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Religion & state in Israel – Part II

Can the Haredi and secular societies share a sense of Jewish identity and purpose, and lessen the rift that has been widening between them?


Our previous Snippet concluded with the introduction of Ben Gurion’s “Status Quo Letter”. The impact of this letter on the national ethos is indeed through the eyes of the beholder. The Haredi interpretation is that this is a legal agreement that promises the Haredim ultimate control over the Jewish religion in a secular Jewish state. For the secular Zionists, this letter was a limited compromise on some liberal-democratic values of the state to come. The end justified the means: Ben Gurion truly believed that national unity was crucial, even if it meant giving up on some of his persistent beliefs. The Haredim were willing to join the Zionists and fight for a Jewish state, on the assurance that they could continue to rehabilitate the world of Torah post holocaust, and to function as the supreme rabbinic authority for Judaism in Israel.


Nowadays, the term "status quo" is used to describe the relationship between religion and state in Israel. It encompasses not only the Jewish controversies, but also the relationship between the 3 dominant religions in Israel: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. This Snippet focuses solely on the Jewish sects.


When the letter was sent, Ben Gurion did not intend it to be an official agreement, but just a declaration of intent. Only few years later did it become known as the "Status Quo Letter". There were 4 topics addressed in the letter, the Sabbath, Kosher issues, Relations between men and women, and Education. Today there is a plethora of issues that involve both religion and state, from organ donation to pig raising, burial and even Chametz in hospitals during Passover.


We can assume that these 4 topics were the most important to the Haredim when the letter was written. What is surprising is that these topics were described so briefly in the letter, giving the future Jewish state a lot of questions marks and room for interpretations. So why is this letter such an historic milestone that is mentioned each time there is an argument?


A year following the letter, Israel declared independence, and was drawn into one of its most frightening wars. The Haredi world was split as to how to react. A significant number of Haredi men joined the newly born Israel Defense Forces, and took an important part in the battles in Jerusalem. Some Haredi newspapers even advocated to join the forces. Furthermore, after the 1948 war had ended, an ad in one Haredi newspaper advertised a public meeting to celebrate the military victory in the Tel Aviv – Jaffa region.


* Haredi ad in newspaper to celebrate "independence miracle" (National Library of Israel).


As I was reading old Haredi newspapers published in 1948, I found a very interesting part describing their approach to the birth of Israel:


"There is still uncertainty about Independence Day. We do not have the necessary awakening for the upcoming holiday [...] It’s important to state that this unemotionality does not stem from greatness or from excessive wisdom, but from “timtum halev” (a Hasidic term referring to an internal mental barrier that prevents a Jew from awakening to divine emotion). Even those who object to any mention of redemption [...] We must admit that with God's help, we have gained this year the safest refuge in the world for the people of Israel [...] We have attained a national home; we were freed from the yoke of strangers. Stated simply, on Independence Day we became a free people."


The first few years of the State of Israel looked promising and were probably the best, (meaning the quietest) years between the Haredi and the secular Jewish communities. The Haredim fortified their control by strengthening the power of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. The secular community continued to insist on the values they believed in.


In 1952, one of the first serious controversies arose when the Knesset passed a law ruling that religious women (who unlike secular women had been exempt from military service) must now serve in national service. The Haredim vehemently opposed this law, to the extent of "ye'hareg v'al ya'avor". Ben Gurion was determined and stubborn, but always willing to have a debate. So he went to meet one of most influential Haredi leaders at the time, the Chazon Ish (Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz).


At this meeting, the Prime Minister asked how religious and secular people would live together. Chazon Ish replied to him in a parable (derived from the Sanhedrin Tractate):

"If two camels meet on the road in a lane, and one camel is loaded, and the other is not loaded, the one who does not carry a load must make way for the camel that is loaded. We religious Jews are likened to a camel that is loaded - we have a lot of mitzvot. We have a burden of a lot of commandments. You have to clear the way for us."

This answer was known as "the parable of the full cart and the empty cart."


Ben-Gurion reacted angrily to this claim:

"Is not the mitzvah of settling the land a commandment? Is it not a burden? Is not the mitzvah of protecting life a commandment? And what of the boys, to whom your people so object: they sit on the borders and guard you. Is this not a mitzvah?"


Chazon Ish replied: "Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain." (Psalms, 127:1).


I think this historical incident, which allows us to see through “the eye of the beholder,” reflects best the ongoing friction between the secular and the Haredi Jews in Israel, to this day.


* Ben Gurion entering Chazon Ish's home (Israel state archives).


Political circumstances have also had their influence in the religion versus state dilemma. During the country’s first two decades, Ben Gurion and the left wing formed coalitions with the Haredim, rather than resorting to coalitions with the rival right wing parties. Members of Ben Gurion’s party tended to criticize him for giving up his party's values just to keep the coalition together with the religious Jews. As a result of coalitions through the 1950s and 60s, the Haredi parties gained more and more political power over the years, and passed many laws that they claim protect their people and culture from the secular character of the state. At the same time, Jews from all the other groups outside of the ultra-Orthodox felt used and discriminated against, and so they tried to pass laws that support their culture and narrative.


A new form of a status quo has been created: both sides pass laws to strengthen their position, both sides are experts in finding loopholes and bending the laws, and the political atmosphere lacks any consensus between the different groups. Governmental authorities responsible for enforcing the law are now compelled to choose very carefully what to enforce, and to whom to enforce it. This has eroded Israelis’ confidence in the integrity of the country’s governmental and political institutions.


Going back to the Status Quo Letter, the first topic, Shabbat, is described as "the legal day of rest in the Jewish state". The Haredi interpretation supports their belief that no work should be done in public at all on Shabbat, unless it is a matter of Pikuach Nefesh. As a result of Israel’s population growth, Israel's public transportation needs are growing rapidly. Therefore, much of the work on major transportation infrastructure projects take place on Shabbat, as there are no public transportation services according to the status quo. This type of construction work would cause crippling traffic jams if performed during the week. This is a "fascinating" example of the new status quo: The Haredi leaders are fighting strongly to keep most public transportation shut on Shabbat, including in almost completely secular cities like Tel Aviv. Here is the irony of this situation: The government agrees not to have any national transportation on Shabbat, but at the same time uses this as leverage to continue performing infrastructure construction work on Shabbat. At the same time, many secular Jews have lost trust that any government will stand up to the Haredi political bloc, and local municipalities are now taking their own initiatives. Just last year, Ramat Gan (a suburb of Tel Aviv) began operating 2 bus routes on Friday and Saturday, which do not enter religious neighborhoods. More and more cities are planning to join this wave.


* Electrification of the train system, on shabbat (Photo credit: Project-Pro).


Up until now, I have tried to layout the story, jumping between narratives and feelings and ideology on several sides of this complicated relationship. But as some of you know me, I believe it is also good to share our personal views. I'll try to do it in a "Minnesota-nice" way.


I believe that "The Status Quo Letter", the re-creation of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel after the establishment of the State, and the several religious laws passed over the years have certified the Haredim to take almost full control of the Jewish religion in Israel. I, as an Israeli Jew, am forced to use only orthodox religious services, if I want them to be considered "kosher" . It has reached the extent that I believe that the orthodox community feels that they have the power to force their ideologies on the general public. Indeed, they have the power to do so. There are many non-observant Israeli Jews who defer to and even vote for Haredi parties, as they believe that the ultra-Orthodox are the “keepers of the Jewish religion”. What I find most ironic, is that the Haredi leaders demand that their religious feelings be respected but in the same breath do not show any respect to others. How can a sector that does not obey the law, make laws for everyone? Bottom line: The Haredi leaders are using democratic ways to erode the foundations of a liberal Jewish democratic state as described in the Declaration Of Independence of Israel.


I will end this snippet with a possible optimistic prediction.


The Haredi population has been growing fast, but recent statistics show that the birth rate is actually declining, while the birth rate of the secular Jewish population is increasing. How is that happening? Many (not all) Haredi men are encouraged to study at a Kollel. In order to survive financially, an increasing number of Haredi women are now opting to join the work force. So if you walk in a Haredi neighborhood around 4pm, you'll notice many Haredi men taking a break from their Torah studies to pick up their kids from kindergarten and care for them until the wives come home from work. If this trend for women to be the breadwinners (by definition both employable and employed), we might see a vast change in Haredi society within the next few decades.


The Haredi world has built invisible walls around their communities to protect themselves from secularism and modernization. Retreating from the wider world might work in some environments, but Steve Jobs knocked those walls down, armed only with smart phones. I personally know a few Haredim that have 2 cell phones: one a "kosher phone" with limited access to the internet, and one secret phone with full access to the rest of the world outside the Shtetl.


What I believe is holding the Haredim from thriving both spiritually and materially are their corrupt and manipulative leaders. Only in Israel is the Jewish ultra-Orthodox community dependent on government handouts to survive. Overseas you see that earning an income through employment is not incompatible with an observant Haredi life. Haredi politicians in Israel realize that an uneducated and impoverished community ensures their political power as their voters’ daily survival depends on government support. In other words, my disappointment and frustration lies with the leadership, not with the Haredi community as a whole.


If the majority of Israelis, center-right secular Jews, get their act together and unite in one strong coalition, this could bring an end to the Haredi political manipulation.


Today is Tu BiShvat, the most sacred Jewish day for me. Halachically, it marks the new year for trees. In other words, their age. This was important in the tithe system in ancient Jewish agricultural life. But guess what? It is also the perfect time of year in the land of Israel to plant new trees. My parents raised me planting trees, bushes, and flowers. The smell of the dark brown earth is heavenly. When I plant a tree, I meditate and make a prayer. Then I mix that prayer with compost and tuck it in so it can take root and flourish.


My prayer this year is that we Israelis learn to live and flourish together between the river and the sea, with mutual respect and tolerance.


*Almond trees blossoming during Tu BiShvat.

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