| Outlook |

Jewish Identity and Our Current Turmoil

There appear to be no limits on what the protesters would do to damage their country and their fellow citizens to prevail



the founder and director of the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs, Mishpacha publisher Eli Paley has undertaken to heal many of the tears in Israeli society. In that context, he has probably spent as much time in meetings and private conversations with those in Israel’s opposition movement as any chareidi Jew in Israel.

He recently shared with me that a constant refrain in those meetings has been that the children of the opposition leaders see no place for themselves in Israel and do not intend to remain. Often the blame is placed at the feet of the chareidim, whose growing numbers, they say, threaten to make Israel unlivable for their offspring.

Finally, at one such meeting, Eli responded that he fully expects all his children and grandchildren to live in Israel. And perhaps rather than blaming the chareidim for their own children’s decisions, they should ask themselves why the situation is so diametrically opposite for chareidi parents.

I myself had a similar conversation a few months back with a longtime friend, who has become one of the prime voices of the opposition movement in English. He told me that his daughter and the mother of his first grandchild, currently living far from Israel, had told him, “What is there for me in Israel?”

That rhetorical question, I suggested, reflected something of a parental failure. If his daughter’s Jewish identity were more important to her, or if she believed that the collective Jewish people have a world historical mission, the answer to the question would be obvious: The destiny of the Jewish People and the success or failure of its historical mission is most likely to play out in the only country with a Jewish majority.

But if Israel is just a country of its citizens, then one can be a citizen anywhere, and probably with a lot less danger. Why not just go wherever one’s skills are sought?

THOUGH THEIR CONCEPTION of Jewish identity differed greatly from that of the traditional Torah perspective, early Zionist leaders understood that locating Israel in the long story of the Jewish People was crucial to forging national solidarity. A shared history, Ben-Gurion recognized, would form the glue to bind together refugees from nearly 180 different countries. When asked what right Jews had to a state within the historic boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, Ben-Gurion famously replied by pointing to a Tanach. The first Education Law of the nascent state included Tanach, and even Talmud, among the mandatory subjects.

For all their many differences, one thing about which Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky agreed was the importance of instilling loyalty to Am Yisrael. In a 1963 speech, Ben-Gurion proclaimed, “First of all, I am a Jew, and only then am I an Israeli.... My first loyalty is to the Jewish People, and only then to the State of Israel, because the State of Israel was created for the Jewish People.”

And that recognition of the importance of Jewish identity was not confined to the founding generation. Major (res.) Gilad Olshtein was raised on a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz, with no knowledge of historical Jewish practice. When he became a Jewish Agency shaliach to Salonika, that ignorance became a source of profound embarrassment to him, as he realized he had nothing to offer to the Jews to whom he was sent. And he began learning with the local rabbi. Today, he is a senior educational official at Yad Vashem.

In the interim, he was one of the founders of the secular, pre-induction academies (mechinot). As head of three mechinot, he approached Mrs. Tzila Schneider, a chareidi educator and founder of Kesher Yehudi, and asked her to create a program that would introduce his charges to some basic Torah ideas prior to entering the army.

His purpose was threefold. First, he wanted his charges to have some understanding of the Torah worldview, and to get to know chareidim and their families and see how they live. Second, he was concerned that when his mechinistim became officers in the army they not lose the respect of those under their command for having no idea about how to make Kiddush on Shabbos, or even what it is.

But most important, he wanted them to understand why the collective existence of the Jewish People is something for which they would be willing to risk their lives. And, ironically, he felt that the chareidim were best equipped to provide an answer to that question. The original program has expanded to thirty mechinot, and approximately 1,600 mechinistim, in little more than a decade.

ZIONISM ITSELF, with its rejection of the galus Jew, led to an attenuated connection to Jewish identity. There has always been a group, even a large group, in the early Zionist movement and in Israel itself eager to shed the remnants of Jewish identity. In a 2004 interview with Ha’aretz’s Ari Shavit, novelist Aharon Appelfeld identified as the major illness of Israeli society the fact that “so many have cut themselves off completely from their past,” and thereby “amputated the internal organs of the soul.” Appelfeld charged Zionism with having waged an aggressive war against the Diaspora and historical Jewish riches, with a resulting “diminution of the Jewish soul.”

All modern Jewish movements, Appelfeld told Shavit, “have internalized the hatred of Jews” to which all European Jews were regularly subjected. “Modern Jews don’t want to be Jews. They flee from being Jews. Everything that obliges them to remember that they are Jews makes them flinch [and] arouses disgust in them.... “

That flight from a particularistic Jewish identity reached its apogee during the early years of the Oslo Accords. According to one of the Oslo Accords’ leading architects, Ron Pundak, that desire to abandon particularistic Jewish identity was the underlying reason for the accords themselves: “Peace is not an end in itself. It is a means for moving Israel from one era to another, to an era of what I consider a normal country [emphasis added]. The Israelization of society instead of its Judaization.”

Author A.B. Yehoshua urged “the blurring of our historical Israeli identity and its transformation into a matter of citizenship alone [emphasis added], along the lines of American or Australian identity.”

I wrote in 2001, in the wake of Ariel Sharon’s landslide victory over incumbent Ehud Barak, that Sharon’s victory represented not only the end of Oslo as a diplomatic process, but as an ideology — an ideology fundamentally hostile to national identity. National identity was, in the eyes of Oslo’s most ardent supporters, the great barrier to peace. If people just stopped thinking of themselves as Jews or Muslims, Israelis or Palestinians, conflict would disappear. So went the thinking.

Shimon Peres’s vision of a New Middle East, in which hotels were more important than battalions and the cure for Palestinian unrest was more investment in the Palestinian economy, was predicated on the assumption that all people are basically alike in their desire for greater material plenty.

But the Palestinians failed to get the message. They saw in Israelis’ eagerness to abandon their past a source of weakness. I have quoted many times the story related by former Palestinian legislator Salah Tamari to Israeli journalist Aharon Barnea of his experience, while in an Israeli jail for terrorism, of watching his Jewish jailer eating a pita on Pesach. The Jewish warder explained to him, “I feel no obligation to events that took place over 2,000 years ago. I have no connection to that.”

That entire night Tamari could not sleep. He realized that “opposing us is a nation that has no connection to its roots, which are no longer of interest to it.” He concluded: “A nation whose members have no connection to their past, and are capable of so openly transgressing their most important laws — that nation has cut off all its roots to the Land.”

At Camp David in 2020, Arafat insisted upon Israel ceding sovereignty over the Temple Mount, to which Ehud Barak readily acquiesced. Arafat sought to force the Jews to further cut themselves off from their past by conceding the greater importance of the Temple Mount to Palestinians than to them.

As Yair Sheleg pointed out at the time in Ha’aretz, Barak would never have dared to make such concessions unless “Israel’s academic, cultural, and media elites” had been ruled for a generation by those for whom national identity is irrelevant, surely not worth as much as a “little quiet and integration into the global village.”

And then the Second Intifada broke out. Confronted with the fervor of Palestinian nationalism, Israeli Jews began to search once again for a comparable source of strength to sustain them against the onslaught. They turned to the old warhorse Sharon, in large part because of his link to an era when Israel was far more confident about the justice of its cause and optimistic about the future.

And then came the mea culpas. Maariv editor Amnon Dankner confessed that he and his colleagues had felt so much empathy for the Palestinians that they had none left for their fellow Jews, “only pure, unsullied, sulfuric hate.” The left, he wrote, has for two decades nurtured “a large and thriving industry of hate, scorn, and arrogance toward anyone who did not share their views: toward those of Mizrachi descent, toward those with right-wing ideologies, and especially toward the religious nationalists and chareidim.”

APPARENTLY, THE LESSONS of the messianic fervor of Oslo have begun to wane. The current protests in Israel draw from the same desire to be a normal country, a state of its citizens, not a Jewish state. And they are driven by that same “sulfuric hatred” identified by Amnon Dankner for all those who refuse to go along. Law professor Mordechai Kreminitzer describes the government coalition as having lost all moral authority, headed as it is by a criminally indicted prime minister (though it now appears likely he will be acquitted of most, if not all, of the charges) and comprised of those of “shamefully questionable human composition.”

“The rebelling IDF reservists,” writes Professor Gadi Taub, in a must-read Tablet article (“Israel’s Elites Revolt Against Democracy,” August 17, 2023), “don’t even pay lip service to the idea of majoritarian decision-making. Rather, they express open contempt for the majority of Israel’s citizens, peppered with thinly veiled references to ethnicity, religiosity, and class.”

The nominal subject of the protests — defense of the hegemony of the Israeli High Court — fits well with the cosmopolitan, non-Jewish identification of the protest leaders. The guiding light of the present juristocracy, former Court President Aharon Barak, whittled away step by step at the power of the Knesset over a period of nearly two decades, cabining in the ability of the Knesset to legislate and ministers to set policy, while simultaneously making the Court the ultimate arbiter of all societal norms. The Court, he stressed, is perfectly free to import values from other legal systems into Israeli law, whether or not they have any warrant in Knesset legislation. And when determining societal norms, he wrote explicitly, the judge must be guided by the values of the “enlightened citizenry, in whose midst he dwells.”

Physics professor Shikma Bressler, labeled by Taub the “Joan of Arc” of the protest movement, adopts the pose of being forced to leave her beloved lab only by her sense of emergency. In fact, she is a longtime political activist. She has called for a constitution that would define Israel as a state of all its citizens and no longer as a Jewish nation state and impose a complete separation of state and religion. (She would also ban all fossil fuel vehicles.)

The “White Coats,” a group of medical school professors guiding the doctors’ group of protestors, has demanded that Israeli hospitals cease all altruistic kidney donations by Jews designated for other Jews, even though such donations shorten the line for all those waiting.

THE BONDS OF CITIZENSHIP, as opposed to national-religious identity, have proven impossibly thin, for they lack any sense of shared national purpose. There appear to be no limits on what the protesters would do to damage their country and their fellow citizens in order to prevail. In a 2020 video of former prime minister Ehud Barak speaking to a group of air force reservists and veterans, long before the current judicial reforms were even introduced, he outlines a plan for sowing chaos through civil disobedience to oust Binyamin Netanyahu from office. With an astonishing lack of self-awareness, Barak even relates the prediction of a professor friend that the nation will again call upon him, when the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv is filled with corpses of Jews killed in a civil war.

Israeli papers are filled daily with articles about how the reservists’ refusal to report and the injection of politics into the IDF have dramatically reduced its preparedness as a fighting force and lessened its deterrent strength. And precisely at a moment of increased threats and warnings of imminent military conflict.

Chief among those threats: Iran currently has enough enriched uranium to build several bombs within weeks, and is heavily financing attacks on Israelis from Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank, as well as developing long-range drones capable of reaching Israel — and all this before the $6 billion scheduled to arrive from the Biden administration. Consider how emboldened the mullahs must be to witness Israel being torn apart, and a chunk of the military in open revolt. “A Military Coup Is Underway in Israel — and It’s Completely Justified,” trumpeted one Ha’aretz headline.

On the eve of the Knesset vote on a bill to remove the Court’s power to overrule any executive action lacking “reasonableness” by its lights, a petition allegedly of 1,142 signatories, including hundreds of active-duty pilots and navigators, who threatened not to report for service if the law passed, was released to the press. Without its full complement of pilots, it is doubtful that Israel could stop a massive Hezbollah missile barrage from Lebanon — something long predicted — without hundreds, if not thousands, of civilian casualties.

And on the economic front, the protestors threaten to trash the economy, says high-tech entrepreneur Moshe Radman, “to convince the lower classes, who are still hostages to a false Bibi-ist conception.” Billionaire Kobe Richter, a close friend of Ehud Barak’s, outlines the details: “Towards the end of year, when it turns out that, with the lowering of our rating by credit rating agencies, interest rates will go up by one and a half to two percent, that there are no resources for the state to draw on, and between this failing economy and a progressively eroding security [situation], there is no way for this government to continue [drawing on the support of] its current voters [who are poor and] who will be the first to suffer.”

ABOUT TWENTY YEARS AGO, Nadav Shragai wrote in Ha’aretz that the chareidim do more for the country by keeping Jewish identity alive than they would by army service. They are the one group for whom “Jew” is an all-encompassing identity, not one among many. Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer makes a similar point in an excellent article in Tzarich Iyun titled “Zionism’s Chareidi Hope.”

True, most chareidim do not currently enlist (though I expect to see an upsurge in married chareidi men serving in intelligence units and the like). But it is inconceivable that any chareidi Jew would ever act, much less deliberately, to place the lives of fellow Jews in grave danger or to reduce them to penury. That is because the interdependence of all Jews, and their mutual responsibilities to one another, is so thoroughly engrained by the Torah. The concept of areivus — i.e., that one has not fully filled a mitzvah, e.g., Kiddush, as long as there is some Jew who has not — is one example. The prohibition on taking interest from a fellow Jew, “your brother,” and the requirement to return his lost objects, which do not exist with regard to non-Jews, further emphasize the unique bond between Jews.

But it is not enough for the chareidi community to content itself with the praise of a handful of media commentators. It must clearly take upon itself the responsibility for instilling Jewish identity — e.g., an awareness of our common Torah heritage and of the beauty of a life lived by Torah precepts — in the larger population.

There is a good deal of evidence that this message is getting through. No matter how many new mechinot have been added to Kesher Yehudi’s program, the organization has never had difficulty finding sufficient volunteers to supply the new mechinot, wherever they are located in the country, and despite the multi-year commitment the organization seeks from volunteers to retain contact with their mechinah chavrusas throughout the latter’s army service.

Be a Mensch has taken advantage of the protest demonstrations against chareidim in Bnei Brak to foster dialogue by creating welcoming stations with drinks and cholent for the demonstrators. At last week’s women’s demonstration, Be a Mensch volunteers circulated among the crowd distributing plastic bracelets with the word v’ahavta to convey a message of brotherhood — v’ahavta l’reiecha kamocha.

Some demonstrators angrily rejected any attempts at dialogue, but a large majority did not. Out of the first demonstrations in Bnei Brak in May, a number of meetings between chareidim and protestors have already taken place in posh Tel Aviv living rooms. Billed as “getting to know the chareidim” opportunities, a neighbor of mine who has participated tells me that it is easy to discern a desire to know more about Torah as well.

Our work is cut out for us. But we must not shirk the task.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 976. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com)

Oops! We could not locate your form.