Prof. Gideon Aran: Haredi Jewish Fundamentalism

For the Jews of (mainly Eastern) Europe during the 19th century and the early 20th century, the onset of the modernization represented a radical transformation that combined secularization, enlightenment, political emancipation and massive westward migration. On the ruins of the rabbinical Jewish society of the middle ages a revolutionary array of new patterns emerged: from complete assimilation, through religious reform, to a territorial nationalism embodied in Zionism.
Written By Prof. Gideon Aran

It was in addition to these patterns, and as a reaction to them, that Orthodox Judaism emerged as a uniquely modern phenomenon. In place of the traditional community emerged a traditionalist one. This implies a clearly defined selective sub-group that self- consciously and methodically clings to tradition. This rather non-obvious voluntary choice naturally required ideological justification. Jewish Orthodoxy recognized the reality of social change that Jews and Judaism were undergoing, diagnosed it, felt threatened by it and fought it. For this brand of Judaism, tradition involved a strict adherence to the detailed and totalistic normative-ritualistic codex that regulates all behavioral aspects of life (Halakhah), devotion to the study of the Torah (mainly the Talmud), and absolute obedience to the rulings of the rabbinical authorities regarding personal and public matters (Katz, 1961; Samet, 1971; Friedman, 1991).

Soon, however, orthodoxy split into two factions: On the one hand, an adaptive Neo-Orthodoxy that sought to be integrated into its civil, social and economic environment as long as the halakhic rules were not transgressed (Don Yehiya, 1994). For example, it encouraged higher education and practicing professions like medicine provided that the observance of Sabbath and other commandments like keeping the kosher dietary laws were kept. A major portion of this camp joined the Zionists in Israel and became known as the National-Religious camp.

On the other hand, the conservative Ultra-Orthodox group was characterized by a rabbinically sanctioned vehement opposition to any novelty, even to apparently trivial changes in matters not covered by the halakhah. Thus, this camp strongly linked itself to many customs and the life-style that were associated with pre-modern times such as dark heavy clothing, the sporting of beards (for men) and typical hair cover (for married women), and the rejection of all “alien culture” (like Western music and art). Naturally, this camp tended to close in onto itself (Katz, 1961; Silber, 1992).

Small Ultra-Orthodox communities located themselves in Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine, and larger communities developed in urban centers in Western Europe and AmericaThe vast majority of Ultra-Orthodox communities of Eastern Europe were wiped out during the Holocaust and many survivors made their way to Israel after the Second World War.

Here the Ultra-Orthodox were a distinct, demoralized, and timid group whose members only sought to be tolerated and to live their lives among themselves. Challenging it was the young Israeli society that was in the midst of a pinnacle of achievements in nation and state building, saturated with vibrant and arrogant secular culture. In the reality of the 1950s and 1960s the Ultra-Orthodox movement was often seen as a sort of “living fossil,” a tiny, negligible and ridiculed element that had no future and that reminded one of a shameful past. It was from this group that the successful Haredi movement developed in the following decades (Friedman, 1991).

In recent times, we are witness to a substantial rise in the numbers, standard of life, public image and self-confidence of the Haredim. Their political gains are impressive, accompanied by what they see as a cultural renaissance. A conspicuous manifestation of their success is a widespread and elaborate institution building. Haredim now make up about 6-7% of Israel’s over six million people (see Ilan, 2000). The internal organization of the Haredim and their division into different subgroups are based on their exilic past in the 18th Century and before. The elementary differentiation is between Hasidim and Lithuanians.

Both tend to congregate in homogeneous and exclusive neighborhoods in the central urban centers of Israel (especially Jerusalem and Bnei Berak), and in certain peripheral towns within and beyond the green line. The Haredim voluntarily live in sort of ghettos that have ecological and cultural boundaries clearly defined and carefully maintained. Their distinction and seclusion are emphasized and regulated through dress codes, peculiar language (mainly Yiddish), and other indicators such as high levels of fertility (a family of twelve is not uncommon).

Gideon Aran

Gideon Aran, The Hebrew University

Their adventures out of their enclaves are limited and regulated since most of their needs (including religious services like synagogues and ritual bathes, in addition to trade, welfare, judicial bodies and self-policing) are met within the confines of the community. Their marriages are organized and planned and they are endogamic (Heilman and Friedman, 1991). They live a Spartan existence that is modest and disciplined, and in general are quite poor as is seen in the low standard of their housing.

The surrounding Israeli society serves as their mirror image in its modern secular values, its nationalistic ethos and civil commitments, and in its materialism and affluence (Shelhav, 1991; Dahan, 1998; Berman, 2000). In fact Israel’s consumer attractions are also perceived as threatening the bases of Haredi asceticism. Formally, the Haredim are Israeli citizens equal to others, but in realty they enjoy certain privileged rights, especially in an autonomous educational system, large subsidies, and exemptions from compulsory military service. This reality of exploitation and lack of reciprocity evokes acute public criticism (Friedman, 1991, Heilman and Friedman, 1991; Cromer, 1993).

Today, the yeshiva (Torah academy) is the backbone of Haredi life. Only there can one fully fulfill religious Judaism and learn to be a religious Jew, Haredi-style (Selengut, 1994). Haredi society is made up of yeshivas, which include all males and their households. There are no Haredi members that are not attached to a yeshiva, and there is almost no Haredi existence outside these institutions. The yeshiva is a total institution in many senses of the word.

It covers the life span of a Haredi, from the heder for toddlers to the kolel for men with families of their own (Friedman, 1991; Soloveitchik, 1994a, 1994b). The yeshiva also covers the entire breadth of the life-cycle of the individual, as a place of prayer and study, as a framework for socializing and leisure, and as a kind of community center which provides material aid, housing, medicine and even psychic support (see Heilman 1983, 1992).

Paradoxically, the modern, secular and nationalist Israel of the last quarter of a century has provided especially fertile ground for the thriving of the Haredim. They have benefited from the fact that they are a minority living in a Western, urban, capitalist, technologically advanced, democratic welfare state, and a relatively tolerant society (Friedman, 1991). These rewarding circumstances are reinforced by other factors.

First, the almost total political mobilization of the Haredi community during election times which is accompanied by considerable organizational and public relations skills on the part of Haredi political representatives and administrators. Much of their strength has derived from a parliamentary system in which smaller coalition partners have disproportionate power and can – as the Haredi parties have for many years – command the counting vote between two almost equal parties (Liebman, 1993). The Haredi splinter parties have entered different coalitions, supporting either of the big blocs in matters important to the latter, like foreign and defense policy, in order to be reciprocated in monies and legislation that further their sectorial interests.

Second, the ideological and leadership crisis in Israel that developed along with disillusionment and fatigue brought about by ongoing armed conflicts, routine and corruption have brought about a de-Zionization and decline in the secular Hebrew culture. This trend was accompanied by a “re-Judiaization” of Israel and the reemergence of a positive attitude towards tradition and religion. These trends were further intensified after 1977 when the “right” came into power and brought the Haredim into central positions of influence in politics and the economy. For the first time, Haredi politicians became senior ministers in the government.

Previously the official attitude of the Haredim towards Israel and Israelies was negative if not hostile. So much so that Haredim of the extreme fringe refused to accept citizens’ ID cards despite their awareness of the cost in terms of renouncing benefits such as social security. A few even declined elementary public services provided by the “sinful” Zionists like electricity. Being a Jewish yet secular state, Israel was regarded as worth less than Gentile countries. Since Zionism substituted the traditional religious definition of Judaism with a political national one, some Haredim considered collaboration with the State’s Arab enemies.

Among the radical sector of the Haredi public, anti-Israeliness has become an almost theological tenet and a basis for collective identity, organization and agitation. The background for the anti-Israeli position is halakhic (Zionists are “pork-eaters”, apostates and persecutors of religion) and messianic (the Zionists “precipitate the end-time” and are false Messiahs). Furthermore, the opposition to Zionism stems from a historical experience that has become ingrained over the course of centuries, until it became habitual: moderation and avoidance of involvement in historical movements, a practice adopted by the Jews during the course of a long history of lack of sovereignty and the dependence of a weak minority.

The classical Haredi position would today be considered as dovish. It encouraged passivity and reconciliation. On issues of Middle East politics, they consistently maintained a pragmatic, compromising and minimalist line. They rejected Zionist activism as an expression of sin and heresy and the acts of Satan. They saw it as linked with the violation of divine commandments, as precipitating the messianic redemption which, they believed, God would bring in His own time, as based on material and armed force, and as arrogantly “provoking the nations of the world”, and thus endangering the security and prosperity of Jews who ought to devote themselves exclusively to the study of the sacred scriptures and to ritual activities.

However, the Haredi attitude towards the State is undergoing change. The vitriolic nature of Haredi opposition has been moderated, even if criticism and reservations are still the dominant line. In many areas of life, there are signs of de-facto recognition of the State; and recently, fissures have appeared in the previously united opposition to de-jure recognition of the State as well. Haredim cooperate with state institutions and have even become champions of certain proto-Zionist values, like sensitivity to national pride or the integrity of Israel’s borders.

Gideon Aran

Haredi Jews (

Today, a large portion of Haredim may be defined as a-Zionist, while only a radical minority among them sticks to their old anti-Zionist positions.

Moreover, Haredim tend to support positions considered on the right of the Israeli political spectrum. Recently they have become the more solid element of the right which is reorganizing in response to the situation in the Middle East over the last decade or two. Haredim back a hawkish regional policy: they are maximalist on questions of settlement and sovereignty over parts of the West Bank and Gaza with high Palestinian concentrations, and activist in their support of armed force in acts of retaliation. The tendency of the Haredim towards the right typifies mainly the younger members and the grass roots, as opposed to the political and especially, the religious leadership. In recent years, the leadership has been dragged somewhat to the right by their constituency.

Against the background of the recent violent conflict with the Palestinians and the terror attacks in the cities of Israel during which significant numbers of Haredim died or were injured, a degree of chauvinism has emerged among the community. An important element of this is a kind of Haredi Jewish solidarity, a certain sympathy with fellow Israelis the basis of which is primordial or ethnic rather than political. In the recent Haredi gravitation to right wing positions one can identify also a body-related dimension.

Hawkish extremism is essentially related to bodily-related qualities that are conventionally associated with Israeliness. In adopting such tough ideology and style the Haredim betray their desire to own a body. It seems to be a sublimated expression of their fascination with those very things that were long thought to be the province of Zionists, and of which the Ultra-Orthodox have been deprived: physicality, manhood and action-seeking. It may well be that the Haredim who are frustrated with their bodies are jealous of the Zionists who are known to ‘have” a body (see Biale, 1992b; Weiss, 2002).

The multi-layered conflict between Zionism and Ultra-Orthodoxy includes another layer: a clash between two different kinds of bodies, body languages and sets of body practices. In a way, present-day Israel is an arena of the encounter between Zionism – supposedly a very bodily movement – and Haredim, supposedly a non bodily movement. Because Zionism has stressed work, health, fighting, and sport as well as historical activism, the anti-Zionist challenge on the part of Haredim was expressed in an assault on their own bodies. The Haredi body conceptualizes and cultivates itself in terms of the mirror image of the Zionist body. The Haredi attempt to negate and repress their bodies signifies their protest against Zionism. This is a bodily defiance that is mainly passive.

The opposition to Zionism was so strong that many Ultra-Orthodox men turned to the very ways of active expression – rallies and protest gatherings – that were used by the Zionists themselves. Some of their demonstrations against the Zionist state involved head-on confrontations with citizens and with the agents of law and order, and resulted in damage to persons and property on both sides. In the oral mythology of Meah Shearim – the old extreme Haredi quarter in north Jerusalem - the previous leader of the Satmar Hasidim, Rabbi Yoelush Teitelbaum, a radical among radicals, once called out followers to protest in the street of the Israeli capital against public transportations on the Sabbath and against secular women appearing in public in immodest clothes.

The community responded enthusiastically to his call and began preparing. Surprisingly, the rabbi reconsidered his decision and announced the cancellation of the protest rally. To his strong-handed, hot-headed followers who were disappointed and astonished, he explained that protest rallies and demonstrations are based on the taking of initiative and human intervention in the course of events, and especially, on forcefulness and physical violence. But, he added, these are the very characteristics of Zionism that we are protesting against. Even if the purpose of the demonstration is necessary and exemplary, its very nature makes it invalid. It is like ‘a divine commandment accomplished through sin’.

When purist and pushing their logic to its limits, the extreme Haredi positions are self-contradictory if implemented. Implementing their militant anti-Zionist stance therefore requires them to ‘do as the Zionists do’. Hurling stones at cars passing through Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods or brawling with policemen during protest rallies against autopsies are acts which are anti-Zionists, yet at the same time arguably Zionists in their mode of execution. The Haredi men who excel in fast running or wrestling abilities on such occasions are both God-sanctifier and God-desecrators.

Taken from “Body, Violence and Fundamentalism: The Case of Jewish Ultra-Orthodoxy”, By Gideon Aran.

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