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Maintaining Unity In Wartime: A Haredi Response

Israel’s High Court of Justice’s recent decision regarding draft exemptions for Haredim has once again thrust the issue of religious division in Israel into the spotlight. Military exemptions have been granted to Haredi men under various laws since the founding of the State of Israel, allowing them to pursue full-time Torah study instead of military service. In the current context of war, a number of coalition partners are reconsidering their commitment to maintain the status quo when it comes to the Haredi Draft Law.  As a result, media headlines depict a nation deeply divided along religious lines, with discord and polarization threatening to tear our people apart.

For too long, we’ve been fed a narrative of division, pitting Haredi against secular, religious against non-religious. I believe that it is politically expedient and engenders votes to demonstrate that the “other side is our enemy.”  However, this simply does not reflect facts on-the-ground, or the reality for the vast majority in Israel.

As an Israeli and a member of the Haredi community, I know this narrative does not reflect the reality of our daily lives in Israel! Despite our differences when it comes to religious observance, our shared Jewish identity binds us together in ways that transcend politics and sensational headlines.

Most Israelis have friends, relatives, or co-workers with different lifestyles, politics, and levels of religious observance. While they may not agree with one another’s points of view, their differences certainly don’t preclude them from becoming friends.

Through my work with Kesher Yehudi, I’ve dedicated the past 12 years to bridging the gap between Israeli Jews of diverse religious backgrounds. Our focus extends beyond casual acquaintance, aiming instead to foster genuine connections, friendships, and empathy through exposure to individuals from different walks of life. We consistently see the different understanding that comes from focusing on individuals, and despite what you read, more positively than ever since October 7th.

Despite the rhetoric that pushes division, we are seeing young secular Israelis choosing –  in greater numbers than ever –  to study with ultra-Orthodox partners. They debate, they ask, they argue… and both sides gain a friend. Graduates of our chavruta program at year-long preparatory academies (mechinot) in Israel serving in the IDF are choosing to spend breaks from the frontlines of war with their Haredi friends.The depth and significance of this phenomenon goes beyond mere coincidence or structured encounters.

These growing friendships emerged out of our sense of peoplehood. It is organic, coming from the grassroots and from people recognizing the fundamental truth that we are an extended family sharing the same precious Jewish heritage.

While the media amplifies divisive rhetoric and arguments among a few Knesset members, it is far more practical to focus on everyday Israelis, giving them the opportunity to meet their fellow citizens whom they would never otherwise encounter. In particular, creating space for secular and Haredi peers to meet, form connections, and appreciate what it means to be part of the Jewish people in the most profound sense.

The fact is, it is essential that we recognize that Jewish identity is not confined to religious observance or political affiliation. It transcends boundaries, encompassing a rich tapestry of people, culture, traditions, values, and beliefs. It is precisely our common heritage that bonds us as a people and provides a foundation upon which we can build a more compassionate society.

As we navigate the complexities of modern Israeli life, it’s crucial to resist the temptation to believe that the picture painted by politics and the media reflects such a deep chasm among the people. Instead, let us focus on what unites us and strive to lead with empathy and understanding toward one another.

We don’t have to agree or like our fellow citizens’ approaches or beliefs regarding the draft, army service, or yeshiva learning. But we do have to love our fellow Jews and try our best to understand one another. Despite our successes as a nation, we remain surrounded by existential threats; we have no choice but to find ways to love each other.

Fundamentally, we are all brothers and sisters engaged in the same struggle – one born out of millennia of survival against hatred, discrimination, and antisemitism. The longing to return to Zion and Jerusalem has burned equally in the hearts of Jews worldwide, regardless of secular or religious affiliation.

At our core, we are one people with a common lineage tracing back to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the Exodus from Egypt. The giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai is a seminal event ingrained in our collective Jewish identity. Customs like honoring Shabbat and observing Yom Kippur serve as perpetual reminders of the rituals and traditions that unite us across the spectrum of observance.

When we shed artificial barriers erected by politics, media narratives and external agendas, we find that Jews of all stripes – ultra-Orthodox, secular, religious, or cultural – discover far more commonalities than differences. An ultra-Orthodox couple and a secular soldier can transcend gaps in lifestyle or military service simply by recognizing that their shared Jewish identity forms an indestructible bond.

Reconciliation and unity among our people cannot be dictated from the top down  – not by politicians, pundits, or social media influencers.  Unity will happen organically as people recognize that we are an extended family who share the same precious DNA and a collective destiny.

The contrived controversies over issues like the Haredi draft will inevitably dissipate when we as a people engage directly, look past our differences, and reaffirm the brotherly and sisterly love innate in our Jewish souls.

Unity – not division – is our real and eternal story.

*Join us for a special pre-Pesach webinar on Jewish Unity and Redemption with some of the Hostage Families this Sunday, 10 am ET.

About the Author
Tzili Schneider is a veteran teacher, the Founder and CEO of Kesher Yehudi, the mother of eleven, and a woman who cares deeply about the unity of the Nation of Israel.