Haredi and Zionist: No longer poles apart

It is not uncommon for the mainstream media to portray the typical Haredi (most often referred to as the ‘ultra-Orthodox’) to be anti-Zionist and dead set against the State of Israel. In reality, this representation is outdated and is a gross mischaracterisation of Haredi Jews living in Israel and the Diaspora. Three clarifications are needed to correct this standard misconception: what is a Zionist, who are the Haredi and what is their respective relationship?

A Hasidic Jew from the Neturei Karta faction waving a Palestinian BDS flag

Firstly, what makes someone a Zionist in the 21st century? The dictionary definition will tell you it is someone who supports the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in the historic land of Israel. To a certain degree this definition has run its course and is now obsolete. On May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was founded and Israel became a recognised member of the family of nations. Its existence and resilience were put to the test, but following the War of Independence and Israel’s remarkable military victories in ‘67 and ‘73, Israel was securely established and Zionism’s raison d’etre and territorial aims had been fulfilled.

Outside the confines of academia, the term has taken a new ahistorical meaning. In its most broad and widely used sense, a Zionist today is simply someone – Jewish or not – who supports Israel’s right to exist and defend itself. Anti-Zionists on the other hand are people who despise Israel, desire its eradication and do not want to see any form of Jewish State anywhere in the Middle East. Ethnic nationalism, the driving force behind the Zionist project is anathema to them. This is how contemporary society, the media, and self-proclaimed Zionists and anti-Zionists interpret it.  It is therefore only fair that this definition of ‘Zionism’ is adhered to when we assess the attitude and relationship Haredi Jews have with the State of Israel.

Pro-Israeli Zionist rally in Los Angeles in 2014

Secondly, the Haredi population is not a culturally homogenous monolithic entity. Whilst journalists commonly label these black-hat wearing Jews, ‘ultra-orthodox’, the term ‘Haredi’ is preferable since the prefix ‘ultra’ has a pejorative connotation often associated to extremist groups outside the norm. Haredi Jews perceive their expression of Judaism as authentic and normative. It also incorrectly implies that religious non-Haredi strands are somewhat less orthodox than their Haredi counterparts.

Contemporary Haredi Jewry is comprised of three major sects: Hasidic, Ashkenazic Yeshivish and Sephardic Haredi. They may share fundamental theological beliefs and adhere to strict Halachic practice, but within this section of society there are subdivisions, and within each of these branches, there is complex intra-Haredi dynamics and there exists a wide-range of political stances, philosophies and lifestyles. Some communities are more insular than others and each will have their own rabbinic authority.

Theodor Herzl, author of 1896 pamphlet ‘Der Judenstaat’ which outlined his vision of a Jewish state. Considered the founder early political zionism. His ideology and works were rejected entirely by Haredi Jews.

Finally, what is the relationship between Zionism and the Haredi? A commonality is that no group within the Haredi world unequivocally identify as Zionist because of the historic meaning behind this label. In the past, prior to the creation of the state, the Haredi Rabbinic leadership were unanimously anti-Zionist. They were averse to the fiercely secular nationalist movement which emerged in the late 19th century. They were not against the idea of mass Aliyah per se, but they opposed Jewish sovereignty and the artificial termination of exile before the arrival of the Messiah. Furthermore, they took issue with the way Zionism was presented as an enlightened ideology which sought to replace religion and traditional Judaism.

Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe’s ‘Vayoel Moshe’ anti-Zionist pamphlet published in 1958 expounding on the ‘Three Oaths’ listed in the Talmud (Ketubot 111a)

Nevertheless, a paradigm shift took place following the formation of Israel. In light of the Holocaust, Haredi Jewry to a large degree changed its view, and its leadership took a post-facto pragmatic approach towards Zionism and the State of Israel. Apart from the Satmar Hasidic dynasty, the Meah Shearim-based ‘Eida Hachareidis’ group, and the fringe but vociferous outcasts of Neturei Karta and the Sikrikim, – who are few in number but are given disproportionate attention by the media – most Haredi organisations and groups are supportive of the State of Israel. These anti-Zionist factions do not participate in national or municipal elections and they refuse to accept state funding from the Israeli government.

 

Yitzhak-Meir Levin (1893-1971), long-time leader of Agudat Yisrael, son-in-law of the fourth Gerrer Rebbe – the ‘Imrei Emes’ – was one of the 37 signatories of the Israeli declaration of independence and served in several Israeli cabinets.

In 1949, in Israel’s first ever national elections, the two competing Haredi parties formed an alliance with the two religious Zionist parties winning 16 seats. They joined Ben Gurion’s coalition in Israel’s first government which meant that Haredi politicians like Yitzhak-Meir Levin and Kalman Kahana were one of the 37 signatories of the declaration of independence. In 1953, direct Haredi involvement was discontinued in protestation of the newly introduced female IDF recruitment policies. This isolationist position ended with the rise of Begin’s Likud in 1977. Notwithstanding the schisms – such as the breakaway of Shas in 1984 – and individual rifts – most notably between Rav Shach and the Gerrer Rebbe in the build-up to the 1988 elections – Haredi groups have been a formidable force in Israeli politics over the last 30 years.

United Torah Judaism leader Rabbi Yaakov Litzman speaking to Shas party leader Aryeh Deri at the opening session of the 20th Knesset some years ago (ToI)

The Haredi population in Israel has now exceeded 1 million (~12% of Israel’s general population). Its parties, UTJ (‘United Torah Judaism’ – comprised of the Hasidic ‘Agudat Yisrael’ and the Ashkenazic Yeshivish ‘Degel Hatorah’) and Shas (Sephardic Haredi) – once marginal players in the Israeli political system – today tend to be kingmakers and they play a decisive role in national politics.

Haredi Jews around the world may have a distinctive code of dress but they are active, contributing law-abiding citizens. In Israel, they are undisputedly less participative in the workforce but this is rooted in historic, domestic factors. This trend though, is gradually changing -albeit at a slow pace- due to better educational facilities and easier access to bespoke colleges tailored for Haredi men and women. Additionally, voluntary Haredi national military service continues to grow which is conducive to social integration and allows Haredi men to enter the labour market.

In recent years there has been about 50% increase in the numbers of recruits defined as Haredim. Over 3,000 Haredi soldiers enlist annually.

Despite being part of the political landscape, most Haredi Jews tend to classify themselves as non-Zionist so as not to be associated with the secular ideas and liberal, material values that are encompassed in Zionism, or the ideology underpinning ‘Religious Zionism’ which attaches messianic and religious significance to the State and Jewish dominion. Nonetheless, as per the world’s definition and that of the mainstream media today – with the exception of Satmar and some minor sects – Haredi Jews are pro-Israel.

In fact, they believe that their Torah study is integral to Israel’s defence system. Like in ancient Israel, where the tribe of Levi stayed behind in the study halls whilst the rest of Israel waged war, so too today the Haredi maintain their efforts provide a spiritual Iron Dome that protects Israel from its hostile enemies. They therefore see themselves as playing a critical role in Israel’s right and fight to exist and defend itself, which by definition makes them Zionist.

Ponovezh, one of Israel’s most prominent and highly respected Haredi Yeshivas flying the Israeli flag high on Yom Ha’atzmaut – Israel Independence Day

The World Agudat Yisrael – known as Aguda – is the global umbrella organisation which is guided by a ‘Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah’, Council of Sages based in Israel and the US. They hold yearly conventions and their political outlook is transmitted through spokesmen such as Rabbi Avi Shafran and their views are generally reflected by its media publications.  The editorial boards of many major Haredi news outlets are under the direction of Haredi Rabbinic leadership and they are consulted on significant political matters. Whilst the Bnei Brak ‘Yated Ne’eman’ newspaper maintains a more ambivalent position, the Hamodia and the most read Haredi magazines such as, Mishpacha and Ami, and websites like Yeshiva World News are supportive of Israel.

Like other sectors of society, Haredi parties, organisations and institutions are critical of the Israeli government in regard to social and economic issues, and in particular, its mandatory military conscription policy. Like the Mizrachi – Religious Zionist – parties, they are aware of their role in the political struggle over religious affairs. They advocate and lobby for the state’s principle institutions, public services and legislation to reflect and be more accommodating of Torah values and Halachic considerations. Nonetheless, as in any other democratic country, being critical of government policy and having a say over how much separation there should be between church and state should not put into question one’s loyalty to the country.

A Haredi demonstration against IDF conscription of Yeshiva youth

In 2016, according to a Pew survey, only 33% of the Israeli Haredi public considered themselves Zionist. However, in a more recent survey carried out by the Zionist Index last year, this number rose significantly to 45%. In 2010, Shas joined the World Zionist Organisation. So, the evidence suggests that the Haredi public are starting to look beyond the stigma attached to Zionism and are even beginning to identify as such. At a time when the focus is primarily on the growing religious-secular divide in Israeli society it is worthwhile noting that ultimately, whilst the Haredi will not embrace Zionism and most individuals refuse to adopt the ‘Zionist’ tag, for all intents and purposes by today’s standards, the typical Haredi is zionist for he supports Israel’s unequivocal right to exist and defend itself.

About the Author
Avi Garson is Campus Director at the Pinsker Centre. He holds a Politics BSc from City, University of London and is currently working towards a MSc in Security Studies at UCL whilst attending the Evening Beis programme. Born in London he grew up in Gibraltar and then spent two years in Gateshead Yeshiva followed by a year in Midrash Shmuel, Jerusalem.
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