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What’s Wrong With Us?


Israel’s 73rd Independence Day was an annual reminder of as close to a miracle as it gets. If for no other reason than it actually happened. So many Jews tried very hard to prevent it.  It is all the more amazing if we consider that here we are, many years later, with Israeli society so fragmented and its politicians unable to form a stable government because of personal and ideological enmity.

A hundred years ago, most of the financially successful Jews of Europe and America opposed Zionism because they wanted to be seen as loyal citizens of their adopted countries and felt threatened by talk of a Jewish State and the charge of dual loyalties. On the other hand, most Orthodox Jews refused to support political activism because they believed one had to wait for the messiah.

Despite all this, thanks to a few dreamers, both secular and religious, it happened. Here we are years later with a Jewish State which is, from every point of view, religious and secular, the most dynamic, powerful, and successful community of Jews we have ever had for over two thousand years.

Few things rile me as much as those secular Israelis who have turned against the very idea of a  Jewish State. Usually, because they have had no experience of persecution or Anti-Semitism themselves. As well as the Ultra-Orthodox, Charedi extremists who burn Israeli flags on Israel’s Day (or Festival) of Independence and yet accept massive benefits, handouts, and support from the state they reject. 

In the nineteenth century, many  Chassidim and other Jews came and swelled the numbers living either in Jerusalem or the Galilee. They survived on the Haluka, the charity sent from the Diaspora to support their idealistic genteel poverty. When Zionism inspired secular Jews to arrive and try to build the land, this Old Yishuv, as it was called led by Rav Chaim Sonnenfeld Z”L (1848-1932) felt threatened and resisted the New Yishuv. It rejected the idea of a secular state out of hand.

But there was a middle ground led by the Chief Rabbi appointed by the British Mandate, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook Z”L (1865-1935) who saw the secular Zionist settlers as agents of God in bringing about a Jewish State. He was in effect the symbol of moderate religious Zionism.  His son Rav Zvi Yehuda Z”L (1891-1982)  later became the inspiration of extreme religious nationalism.

Back in Europe the Orthodox Jews fell into three camps. The rabbis committed to religious Zionism known as the Mizrahi. Agudah, more to the right,  objected to secular Zionism but were supportive of the idea of a Jewish State and this included most Hassidic dynasties. However, Satmar and Munkatch Hassidim of Transylvania opposed Zionism and discouraged anyone from migrating to Palestine. For them, it was heretical to try to pre-empt the Messiah. And the very secular nature of Israeli society only confirmed their antipathy. In the east, Sephardi Jews were wholeheartedly positive.

When Israel started the religious leadership was dominated by moderate rabbis, pro-Zionists like Rav Herzog Z”L, and then Rav Goren Z”L, and a significant group of rabbis from both Chassidic and Lithuanian communities who supported the state. Including my great teacher Rav Chaim Shmulevitz Z”L of Mir and Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman Z”L of Ponevez and the Gerrer and Belz rebbes.  Incidentally, all Sephardi great rabbis and communities wholeheartedly supported the state but felt excluded by the Ashkenazi majority. Nevertheless, there was also a Sephardi Chief Rabbinate to balance the Ashkenazi. Two for the price of two! And the Sephardis were much more lenient than the Ashkenazis.

Over the years the Charedi world has become increasingly rigid, uncompromising, and alienated. The massive increase in the Charedi population and its political heft have led to more Charedi rabbis entering the Chief Rabbinate and influencing its institutions. Chassidic dynasties have moved to extremes and Satmar and its allies have been spectacularly successful in expanding numbers and influence. The result is that the Charedi community overwhelmingly rejects Yom Ha’Atzmaut. To make matters worse the extreme wing of Satmar, Neturei Karta, once regarded as the lunatic fringe, seem to attract more rejectionists and even court the enemies of the Jewish State who plan its destruction.

What we are witnessing today is, in my opinion, a purely political rather than a religious play. A grab for power and money holding Government coalitions to ransom to support their own perception of what is fair and equitable. And all in the name of religion.

It is immensely destructive. I favor giving outstanding scholars exemption from military service. But not enabling thousands of Charedi young men who have little interest or devotion to study all day long, to renege on their moral and religious obligation to help protect their society by refusing to serve in Israel’s Defense Forces. That less orthodox parents should suffer the anxiety and fear of losing a child while thousands of recalcitrant layabouts live in peace relying on the lives of others, is a moral scandal.  

 The result is that they cannot gain productive employment. This too is made worse by the Charedi intransigence that denies them a secular education and casts hundreds of thousands onto welfare. In itself, a concept put in place by a socialist ideology they despise and indirectly increases crime because so many have no other means of making an honest living. And how despicable that when a Charedi boy does decide to defy his community and serve in the army he is often attacked both verbally and physically. 

At the same time, they impose their rigid standards on all Jews in the State whose religious life they monopolize. All this makes their refusal to contribute to the State even more offensive

We have been hearing a great deal of self-hating or disaffected Jews who feel no commitment to Israel’s survival. But what about those self-hating Charedis (for I cannot explain it any other way) who despise the Jewish State and refuse to acknowledge its establishment or care about its defense? And don’t give me that pathetic excuse that study and prayer protect you against bullets or bombs. Both extremes are as destructive as each other. 

Like all aspects of Israeli life, it is politicized and dysfunctional. Now that is what I call a miracle. That Israel not only survives but does so well relative to everyone else.

2 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Us?

  1. You’ve hit the nail firmly on the head, once again, Jeremy. In my opinion, if you don’t have your sons go into the army, you are not a citizen of Israel and not entitled to anything from the State. Go live in Jordan or Syria and see how you are treated there!
    Shabbat Shalom from a very angry Leila.

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