/ articles for review

Israelis Must Relinquish Fantasies About the Ultra-Orthodox

How does one proceed when compromise is not perceived as a higher state of social existence but a lower one?

Israelis Must Relinquish Fantasies About the Ultra-Orthodox


On the surface, the issue of applying the compulsory military draft to the heretofore exempted Haredi community is about equity. All citizens must share not merely in the goods and benefits that a society distributes but must also shoulder their fair share of its burdens and responsibilities. I believe, however, that the core of the debate is much deeper. It is not about equality but identity – the identity of Israel as a Jewish state.

Leaving aside ultra-Orthodox sentiments of alienation from the Zionist enterprise, an alienation which has been steadily and dramatically decreasing over the last number of decades, the core position of the Haredi community is motivated by two central values. The first is that Torah study surpasses them all – that Jewish survival both physically and spiritually is carried by the elite few in every generation who recognize the primacy of Torah and its study. The second is that the key to Jewish survival is contingent upon insulation from, rather than integration with, the modern world. For the ultra-Orthodox community the alienation from Israel is not the result of its failure to live up to the standards of halakha but rather that it posits an ethos which deeply rejects both of these ideas. As a result, their sacred task is not to change the State, but at least to ensure their ability to continue to serve as the seminal force ensuring Jewish and Israeli survival.

On this issue, non-Orthodox Israeli society has its own Torah. As distinct from issues of Jewish ritual and personal status which the non-Haredi Jewish population of Israel is willing to cede to the ultra-Orthodox as a result of apathy or a sense of inadequacy, here they hold a principled Jewish position, which lies at the foundation of their sense of the core Jewish essence of the Zionist enterprise and the State of Israel: “You shall live by them.” Life surpasses them all. To be a Jew is to embrace life with all of its complexities, rhythms, and challenges, and to take responsibility to create and mold it in a way that both enables survival, as well as a life of value. This embracing of life creates a new conversation both with the values of our tradition and also with the modern world with its myriad of opportunities and challenges. Israel is more fully Jewish, and its physical and spiritual survival is directly dependent on the skill with which we engage this new path.

For one community, Torah is most pure when it is its own world and when it is disconnected from the influences of the New World. For the other, such a Torah has, at best, marginal value, a memorial to a past which needed to be replaced if Judaism and the Jewish people were to live again. For one, to use Torah as a vehicle to avoid economic and military responsibility is a desecration of Torah. For the other, the essence of “the study of Torah surpasses it all” is expressed precisely in this way.

We can argue with each other and reject the validity of the other. We must recognize, however, that we are not going to convince each other, as each side defines its position as a survival issue, which will determine the future meaning and viability of our collective life.

How does one proceed at such a moment, when compromise is not perceived as a higher state of social existence but rather as a lower one? Here, I believe, the role of legislation is profoundly limited. A middle ground does not exist, and legislation which either will extract blood or will be ignored is in no one’s interest.

What then is a society such as ours to do? First, despite our profound disagreement, mutual delegitimization is only detrimental to our national enterprise. Whether we like it or not, we must recognize that there are two core values and narratives explaining the essence of the Jewishness of Israel and the key to its survival. Two, the ultra-Orthodox community, which is so dependent on the larger Israeli society, will have to come to terms with the deep alienation and rejection by Israeli society of its position on its own and then decide pragmatically ways in which it can bear a greater share of society’s responsibilities without violating its core values. The Talmud teaches us that if one grabs too much, one has grabbed nothing, but if you have grabbed a little you have grabbed something. An all-or-nothing approach will not serve Torah, nor support the leadership role which they so covet.

Finally, Israeli society at large must relinquish the fantasy that it can legislate the ultra-Orthodox into the military or into the modern world. Ultra-Orthodox service in the Army is outside of the control of Israeli society and its legislative bodies or commissions. What it can do, however, is decide what it is they are willing to fund – how many Torah students at any given time on the payroll of the State. Israeli society can choose to cease to fund and placate an ideology which it profoundly rejects and which it sees as destructive to the future of Israel.

We have two visions of Judaism and our future. It is a cultural and ideological struggle on which the future of Israel stands. Neither side is going to relinquish its position or disappear, either as a result of coalition politics or legislation. A new conversation needs to begin, primarily not with each other, but within each segment of society as we determine our red lines and the ways in which we can integrate our ideologies into a diverse Israeli society.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

Join our email list for more Hartman ideas

Join our email list


The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics