The latest expression of an internal war between factions of Israeli society has taken the form of a boycott of a Jerusalem Bakery, Angel. The cause is the participation of its newly appointed chair of the board, former police minister and army commander Omer Barlev, in a protest that took place in Bnei Brak this past Thursday, against planned legislation regarding Haredi exemption from military service.
When Omer Barlev was spotted as part of this demonstration, which he himself advertised on his Twitter account, a spontaneous boycott emerged “from below,” so to speak. It spread like wildfire in Haredi circles, as well as in other religious communities, on the grounds that the “honor of the Torah” was violated. This was seen as casus belli, creating a new flashpoint in relations between Haredim and broader society. The boycott tactic is much admired in religious circles. It is seen as a show of power, an expression of justified moral outrage, and as a means of venting accumulated frustration, victimization and a sense of being underdogs in Israeli society.
As someone with deep ties to the Haredi world and to Bnei Brak, I cannot identify with this recent Haredi move. It seems to me wrong in every possible way – religious, practical, and societal. I consider the move to be ill-conceived, a move that undermines both Haredi interests and those of broader Israeli society.
The boycott is based on distortion and a very partial presentation of reality. The core claim is that in demonstrating against Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, spiritual head of the Lithuanian sector of the Haredi world, Barlev attacked his honor (kavod), and by extension the honor of Torah. But did he really? Being hurt or offended is as much a matter of choice as it is of objective description. Barlev said nothing that was offensive. In fact, his tweet made no mention of the rabbi and the demonstration was apparently several hundred meters away. Thus, it is not that something was done to slight the rabbi’s dignity. Simply demonstrating is taken as a personal offense. This is an act of interpretation, not a presentation of reality. And as such, it suffers from willful distortion, or at the very least failure to recognize the subjectivity of the hurt.
Another key fact has to do with the description of the offended party. As some Haredi spokesmen have argued in the media, Rabbi Edelstein is an aged (100 year old), peace loving man, who has no disputes with anyone. Wonderful. But somehow in this description the political dimension has been completely eliminated. He is a policy maker, who rules and instructs on one of the hottest topics dividing Israeli society. It is utterly disingenuous to only refer to one part of his personality, while ignoring the other. The dual role of rabbinical figure and political leader would, by this reasoning, put any rabbinical leader who shapes Haredi politics beyond the pale of criticism.
Let us now consider how this boycott is to be understood within the framework of Haredi society. Throughout, this boycott is presented as coming “from below”, in other words a grassroots initiative. But, let us examine this rationale. Haredi ideology conceives of authority as coming from above. Rabbi Edelstein himself, in true nobility of character, did not permit the subject to appear in the Yated Ne’eman daily, associated with his religious stream. He sought to minimize the story. Other top leaders did not instruct a boycott. The Haredi street, in fact, has pushed some of its second tier leadership into supporting the boycott, thereby undermining some fundamentals of how Haredi society represents itself. The entire story makes a sham of the fundamentals of Haredi theory of religious authority.
It also makes a sham of the lessons that ought to be drawn from the Jewish calendar and its message for the moment. The time between Pesach and Shavuot, and especially leading up to Lag Baomer, which will be celebrated this coming Monday night, is traditionally seen as a time of mourning. During this period 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva are said to have died, due to not having shown respect (kavod) to one another. The lessons of the story and the essence of the period are mutual honor, patience, forbearance, and making room for the other. Rabbi Akiva’s students were Torah scholars. That did not prevent destruction when mutual respect and understanding were not practiced. This is just not the time to pick a fight over the “kavod” of a Torah teacher.
Does this boycott really serve Haredi interests? I submit it does not. we are at a point of unprecedented social tension in Israel, with repeated warnings that Israeli society is falling apart at the seams. One of the tension-points is Haredi relations with broader society. One would hope that in the middle of a war over the face of Israeli society major moves would be strategic, and be undertaken through careful consultation with top leadership. In fact, the boycott not only goes against Haredi ethos; it likely harms Haredi interests, by creating a major battle without considering the broader contours of the war. If the tension continues and spins out of control, then what seems like a minor incident could pour more fuel over broader societal tensions. Did anyone give this matter thought before embarking on a sector-wide ban on the bakery?
And then there the obvious calculation regarding the possible effects of the boycott on Haredi society. Boycott is a potential two way street. There is a distinct sense in Haredi circles of an unparalleled show of power. But how could such a show of power play out? What if this logic was reversed? Imagine the disputed legislation passes and there is resentment in other sectors of Israeli society. Angel’s precedent could lead to a boycott of Haredi owned El-Al (the air-carrier equivalent of Angel bakery). It won’t take much work to discover what companies are Haredi owned and to boycott them. One sees how a boycott movement begins. One cannot predict what harm it will create when responses to it arise.
The boycott is not only problematic for Haredi society and its interest. It is also just what Israeli society as a whole does not need at the moment. Everyone is trying to calm Israeli society and to recover lost unity. That is the call of the day, sounded in all quarters. Does the boycott serve the broader needs of the moment? To my mind, it creates a flashpoint of tension that may relieve Haredi frustration but gets in the way of the broader mending that society, especially in relation to Haredim, requires. This broader social vision is precisely what should be entrusted to top leadership. When the street acts, broader interests may get harmed.
When broader vision is applied, the Angel boycott stands out as a sore reminder of a myopic vision of reality. The very same day that Omer Barlev demonstrated in Bnei Brak, we were also told of a “Moroccan” protest outside the house of former Supreme Justice Aharon Barak. The demonstrations against Barak are particularly ugly. An 86 year old (true he is not 100 years old) retired head of the Supreme Court is being attacked daily, even though he has been out of office for more than 15 years. Lies are spread, his contribution to Israeli society is being distorted, and he has become a mascot for the reform movement, a convenient figurehead of all they seek to undo. Haredim do not protest outside his home. But zooming out, it is very jarring to see broad legitimation for ongoing protests against justice Barak, while the equivalent expressions carried out on Haredi ground are cause for a social and economical battle.
It is this sense of broader vision and Haredi comportment that raises profound questions concerning the nature of Israeli “haredism”, contrasted with that of Haredi reality in other countries. I ask myself: which of the behaviors that we see among Haredim in Israel would be practiced by Haredim in the UK, Belgium or the USA? How would respect of other voices and falling in line with broader norms of society play out outside Israel? It seems to me the boycott is a symptom of how power corrupts, and grows on Israeli soil. The pollicization of religion has its impact not only on the role of rabbinical leaders, but also on how political power shapes Haredi mentality. It translates to a sense of entitlement, that owes more to the contortion of the Israeli political system than to the proper religious worldview of Haredim.
Which brings me to my final point, regarding how Haredim are viewed from within broader Israeli society and what impact the boycott could have. Haredi voices speak of “teaching them a lesson”, regarding red lines and boundaries that are appropriate when it comes to speaking of Torah giants. Yet another message is heard by Israeli audiences. It is one of abuse of power and manipulation that leads to further divides and increased hatred against haredim. And here an observation is in order. When I listen to Haredi voices that discuss the place of Haredim in the army and in society, I am struck by the tone as much as by the position. Let us assume that Haredi leadership opposes military service due to its valuation of Torah study, and its attempt to preserve the integrity and values of the Haredi world. But surely there must be a capacity to hear the genuine pain of the other side. Regrettably, in this battle, Haredim typically are incapable of acknowledging the problem. The present boycott is a case in point. Rather than the core issue of Haredi draft exemption or deferral, the issue becomes slighting a great rabbi by the mere fact that one demonstrates against a political position that he spearheads. This positions Haredim as victims, rather than as perpetrators of a social injustice. It shows a deafness to others, but even more painfully – a lack of humility. If humility were the fruit of Torah devotion, the special conditions that Haredi society seeks to protect itself might receive a better hearing.
All in all, the boycott is a case of short-sightedness and failure to see the larger picture. The story revolves around narrow definitions and myopic vision of the situation, its consequences and its religious message. In fundamental ways, the boycott is a failure of the spiritual ideals that drive the Haredi vision of life – obedience to leadership, humility, unity. It therefore requires a corrective from within Haredi society, not only opposition from without. Perhaps in parallel to Angel being asked to remove Barlev, there should be an appeal to Rabbi Edelstein to state in his own voice that the boycott is not the true path of Torah?