Jewish Identity

Israel’s Religious Zionist Vs. Ultra-Orthodox Rift

02.07.13 11:00 PM ET

We were returning to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv on a late summer night. I thought of a shortcut as we entered our city, and soon we were winding about in the hareidi Sanhedria neighborhood through progressively narrower streets until we could no longer navigate. I reluctantly agreed to ask directions. I rolled down the window and spoke to a very handsome young couple of newlyweds still in Shabbat dress; she was pushing a baby stroller: “How do we get to Mercaz HaIr—the City Center?” He, tall and resplendent, with a long, red beard, a long, gold coat and a tall spodek—beaver cap—on his head, unhurriedly looked around him, spying the various small yeshivas and the bookstore. He proclaimed in a calm, resolved voice: “This is the City Center.”

I, in my knitted skullcap, understood him and his rejection of “profane” values of commerce and culture, which I as a Religious Zionist have deep respect for and participate in. This small “holy” territory was indeed the City Center. I understood him, and I was insulted and angry. “This is not the City Center. Get serious and get me out of here.” He held his ground and our voices grew louder, as I opened the car door to have it out. Finally, I took a look at his wife’s face and saw it was turning white, the same color I soon noticed that my wife’s face had turned. Sheryl rolled down her window and asked her counterpart: “We mean the Other City Center.” Relieved, she gave us excellent directions, the men exchanged a “Good week,” and we returned home via the Other City Center.

Where the City Center lies and the position we take towards it is at the core of the current stress between the Religious Zionists and the hareidis as the government searches for a workable coalition.

The Religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox hareidi political parties are headed for a major rift. The party that represents the Religious Zionists (Naftali Bennett’s The Jewish Home) might no longer support yeshiva exemptions from army service and expensive subsidies for super-large (read: hareidi) families. The rift might happen now or later, but it will happen, because the underlying reason is not political but sociological. The Religious Zionists and the hareidis have been headed for a divide over three periods in the history of the State.

Between 1947 and 1967, the two groups had considerable overlap. They had virtually the same background with the leadership having studied in the same European or British Mandate yeshivas. They had strong blood ties as well. They shared the same goal to restore religious Judaism within a completely hostile secular environment. While they fought each other on the details, they shared enough in principle to find a modus operandi. The ultra-Orthodox, soon to be known as hareidi, circling the wagons, saw themselves as the surviving remnant guarding the purity of religious devotion, while the Religious Zionists fancied themselves the bridge between the hareidi and the secular. The Religious Zionists served in the army and were in every coalition government in the early years of the State, making sure to preserve such endangered institutions as the religious educational stream.

The forty years between the 1967 Six Day War and 2007 witnessed an amazing growth in both sectors. Religious Zionists fueled with Land Messianism built high schools and advanced yeshivas, especially those with joint arrangement with the IDF for military service; and parallel programs opened up for women, with most there doing social service instead. The Religious Zionists produced their own rabbis and teachers, and their own theologies, and no longer needed the hareidis for personnel, books, inspiration or validation. Their manic depressive atmosphere—based on territorial wins and losses, and the perplexing issue of why they weren’t extoled for their sacrifices and devotion by the Secularists—remained heated.

At the same time, the hareidi growth was spectacular: While Religious Zionists were having 3-6 children, the hareidis were having 8-12 (and beyond!). The numbers add up. An explosion in yeshiva-building—the only industry they have—never stopped. Alienation from general society and, for that matter, from the Religious Zionists, was encouraged. As they were only talking to themselves, obscurantism increased on a par with poverty and its ills. Secular education, as it was, ended in seventh grade. Boys were raised to be physically unfit to serve in the army, educationally unfit for higher education, and work became an increasingly odd notion. Girls were raised to marry early, to be submissive, to mother large families, and to find employment to support all of them. The important thing to note is that, all in all, it worked! Their numbers grew, attrition was minimal, and morale was plenty high.

That brings us to 2005. The evacuation from Gaza—foretold to be Divinely impossible by the Religious Zionists’ religious prophets—stopped the movement in its tracks. A small portion, witness hilltop youth, decided to check out of general society and even army service. Another portion recognized that actually too much focus on Land and settlers was a mistake, and directed their efforts elsewhere to other religious and ethical concerns. The most political group, including the conservative rabbinical leadership, decided to hunker down and get the best allies they could.

But overwhelmingly during this time the Religious Zionist population has recognized how different they are from the hareidis. They do share in their basket of values: dedication to family life, holidays and dietary laws, prayer and halakhic process. That is a lot. But the Religious Zionists also have in their basket commitment to general society, secular education, and work. These values make them closer to the secularists than to the hareidis. This contradiction is not completely resolved; it remains very much alive, with attendant anxiety.

But like the middle class everywhere, the Religious Zionists have an aversion to the poverty that characterizes the hareidis, whose religious leaders have been developing a theology of poverty, a novum in Jewish history (Jews have been poor often over our history but no one until now thought this was a good thing!). And as a middle class they are also averse to extremism. That puts them at odds not only with the hareidis, but increasingly with their own settler faction and heroes—an internal tension that is on the rise.

As I write, an agreement might go down between the two groups. The conservative Religious Zionist rabbinic leaders—themselves having no secular education—are talking to the hareidi heads. In exchange for a continuation of draft exemptions for yeshiva students and family subsidies, the Religious Zionists will receive more positions in the Chief Rabbinate (now controlled by hareidi forces) and unequivocal support for West Bank retention. This deal smells to a great proportion of the Religious Zionist population. They want the hareidis to begin “to share the burden” of service and taxes.

In the end, the hareidis might not be able to come to the table with Religious Zionists, and they certainly will not be able to compromise with the secularists. Their alienation from general society does not allow for compromise (think the Tea Party purge of liberal Republicans from the GOP). Indeed, their very identity is caught up with that value—not to compromise. Additionally, their severe authoritarian penchant has painted them into a corner at a time when the last recognized authority, Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, has died and no successor is in sight. They have fallen into endless bickering. There is no one present who can make a real deal. My hope is for the two to fail short term in their unity quest for stagnation. But the consequences will be explosive for all.

The decisive faction here might be the Shas party, which represents the large Sephardic population. Formerly, this sector, poverty stricken and uneducated, was the puppet of the Religious Zionists and others. They went independent in 1984 when their leader Rav Ovadia Yosef ended his tenure as Chief Rabbi and went into business for himself. Shas is an extended shadow of this outstanding decisor of Jewish law who is capable of liberal decisions and practical accommodations (his daughter heads an accredited hareidi college that gives people the education to work), yet regularly engages in the lowest level of crude, acrimonious public discourse, and has allowed Sephardic students to ape the absolutist direction of Ashkenazi hareidi yeshiva life. This very smart and very wealthy kosher certification rabbi has a loyal following that knows deep down that the status quo won’t hold. He has the power to strike a significant compromise on the issues of yeshiva deferment that could allow for a sea of change in religious life and the future of Israeli society. But will he, at 92, have the strength? And for that matter, which City Center will we be headed towards?