Talk to any Palestinian activist outside your local Ahava and one of the first things they will tell you is the standard cliché, ‘not all Jews agree with Zionism.’ It is a valid statement to make – but it doesn’t help when they cite the infamous Ahmadinejad-hugging Neturei Karta. It seems only the super religious are able to critique the Jewish State. Of course, this same perception is also rather disappointingly held among much of the Jewish community.
‘‘Oh, the ultra-orthodox don’t believe in the State of Israel. In fact, they hate it. They scrounge off the state but won’t pay taxes. They don’t want to serve in the army. They spit on the so-called ‘chilonim.’ All they do is close themselves up in ‘ghettoes’ and learn religious books all day.’’
This widely believed characterisation is insulting. The very term ‘ultra-orthodox’ – collectively grouping an extremely diverse community into the same category – is rather disparaging to the Chareidi community (we should use this term instead).
In exploring Israeli political sub-cultures, investigating Chassidic and Litvish communities was vital. Distinctly different from their Sephardi counterparts, Ashkenazi Chareidim represent a unique political tradition encompassing nearly 8% of Israel’s Jewish population. We had a lot of questions for them.
What were their actual opinions on the State of Israel’s existence? What did they think about serving in the army? Was voting in Knesset elections pasul? Did they want to integrate into the workforce? Having interviewed people from half a dozen Hasidic sects, from a wide array of communities and yeshivot, our findings were astonishing.
Our first glimpse into the world of Hareidi Judaism was a melave malke at a Gerer Hasidic Yeshiva in Beit Shemesh. Walking up a dingy staircase which stank of rotten herring, we didn’t think we would feel welcome…
An elegant man, about six-foot tall with a flowing red beard, gracefully adorning a long black bekishe, was screaming into a microphone. A somewhat smaller and plump Yeshiva bachur attempted to play a rather outdated keyboard. The Laurel and Hardy of Chassidish niggunim. Fifty Gerer talmidim were spinning around, madly waving their hands – their eyes were gleaming with joy. ‘Freilich, freilich!’ ‘Happiness, happiness.’ They were thrilled to be alive – they were thrilled to be able to serve God through the study of Torah. They possess a psyche which few can truly attain – in our opinion, these young men enjoy real happiness. Their life was full of meaning – to bring God into the world through the study of his word.
What was different about this tisch was that the Gerer Chassidim were not alone – they were joined by a contingent of about twenty modern-Orthodox Jews, mostly American, studying in the neighbouring Reishit Yeshiva. This image epitomised the romantic notion of Jewish unity. It completely shattered my perception that Gerer Chassidim in particular shunned the outside world. Here were people worlds apart, from unbelievably different backgrounds, with remarkably different views, dancing together, singing together, eating and drinking together.
When the dancing stopped, the table was loaded with box fulls of schmaltz. All you could eat; knishes, herring, and what appeared to be a salmon and chrayne smoothie (don’t ask). Speaking to the Chasidim round the table, I was pleasantly surprised at their attitudes towards the State of Israel.
First off, the majority of these Chassidim had actually immigrated to Israel – they lived here out of choice. They made a conscious decision to live under a Jewish government.
Secondly, the mitzvah of ‘ahavas Yisroel,’ love of your fellow Jew, had prompted these Chassidim to support the State of Israel as a guarantor of Jewish rights – even if they had halachic reservations about the creation of a Jewish State before the time of the Messiah. As one Chasid aptly named Yisrael told us, ‘the State is a reality. Before  we disagreed with its founding. Now that it’s been established, it’s a fact.’ Yisrael added, ‘you know we served in the army, in ’48 in ’67, even on Yom Kippur! My uncle was killed in ’67, and he was a Gerer Chasid like me.’
What? A Chasid was proud of his family for serving in the army? I thought the Chareidim despised the IDF – they were after all, ‘draft dodgers.’ We had to ask more.
Pikuach nefesh, the sanctity of life, was a supreme commandment for Yisrael. If serving in the army meant saving Jewish lives, so be it. As it stood, if the army could properly accommodate their religious requirements, they would enlist. He then randomly cited the former Satmar Rebbe of all people. ‘You know Rav Teitelbaum, his Ahavas Yisroel was greater than yours. It was greater than yours. He may have disagreed with the State of Israel, but he cried when Jewish soldiers died. He cried. For Ahavas Yisroel and Pikuach nefesh, we will serve Yidden in Eretz Yisroel. We are not the Neturei Karta. We vote in elections. I came to live here from Boro Park.’
These words were genuine. As I looked into his eyes, I could see the passion with which he spoke. He was worried about threats to the Jewish people. He spoke at length about Iran – describing Netanyahu as ‘too soft,’ even if he reluctantly accepted the notion of a Jewish Prime Minister.
While they will not admit it, these Chasidim practised a Zionism of sorts. Of course, Yisrael noted he would prefer if Israel were the ‘fifty-first state of America’- but he wanted Jews to safely live in the land of Israel and pursue their lives freely. If this isn’t a form of Zionism, I don’t know what is.
The only barrier preventing these Chasidim from joining the IDF pertained to strict religious observance – not a hatred of secular society. Is this a bad thing? Even the IDF has noted that religious units are not economic – and therefore actively discourage Chareidi enlistment.
So why do we pass a naïve and blatantly populist law – forcing Chareidim to join the army or otherwise face imprisonment? The army doesn’t want them – it can’t accommodate their lifestyle. Surely we should focus on getting these people into the workforce instead?
At this point it is vital to note a vicious cycle of unemployment intricately linked to army service. The Gerer Rebbe is a self-made multi-millionaire. Rabbi Pinchas Abuhatzeira, the great-grandson of the Baba Sali, is one of Israel’s richest businessmen. Chareidim aren’t averse to work. If anything, their rigid regime of study proves that they have a staunch work ethic.
One can argue that Chareidim refuse to leave Yeshiva – preferring a life of government subsidised study. Yet as we found out, this isn’t the case at all. The government does not allow for the success integration of Chareidim into the workforce. One Litvish Rabbi put it best: ‘leaving Yeshiva costs money.’
The municipal taxes an ex-Yeshiva student must pay are tripled – while his job is never well-paid or even secure. His healthcare costs double – and he is no longer entitled to a monthly stipend. Without any secular education – through no fault of his own – the former Torah student is considered to lack any relevant skills for the modern workforce. Coupled with an emphasis placed in army service in the employment process, the Chareidi is always at a disadvantage.
It is a difficult situation with a multitude of different solutions. While Yair Lapid has been praised for entering government with the promise of addressing this problem, we believe he is not taking the right path. Closing Yeshivot and threatening thousands with imprisonment is clearly counter-productive. Just as Tommy Lapid argued there should not be any religious coercion, we must be consistent by opposing the notion of secular coercion. You cannot force an individual to act against their will. Even more so, you cannot force a religious person to act against God’s will. We must respect their culture. We must respect their heritage – our heritage.
Rather than isolate a significant sector of Israeli society, we should seek to work with them to find common ground. If we do, they will welcome us with open arms…
Jonathan Hunter is the UK Campus Director of StandWithUs UK and serves on the Union of Jewish Students’ National Council. He is described by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign as a Mossad Operative – when he actually struggles to complete his degree at Brasenose College, Oxford.
Sami Steinbock serves as a representative for the Union of Jewish Students on the Board of Deputies. He is affectionately known as The Bock and leader of the #BockNation. In his spare time he is a student at King’s College London.