What’s Wrong With Us?
Israel’s 73rd Independence Day was an annual reminder of as close to a miracle as it gets. If for no other reason than it actually happened. So many Jews tried very hard to prevent it. It is all the more amazing if we consider that here we are, many years later, with Israeli society so fragmented and its politicians unable to form a stable government because of personal and ideological enmity.
A hundred years ago, most of the financially successful Jews of Europe and America opposed Zionism because they wanted to be seen as loyal citizens of their adopted countries and felt threatened by talk of a Jewish state and the charge of dual loyalty. On the other hand, most Orthodox Jews refused to support political activism because they believed one had to wait for the messiah.
Despite all this, thanks to a few dreamers, both secular and religious, it happened. Here we are years later with a Jewish state which is, from every point of view, religious and secular, the most dynamic, powerful, and successful community of Jews we have ever had for over two thousand years.
Few things rile me as much as those secular Israelis who have turned against the very idea of a Jewish state. Usually, because they have had no experience of persecution or antisemitism themselves. The ultra-Orthodox, Haredi extremists who burn Israeli flags on Israel’s Day (or Festival) of Independence and yet accept massive benefits, handouts, and support from the state they reject, rile me as well.
In the 19th century, many Hasidim and other Jews came and swelled the numbers living either in Jerusalem or the Galilee. They survived on the Haluka, the charity sent from the Diaspora to support their idealistic genteel poverty. When Zionism inspired secular Jews to arrive and try to build the land, this Old Yishuv, as it was called led by Rav Chaim Sonnenfeld Z”L (1848-1932) felt threatened and resisted the New Yishuv. It rejected the idea of a secular state out of hand.
But there was a middle ground led by the Chief Rabbi appointed by the British Mandate, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook Z”L (1865-1935), who saw the secular Zionist settlers as agents of God in bringing about a Jewish state. He was in effect the symbol of moderate religious Zionism. His son Rav Zvi Yehuda Z”L (1891-1982) later became the inspiration of extreme religious nationalism.
Back in Europe, the Orthodox Jews fell into three camps. The rabbis committed to religious Zionism known as the Mizrahi. Agudah, more to the right, objected to secular Zionism but were supportive of the idea of a Jewish state, and this included most Hasidic dynasties. However, Satmar and Munkatch Hasidim of Transylvania opposed Zionism and discouraged anyone from migrating to Palestine. For them, it was heretical to try to preempt the Messiah. And the very secular nature of Israeli society only confirmed their antipathy. In the east, Sephardi Jews were wholeheartedly positive.
When Israel started, the religious leadership was dominated by moderate rabbis, pro-Zionists like Rav Herzog Z”L, and then Rav Goren Z”L, and a significant group of rabbis from both Hasidic and Lithuanian communities who supported the state — including my great teacher Rav Chaim Shmulevitz Z”L of Mir and Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman Z”L of Ponevez and the Gerrer and Belz rebbes. Incidentally, all Sephardi great rabbis and communities wholeheartedly supported the state but felt excluded by the Ashkenazi majority. Nevertheless, there was also a Sephardi Chief Rabbinate to balance the Ashkenazi. Two for the price of two! And the Sephardis were much more lenient than the Ashkenazis.
Over the years, the Haredi world has become increasingly rigid, uncompromising, and alienated. The massive increase in the Haredi population and its political heft have led to more Haredi rabbis entering the Chief Rabbinate and influencing its institutions. Hasidic dynasties have moved to extremes, and Satmar and its allies have been spectacularly successful in expanding numbers and influence. The result is that the Haredi community overwhelmingly rejects Israel’s Independence Day. To make matters worse, the extreme wing of Satmar, Neturei Karta, once regarded as the lunatic fringe, seems to attract more rejectionists and even court the enemies of the Jewish state who plan its destruction.
What we are witnessing today is, in my opinion, a purely political rather than a religious play. A grab for power and money holding government coalitions to ransom to support their own perception of what is fair and equitable. And all in the name of religion.
It is immensely destructive. I favor giving outstanding scholars exemption from military service, but not enabling thousands of Haredi young men who have little interest or devotion to study all day long to renege on their moral and religious obligation to help protect their society by refusing to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. That less Orthodox parents should suffer the anxiety and fear of losing a child while thousands of recalcitrant layabouts live in peace relying on the lives of others, is a moral scandal.
The result is that they cannot gain productive employment. This too is made worse by the Haredi intransigence that denies them a secular education and forces hundreds of thousands on to welfare — in itself, a concept put in place by a socialist ideology they despise that indirectly increases crime because so many have no other means of making a living. And how despicable that when a Haredi boy does decide to defy his community and serve in the army, he is often attacked both verbally and physically.
At the same time, the Haredim impose their rigid standards on all Jews in the state whose religious life they monopolize. All this makes their refusal to contribute to the State even more offensive.
We have been hearing a great deal from self-hating or disaffected Jews who feel no commitment to Israel’s survival. But what about those self-hating Haredim (for I cannot explain it any other way) who despise the Jewish state and refuse to acknowledge its establishment or care about its defense? And don’t give me that pathetic excuse that study and prayer protect you against bullets or bombs. Both extremes are as destructive as each other.
Like all aspects of Israeli life, it is politicized and dysfunctional. Now this is what I call a miracle: that Israel not only survives but does so well relative to everyone else.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than forty years, in Europe and the US. He currently lives in America, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.