews who would normally support a civil liberties agenda think internal criticism, at a time of anti-Israel boycotts and biased international condemnation, only helps Israel’s enemies.
Yet some of the same groups and individuals who are normally shy about criticizing Israel are only too happy to entertain solutions to Israel’s haredi “problem.” Last week Haim Amsalem, a haredi rabbi who is seeking reforms in his own community, spoke to appreciative New Jersey audiences. He drew warm applause in calling for mandatory army service for fervently Orthodox youth, secular and vocational studies in yeshivot, and limits on the number of haredi men involved in full-time Torah study. (See Related Article) “Israel has racism,” he said at one point during his talk in Whippany. “Ethiopian Jews don’t have equal rights in Israel.” Were The New York Times to say the same thing, it would launch a thousand letters to the editor.
To be fair, there’s always been a difference between discussions held within the family and those for outside consumption. And Jewish groups note a difference between Israel’s security concerns and Jewish status and identity issues. In the 1980s, when groups were loath to talk about a Palestinian state, they regularly wrote articles demanding action on the “Who is a Jew” issue.
Israel’s haredi crisis is the rare issue that unites what Steven M. Cohen helpfully calls the “Prophets” and the “Protectors.” “Prophets,” writes Cohen, are friends of Israel who tend to focus on its shortcomings. “Protectors” focus on Israel’s moral virtues and defense needs. Prophets call for “‘hugging and wrestling’ with Israel’s complexities”; Protectors regard “advancing Israel’s cause in the public arena as a moral imperative.” Both sides think the other undermines Israel’s security.
In his 2006 book Judaism and Justice, Rabbi Sidney Schwarz suggests a different taxonomy: Exodus Jews and Sinai Jews. In the Exodus model, survival becomes the guiding principle. The Sinai model calls Jews to a sacred purpose bigger than themselves. The Sinai model describes Jewish involvement in tikun olam issues like civil rights and alleviating poverty. The Exodus model predominates among pro-Israel PACs and “defense” organizations. Schwarz laments that Jewish activists have turned inward and more Israel-focused in recent years, neglecting the — yes — “legacy of prophetic Judaism.”
Both Cohen and Schwarz describe distinct camps — Labor Zionists and Likudniks, Democrats and Republicans, J Street and AIPAC. I’d like to think that there is a little Exodus and Sinai in all of us, but I don’t see many signs of such a thing. The current debate seems to offer only stark choices: Regard Israel as infallible and ignore the actions and events that belie that, or acknowledge the harsh reality of occupation and call yourself a non-Zionist. What’s missing is the notion that you can love Israel, and demand security, and still work to make its civil society more civil, its human rights record more humane.
The haredi debate, at the very least, provides a middle ground. Unfortunately for Rabbi Shafran, Prophets and Protectors alike agree that Israel should be a place where, in Amsalem’s words, “every Jew in Israel — haredim, ultra-Orthodox, and secular; religious Zionist and traditional; Ashkenazim and Sephardim; recent immigrants and people who have lived there for decades — all [work] together to build a Judaism on the principles of respecting one another.”
It’s regrettable that the issue implicates innocents in the actions of the minority. But in terms of creating a Zionism that unites security and social justice, survival and morality, Exodus with Sinai, it’s a start.