Going The Distance
Tue, 05/29/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
The phenomenon of women at the back of the bus in Israel is one that resonates with younger Americans. YNet News
The phenomenon of women at the back of the bus in Israel is one that resonates with younger Americans. YNet News

In 1948 the new government of Israel, under the hegemony of David Ben-Gurion and his Mapai party, entered into deals with two crucial groups: the Religious Zionist party, Mizrachi, and the anti-Zionist Agudat Yisrael. (By 1948 Agudat Yisrael had become a political entity; a year earlier Ben-Gurion had sent its leaders a letter outlining the pact). The goal of the deals was to retain the “status quo ante” — the religious reality that was in place before the creation of the state. That meant that buses would run on Shabbat in Haifa, but not in Jerusalem, and that personal-status matters and kashrut would remain in the hands of the rabbinic authorities, not governmental institutions. A separate agreement was reached that reserved a special status for religious youth studying in yeshivot, who would not be required to serve in the army.
Ben-Gurion was a statist, committed to the classic socialist ideal that every aspect of communal life was to be subsumed to the needs of the society. He assumed, as well, that the other side, the haredi religious community, would disappear in a generation or so; the haredi community, for its part, thought the same about the secular community. Each, therefore, was able to enter into the deal in relative equanimity. (In any case the numbers in 1948 were tiny, perhaps a few hundred yeshiva boys in all.)

Sixty-five years later, the haredi communities have exploded demographically — and, more importantly, in terms of their power — in America and in Israel.

Especially in Israel.

The haredi community — often referred to as the “ultra-Orthodox”; I prefer Charles Liebman’s locution, “sectarian” — consists of both the chasidic communities (hardly monolithic, these) and the non-chasidic “yeshiva” world in Israel. The late Rav Shach held sway over these communities when the state was young; now the centenarian Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv and his followers rule. Rabbi Eliashiv is a leading posek (halachic decisor) for the sectarian communities, and as such exercises political power in addition to the religious influence he has as spiritual leader of the United Torah Judaism/Degel Ha-Torah party.

The sectarian rabbis have effectively hijacked the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbinate, which bears little resemblance to the Mizrachi/National Religious Party-run Rabbinate of an earlier era. The words “moderate,” “centrist,” “responsible,” which characterized the Chief Rabbinate of olden times, dating back to Rabbi Kook in the 1920s and ’30s, have no resonance today. Today, the Chief Rabbinate is at best ineffective, at worst morally and religiously bankrupt.

All of which is to say that the haredi-secular divide in Israel, fueled by the haredi leadership, is broad and deep, and has implications for the American Jewish community, where parallel developments with respect to haredization have taken place.

To American Jews, especially to young American Jews, the “haredi question” is, as is everything else Israeli, one of distancing:  to what extent does the sectarian question and the issues it raises — a dress code for the little girl in Beit Shemesh; women in the back of the bus; provocative ads at bus shelters; most importantly, the fact that a significant percentage of the sectarian community in Israel is not employed — cause American Jews to distance themselves from Israel? The question is particularly salient coming as it does at a time when numerous polls show that we in America are in the midst of an “affiliation crisis.”

It sounds like a no-brainer: “Of course the haredi crazies are pushing Jews away from Israel” is what I hear all the time. But the true story is much more nuanced. It is not that haredization is distancing American Jews from Israel, which may be happening to some degree; the problem is that the haredi phenomenon makes advocating for Israel that much harder to do.

The role played by religious zealotry, combined with triumphalism, cannot be minimized. American Jewish Committee official Steven Bayme puts it well: “It’s not that haredim drive people away from Israel, per se; rather, a major pillar of the case for Israel is that Israel remains a shining example of Western democracy. Haredization suggests efforts to transform Israel in ways that are sharply dissonant with Western democratic values.”

The data on the sectarian/distancing nexus are mostly anecdotal, but they suggest that the highly-visible and problematic activities of many sectarian Jews in Israel create an image of Israel that is indefensible to many American Jews — including many in the traditionally observant community — at least by Western democratic norms and criteria. Does this translate into “distancing?” Not necessarily.

In the religious denominational movements, the message is loud. The Israeli sectarians may be, in a counter-intuitive sort of way, raising the consciousness of rabbis in the Conservative and Reform movements. In the words of a prominent Reform rabbi, “What are our problems? Assimilation? Indifference? The haredim are doing us a favor! They are calling our attention to our needs.”

This semi-facetious comment, however, resonates with many rabbis across the denominational spectrum. “To non-haredi rabbis — Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform,” observes Bayme, “the problem is less that haredization drives people away from Israel — although this counts as well; but, more basic, haredization suggests modes of Jewish identity that are contrary to the vision of the major religious movements, a vision of what it means to be a Jew.” This view is shared by Modern Orthodox rabbis, many of whom regard haredization as nothing less than a catastrophe. 

What about young Jews? “Haredim? Young Jews don’t have a clue,” notes lawyer and South Florida Jewish communal activist Denise Tamir. “I wish they did,” said Tamir, “but our kids, even after Birthright [the free trip to Israel for 18- to 26-year-olds], arrive on campuses still illiterate when it comes to Israel. And Birthright presents a romantic view of Meah Shearim [the Jerusalem stronghold of the sectarian community]. We are not served well.”

There has been, in fact, some recent sociological research aimed at understanding young adult attachment to Israel. Theodore Sasson and others report that emotional attachment to Israel increases over the course of a person’s lifetime, but needs a base in young people. That said, researchers note that affiliation trends will be influenced by a range of factors: intermarriage rates, more widespread travel to Israel, a highly fluid political situation in Israel. But researchers note that the impact of haredization does not seem to be a factor when assessing affiliation patterns of young adults.

What issues do resonate with American Jews? The reality of a significant percentage of the sectarian Orthodox world in Israel that has opted out of the labor market, by extension out of the economic life of the state, is viewed as a major problem by American Jews. This practical manifestation of the larger sectarian dynamic does resonate with American Jews, but it is not causing American Jews to flee. Add to this one of the few issues — and again, the evidence is anecdotal — that has a negative resonance with young American Jews: the haredi treatment of women. This is a turn-off to everyone, not only to women, who have grown up with the idea and reality of gender equality. (It should be noted that many in the haredi leadership have said a forthright “No!” to segregated buses, but to no avail.)

At the end of the day, the difficulty that some young Jews have with Israel in 2012 is the difficulty that many young people have with what they perceive as increasingly a “confessional” state, in this case with a state that is perceived as becoming too “Jewish.”  The demographic reality in America is that fewer Jews, especially young Jews, have any memory of a traditional Judaism in their households; their great-grandparents and even their grandparents are long gone. 

Distancing is not an issue if there is little from which to be distanced. 

Jerome A. Chanes is the author of four books on American Jewish public policy, history and organization.