Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox: Piety vs. Patriotism

Haredi-women-300x224As Israel celebrated its 66th Independence Day earlier this week, dozens of ultra-Orthodox (haredi) youth exploited their democratic right to freely assemble by ripping down and destroying Israeli flags, blocking roads, and protesting against the Jewish state.

Such outbursts have developed into a sad phenomenon, with demonstrations against Jewish sovereignty becoming more frequent and more heated as the Israeli government has taken steps to enlist the country’s able-bodied ultra-Orthodox men into the Israel Defense Forces.

For Israel’s 66 years of existence, the ultra-Orthodox have mostly kept their distance from mainstream society. With government acquiescence, they also have skipped military service, which is compulsory for most Jewish men.

A poll conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) ahead of Israel’s 66th Independence Day revealed that only 35 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jews consider Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) a Jewish holiday.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders have long insisted that their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, thus preserving the Jewish heritage that has kept the faith through centuries of persecution.

Thing is, Jewish heritage is based on the fundamental idea of the Jewish people living freely in their own land. The fulfillment of the mitzvoth (commandments) in their completeness depends on the existence of a Jewish polity in the Land of Israel.

In the Torah, the concept of the Land of Israel is born simultaneously with the idea of the Jewish people. God’s covenant with Abraham includes a promise that Abraham’s descendants will inherit the area from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates. From the moment that God liberates these descendants from slavery and the People of Israel transform from an idea into a reality, the Torah’s narrative arc has one end: inhabiting this Promised Land.

Of course, Haredi leaders will counter that the Jews can only rightfully return to Israel and self-government after the Messiah comes.

Yet the worldview espoused for decades by many influential ultra-Orthodox Jews has to date done less to pave the way for the arrival of the anointed one and more to foster a crippling culture of dependence.

Due to its high birthrate and the relatively low participation in the workforce, the ultra-Orthodox community suffers from high unemployment and poverty. There’s been increasing questions over the ultra-Orthodox education system, which teaches ,students about Judaism but very little math, English or science.

Only by dint of Israeli governmental largess has the Haredi community not just survived but grown, currently accounting for approximately 10 percent of the country’s population of eight million people.

As history has repeatedly shown, any system that is dependent on private and government subsidies is ultimately doomed for failure.

Or, to cite a slightly older source: “Strengthen him [the poor person] so that he does not fall [as distinct from the one who has already become poor] and become dependent on others.” (Leviticus 25:35)

Jewish tradition elegantly eschews any contradiction between piety and patriotism.

For more opinion pieces written by Gidon Ben-Zvi for the Algemeiner, click here.

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