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Haredim and Mainstream Israelis Alike Must Rethink Their Roles

The ultra-Orthodox must understand that the same freedom of religion they demand will be allocated only if they accept freedom of religion for others. The rest of Israel must take responsibility for Israel’s Jewish and democratic nature

It’s easy to engage in haredi bashing. The ultra-Orthodox look different, live in segregated communities, want more from the society than they contribute, and are growing at an ever increasingly rapid rate. Together with the experience of alienation and even disdain, we now have added components of fear.
Every society and social group creates outsiders in order to solidify social identity and cohesion. Applying the status of outsider, however, to someone who is on the inside, is socially destructive. This is the primary problem with haredi bashing. They are no longer outsiders in Israeli society but rather central players in Israel’s social and political environment. Attacks of this kind invariably can only be ignored and lead to further mutual alienation.
Israel faces many challenges resulting from the increasing number and the growing political power of the haredi community and it is critical to our future to develop a process that may positively impact on these challenges.
Let’s remove the clutter. One, it is clear that as citizens of Israeli society independent of their productivity, the haredim deserve their share of the societal goods. Two, as a Jewish state, the funding of some advanced Torah study, no less than many academic disciplines, is legitimate. Three, coalition politics always leads to some degree of sectorial overfunding. Four, Israeli society cannot afford the perpetuation of a large and undereducated, under-productive segment of its society. To do so is to fund its own demise. Five, as the haredim increase their political power and the benefits they receive from Israeli society, there must be a parallel increase in the obligations that they carry – army, workforce, taxes.
Once the above obvious points are accepted, we can get down to the real issues. At issue is not the choice between funding yeshiva students or the universities. This is political sophistry. The problem we face is that the discourse between the Zionist majority – secular, traditional, and religious alike – and haredim is a discourse in which the Zionist community leads with political and economic considerations, while the ultra-Orthodox lead with ideological ones. In any debate when you cede the ideological high ground you both undermine your own position and make it impossible to have any impact on those with whom you are arguing.
The haredi community needs to undergo a process of serious rethinking about its role in Israeli society. When they were anti-Zionist, there was no ground or place for such a process, for they rejected the very notion of a Jewish and democratic state. Their only challenge was how to survive within the political and socioeconomic realities of modern Israel, no different than the challenges they faced in czarist Russia and Poland – anti-Semitism aside. The haredi community, however, has changed, and with the exception of a very small number, are no longer anti-Zionist. While they do not serve in the army this is not the outgrowth of a lack of care for Israel’s safety; it’s rather the fear of assimilation resulting from their children leaving the authority structure of the yeshiva community. This is also the primary motivation for staying out of the workforce. While in a non-Jewish United States, for example, the outside world is precisely that – outside – and as a result less threatening ideologically, in a Jewish state, they know that they are in the midst of their people, and as a result are more susceptible to influence. Their only perceived safety is to be found by using yeshiva studies as a ghetto to be maintained as long as possible.
As a group now positioned amidst and not outside the socieoeconomic reality of Israel the haredim need to develop their own Israeli, or if you want Zionist narrative. They can no longer continue to carry the ideology of the outsider while functioning as insiders.
They will not, however, change or rethink their positions unless the majority of Israelis demands that they do so. The ultra-Orthodox community comes to the table and brings with it a particular notion of Judaism and civic responsibility. It is critical that secular, traditional and religious Zionists bring their ideologies as well.
The ultra-Orthodox community is now shaping more than ever not merely the future and identity of their constituency but of Israeli society at large. As a result, the majority of Israelis needs to articulate both for themselves and then in their conversations with the ultra-Orthodox what its ideologies are vis a vis Israel as a liberal democracy and as a Jewish state. It must articulate its red lines on the issues and move the conversation away from the immediate budgetary calculations and political negotiations.
The ultra-Orthodox community understands the political process and recognizes the need for compromise but it has been allowed to position the debate wherein they have the ideological and Jewish high ground. This must come to an end. It is here that a voice must ring forth loud and clear demanding that the ultra-Orthodox understand that the same freedom of religion they demand for their own lives will only be allocated to them to the extent that they accept similar freedom of religion for others. The ultra-Orthodox must not be allowed the postion of being carrier of the Jewish component of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. They cannot be the ones to determine alone issues of conversion, marriage, and divorce.
The rest of Israeli society must ask itself how it wants to integrate the 350,000 non-Jewish citizens from the former Soviet Union, what relationship it wants to have with liberal Jews around the world, what a Jewish marriage means to them and which courts will govern their personal status, what type of Shabbat it wants and how it wants to celebrate the Jewish calendar year in the public sphere. It must ask itself what are its commitments to modernity, and to Israel being a modern democratic state, politically, religiously, educationally, culturally and economically – and what must be demanded of all citizens who live in and benefit from this modern, democratic state.
Up until now Israelis abdicated authority over the above to the haredim for the sake of haredi votes on foreign policy and the budget. It is time that the majority of Israelis take responsibility not merely for budgetary allocations but for the nature of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. The haredim are now sitting at the table; it is time for the real conversation to begin.

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