Israel's Ultra-Orthodox

A Jewish Ghetto Within the Zionist State

by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi
published in MER179

The Palestinian delegation to the peace negotiations in Washington has enjoyed the services of an unusual group of advisers and supporters: four men wearing the unmistakable garb of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who were willing to tell anybody ready to listen that they were non-Zionist Jews. Israeli state television was delighted to interview their spokesman and put him to ridicule, proving again that the Palestinians have a talent for choosing the worst possible allies. These advisers were members of Neturei Karta (“Guardians of the City” in Aramaic), a dwindling ultra-Orthodox group that over the years has become more marginal even within its own milieu. While Neturei Karta have followed a policy of total non-cooperation with the state of Israel, boycotting Israeli products (including shekel notes), the majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel has created a unique community based on pragmatic cooperation with the state, accepting shekels but still rejecting Zionism.

The existence and vitality of an ultra-Orthodox civil society within Israel is part of a wider success story: the flourishing of the ultra-Orthodox community worldwide. This community was dealt a harrowing blow by the Holocaust; its remnants in 1945 were shattered and scattered. Today it is thriving, numbering possibly 600,000, the majority of them in Israel. The ultra-Orthodox community in Israel shows a surprising degree of autonomy from the state, but the resources making this possible are provided directly from the state itself.

The Jewish population in Israel is divided into two subcultures: an Orthodox minority, known in colloquial Hebrew simply as “religious” (dati), which includes about 15 percent of the population, and the secular (hiloni) majority -- some 85 percent of Jewish Israelis. Within the religious subculture we can distinguish between the ultra-Orthodox (haredi) and the religious Zionists. The latest election indicates the relative strength of the two groups: Ten seats went to two ultra-Orthodox parties and six to the religious Zionist party.

Orthodox Responses

The ultra-Orthodox have not accepted the Zionist definition of the Jews as a nation in search of a homeland, and have remained faithful to the ancient definition of Jews as a religious community waiting for a messiah. In May 1912, some 200 Orthodox leaders from Germany and Eastern Europe met in Kattowitz (Katowice) to start Orthodoxy’s first organized response to Zionism, Agudat Israel, which still exists today as an anti-Zionist movement in Israel and as a lobby elsewhere. The ideologue of the movement was Nathan Birnbaum, a brilliant intellectual who collaborated with Theodor Herzl in the early days of political Zionism. He coined the term “Zionism,” and then became convinced that the secular definition of the Jews as a nation was inadequate, that secularization would lead to the disappearance of the Jewish people. Orthodoxy had to take a firm stand against Zionism, in the form of a political organization. Agudat Israel was Diaspora-oriented, and its center between the two World Wars was in Poland, where about one third of the Polish Jews were its supporters. It had elected representatives in the Polish parliament in the 1930s, and its delegates have appeared before international bodies, including the League of Nations and the United Nations.

Historically, Agudat Israel has been opposed to the idea of a Jewish state, but the Holocaust deprived the movement of most of its constituency in Eastern Europe, leaving them more of a minority, less anti-Zionist and ready to accept the reality of Zionist success.

Since 1948, the party has been pragmatically involved in state institutions. It supports governing coalitions and is rewarded with ample budgets for its Orthodox schooling system. Agudat Israel accepts the state of Israel de facto, but judges it to be without the religious significance assigned to it by religious Zionists.

Neturei Karta and similar groups emerged in response to the growing accommodation to Zionism on the part of Agudat Israel after 1948. Neturei Karta represent today the classical Orthodox reaction to Zionism, viewing it as an abomination, a heresy and a blasphemy against historical Judaism. Members of the community do not use government identity cards, do not use Israeli money or postage stamps, and do not accept any services from the state. They believe that the state was conceived and born in sin, that Zionism is not just a rebellion against human history, but against divine judgment. The Zionist heresy is to define Jews as a nation. Jews cannot be a normal nation because they have been chosen by God to be a Holy People. Jews were sent into exile because of their sins, not because of any worldly weakness, and building up wildly strength is not real redemption. For Neturei Karta, Jewish nationalism is an imitation of gentile ways; Jews should not rebel against gentile rule but wait for divine redemption. The Zionist state is a passing shadow and the problems of Zionism in recent years represent divine punishment.

Zionism’s Ghetto

The ultra-Orthodox community in Israel is characterized by a unique occupational structure, which reflects its conscious rejection of the Zionist project. Ultra-Orthodox Jews are never soldiers or farmers; a high percentage make a living via full-time religious service. The men may be administrators and clerks in religious schools or in the religious courts, teachers, ritual butchers, scribes for ritual objects and Torah scrolls, or full-time students enjoying a monthly stipend. Women may be teachers in girls’ schools. The occupational ideal in this community is that of “Torah” -- full-time study of the Talmud and related texts. Any kind of commerce with the material world is considered inferior to this higher calling. Those gainfully employed in any kind of business have been judged unfit for this ideal, and should support Torah students and sages. The ideal of full-time Torah study has been realized to an extent unprecedented in Jewish history. Full-time yeshiva students are entitled to exemption from military service, and this has profound practical and symbolic significance. In Israeli society, universal military service, for men and women, is a formative experience at age 18. Continuing reserve duty for men up to age 51 ensures that contact with the military is always part of normal life in most Israeli families. The ultra-Orthodox exclude themselves from this world, which symbolizes their separatism. To most Israelis, the military exemption is another example of the ultra-Orthodox parasitic lifestyle, connected with images of historical diaspora existence.

The institutions that make up this community are first and foremost the schools at various levels. These have grown tremendously. They are run by famous rabbinical authorities whose leadership depends strictly on their reputation as Talmudic scholars. The ultra-Orthodox educational institutions have played a major role in attracting tens of thousands of Sephardi Jews to the fold of this East European tradition. With services ranging from practically free day care centers to the religious academies viewed by working-class parents as the only road away from a life of poverty and crime, they have recruited Sephardi families who, being much less ghettoized, have become the reserve army of Orthodoxy. Shas, a Sephardi-cum-ultra-Orthodox party, was created this way, and draws its power from its extensive network of schools and clubs. The ghetto social structure represents not only a conscious refusal to take part in the Zionist enterprise of normalizing the Jews, but also a refusal of Israeli identity. Traditional Jewish identity, as defined historically in rabbinical Judaism, is a living reality.

Ultra-Orthodox Political Strategy

The dominant ultra-Orthodox attitude toward the state is instrumental. The state of Israel has no religious significance: Its authority is legitimate only to the extent that non-Jewish governments are legitimate. Ultra-Orthodox treat Israeli Independence Day as a regular working day. Their schools, which operate independently of the state but enjoy government funding, stay open. Orthodox Zionists, on the other hand, celebrate Independence Day with gusto. To them the state is part of an unfolding divine plan, and they are eager to lend messianic redemption a helping hand. That explains their prominence among West Bank settlers, and their general involvement in Israeli cultural and economic life. They serve in the military (but never reach general officer ranks), are proportionately represented in the media, and struggle against being marginalized.

The ultra-Orthodox, however, do not delude themselves into thinking that they can ever really achieve political power, become a majority or exercise significant influence in the affairs of state. If we believe that only the Messiah will change the reality of suffering and the minority status of the devout, then we can concentrate on reaching modest, mundane goals. The political mechanics of this achievement can be explained by the reality of coalition politics, in which minor partners are able to extract considerable concessions for their parliamentary support. The generous budgets received from the Israeli government mean not only the assurance that the young will be kept in the traditional fold of the religious schools, but also patronage jobs for thousands in schools, day care centers and clubs. The number of full-time yeshiva students is said today to have reached 20,000, all of whom receive (subsistence) monthly stipends from the state. The ultra-Orthodox, despite their worldly successes, see themselves, and rightly so, as an embattled and threatened minority, a saving remnant. Any encounter with the secular world is a threat and an attack. First, on a basic religious level, this is an encounter with the material world and its temptations, a classical religious drama. The secular world, which has yielded to temptation, invites them to join in. Second, in Israel the secular world represents Zionism and the seeming viability of an alternative Jewish identity. Since any such encounter may lead to defeat and desertion by individuals, the only strategy is avoidance. Contact with the majority is eliminated by ghetto structures. This separation includes a complete avoidance of Israeli mass media.

Public struggles over symbolic issues take place with some regularity. While the secular majority accepts the religious monopoly over rites of passage (birth, marriage, divorce and death), all attempts to change the dominant secular lifestyle end in failure. Making decisions about public activities on the Sabbath is a complicated matter in Israel. By force of tradition, created through constant political struggles between the two subcultures, a curious set of rules governs such activities. Public transportation in Israel does not operate on Saturday (except for a skeleton bus service in Haifa), but soccer games are allowed. Some theaters are closed on Friday night, while government television and radio stations operate for the benefit of those who are not religious. Raising pigs and selling pork are forbidden by law, representing a symbolic victory of millennia of Jewish dietary taboos, but the non-religious can easily get around these limitations.

Changes in weekend entertainment habits indicate a public retreat for Orthodoxy. In 1960, there were no movie theaters open on Friday nights in Tel Aviv. The idea was simply beyond the pale. In 1992, there were 66 movie theaters to choose from on any Friday night in the greater Tel Aviv area, 43 in the city itself. In Jerusalem, as late as 1986, there were no movies on Friday night. In 1992, there was a choice of 16.

Exclusion of the Orthodox

The marginality of the Orthodox becomes clear if we examine the decision-making elite in Israel. The leadership of the state is totally secular. Orthodox parties participate in governing coalitions, but have always been excluded from discussions about peace, war or the economy. Nor do they aspire to be part of those fateful deliberations. Israel’s intellectual, literary, scientific, military and artistic elite is 99 percent secular.

Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Shamir, Ariel Sharon and Israel’s other prominent leaders are thoroughly secular individuals. Political discourse in Israel is in fact much more secular than its counterpart in the US; religious arguments are never raised in political debates. Indicating one’s distance from Orthodoxy and the Orthodox is quite common. I can add a personal observation: Two weeks before the June 1992 elections I attended a closed meeting with Yitzhak Rabin. While Rabin’s attitudes toward people, individually and in groups, range from contempt to revulsion, the way he spoke about the Orthodox in Israel was still a shock. It sounded as if he were discussing a species of space aliens. Both Shamir and Rabin, the most recent prime ministers, share an attitude of visible disdain toward the Orthodox, and thus continue a venerable Israeli tradition. Since the days of David Ben-Gurion, the ultra-Orthodox parties were considered an ideal coalition partner, easily bought off and never attempting to have a voice in vital issues. When asked about the future of the Occupied Territories, ultra-Orthodox politicians are likely to sound moderate, putting human life (i.e., Jewish lives) above real estate, but they recognize that their views carry little weight.

Orthodox Zionists are a different matter. They are less marginal because they share the Zionist discourse and do not limit their existence to a cultural and social ghetto. Since 1967, they have been raising the banner of militant Zionism, and this role has pushed them closer to center stage. Still, their religious rhetoric only reinforces their marginality.

Orthodox Jews are today, and have been for at least four generations, a minority among Jews all over the world, and a minority among Israelis. This situation has not changed and is not likely to change in the future. The ultra-Orthodox ghetto in Israel, now representing a majority within this minority, remains a ghetto, but is happy to be just that.

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