How secular, Orthodox Israelis can coexist


by Daniel Kurtzer

Harsh words in the Israeli Knesset and fisticuffs at the Western Wall have come to define the growing alienation of secular and ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jews in Israel and the political struggle underway regarding haredi participation in the national political and economic life of the country. For many non-haredi Israelis, the ultra-Orthodox are seen as parasites who enjoy the benefits of Israeli society, including security, economic handouts and institutional subsidies, without sharing any of the burdens, such as army service or regular, taxable employment. For the haredi community, secular Israelis are seen as undermining thousands of years of Jewish tradition by developing a political system in which religion plays only a minor role. Both sides need to step back from the brink of permanent, mutual alienation.

Let us recall that it was David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel and himself an educated, but secular Jew, who established the framework for haredi involvement in Israeli life. Ben-Gurion agreed to a “status quo” relating to religious life in the public sphere, and did so for at least two reasons. First, given the small size of the Jewish population in 1948 – about 600,000 – Ben-Gurion recognized the need to avoid divisive debates that could tax the new state’s ability to cope with the primary challenges of repelling the Arab invasion and creating the institutional and economic infrastructure of an independent state. Second, Ben-Gurion saw the devastation wrought by the Holocaust on the yeshivot and scholars who had been so prominent in Eastern Europe before the war, and he accepted the need to exempt haredim from military service in order to rebuild their decimated numbers. In addition to exempting full-time yeshiva students from military service, the new state also agreed to build Orthodox practices into state institutions and practice, such as maintaining the dietary laws of kashrut in the army and shutting down public bus lines on Shabbat.

Ben-Gurion could not have anticipated the way in which this “status quo” would evolve into a mountain of a problem. The haredi community expanded rapidly, fueled by high birth rates and government subsidies. Haredi political parties came to exercise outsized political sway in a political system in which the large parties could not muster a majority without the smaller parties, and the haredi parties milked the system for increased benefits for the haredi population.

As secular Israelis began to chafe over the degree of control over matters of personal status – marriage, divorce, burial – by haredi rabbis, tensions mounted. The “status quo” that made sense in 1948 became the cannon fodder for the internecine debate that is wracking Israeli politics and society in 2013.

Before matters get too far out of control, it behooves both sides to try to build on elements of common understanding:

• Haredim should see it in their own interest that members of their community work in productive economic fields and stop living almost entirely off of the state’s treasury or charitable contributions. Most haredi Jews in the United States and elsewhere work at full-time jobs, even as they maintain their commitment to regular prayer and study requirements. The integration of haredim in the workplace would go far in breaking down barriers of communication between communities that, today, meet only at the debates in the political sphere.

• Haredim should also participate in the defense of the state, a state which provides them with physical and economic security. A negotiated number of exemptions can be agreed for the most worthy yeshiva students, but even they can teach and run religious services for the army. In other words, haredim should see value in national service to fellow Jews and non-Jews serving in the army.

• For their part, secular Israelis should understand better the ongoing challenge of defining the Jewish character of the state. Israel is, as articulated in the ongoing work of the Hartman Institute, an aspirational society, constantly wrestling with its identity and its mission. Many Israelis say they want to be just like any other nation, but in the next breath also say they have a mission to prove that a Jewish state can be a contributing member of the world community. In this respect, both secular and haredi Jews have something to offer: not just technology and high tech and military prowess, but also study and propagation of values Jews have always derived from the Torah and the traditional texts.

• For its part, the state must find a way to mediate these issues so as to retain the character of what its leaders self-define as a Jewish state, but which must be a state for all its citizens: secular and haredi Jews and Arabs. A status quo that has governed the state’s relations with the haredi community for 65 years should be modified over time, not scrapped overnight. Evolutionary, negotiated change will be far more effective than legislative fiat by a Knesset majority that arouses passions and inflames intercommunal strife.

Daniel Kurtzer, former United States ambassador to Egypt and to Israel, is the S. Daniel Abraham Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here