Who Are the Religious In Israel? Part I

I have been reminded lately that “the religious” in Israel are not always clearly understood—their distinctions, divisions, and politics. But understanding these differences is important, because different groups within this broad social category want different things from the State of Israel. Moreover, considering them to be one large grouping is not helpful for understanding Israel, Israeli politics, or Israeli policymaking; or for comparing to religious groups in other countries.

The most recent Israeli Democracy Index (p.177) captures these differences well. Of self-identification among Israeli Jews, 6% classify themselves as ultra-Orthodox (haredi); 2.2% as Haredi-leumi (Orthodox-nationalist—the convergence between the haredim and the Zionists, sometimes called hardal); 11.8% as Orthodox; 12.7% as Traditional-religious; and 20.7% as Traditional-non-religious. (An additional 45.6% self-identify as secular.)

The traditional categories have been the haredim, the Hasidim,and the religious Zionists. The IDI question mentioned above doesn’t ask specifically about Zionism across this spectrum, but what is commonly called religious Zionism encompasses the Orthodox, the Haredi-leumi, and some portions of the haredi and the Traditional-religious. (Thanks to Dahlia Scheindlin for a clarifying discussion on this.)

The late and very keen observer of Israeli politics, Asher Arian, argued that the politics of the religious parties can be considered along three spectrums: the Zionist dimension (how Zionist), the ethnic dimension (Ashkenazi-Sephardic; indeed, each community has its own rabbinical structures), and the territorial dimension (position regarding the West Bank).

The haredi are sometimes called the ultra-Orthodox (though they reject that term—if you’re Orthodox, you’re already observing the customs and rules of halacha, Jewish law). Conservative in their social norms, they follow a narrow interpretation of Jewish law and scripture. They are further divided into several different sects and denominations, some of which are stricter in their beliefs and practices than others.

In general they are anti- or non-Zionists. Their worldview is categorized into two broad states of being: exile and redemption. Until the Temple is rebuilt and the Jewish people are reconstituted in the Land of Israel, Jews remain in exile. Redemption—a divinely-inspired and –driven process—occurs when these things fall into place. Because of this, some don’t support the state since it was created by human actions.

The haredim are further divided into Hasidic and non-Hasidic groups. Hasidic groups tend to be non-Zionist, though some, like Chabad, do engage in a more practical Zionism that allows for participation in state activities (like serving in the military). There are several different Hasidic groups, each of which operates according to its own dynastic leadership: a main rabbi or small group of rabbis governs the community, apart from the state religious officials.

Haredi politics is complex. Some haredi groups are so completely anti-Zionist and opposed to the state that they don’t recognize it in any way, including through taxes or participation in elections, or by obeying state religious authorities. Their social-political organization, the Edah HaHaredit, works to serve their needs so that the state doesn’t have to. It also maintains its own system of rabbis who look after the community’s spiritual needs. In recent years, the Edah has itself been divided over personality and organizational disagreements.

More extremist in its anti-Zionism is Neteuri Karta—its members are the ones who will meet with Iranian President Ahmadinejad at Holocaust-denial conferences. By some estimates it’s composed only of a few hundred families. It plays virtually no role in Israeli politics, trying to stay apart from the state as much as possible. Its unity, too, has broken down over increasing radicalism among some members

Others are non-Zionist—they don’t actively recognize the validity of the state (or its representatives) but they will recognize the reality of it, and they will participate in its politics. In the current Knesset there are three parties that represent this strain. Shas is the most well-known: it operates according to haredi guidelines but claims to specifically represent the Orthodox and traditional Sephardic community.

The other two parties are Agudat Israel, which is Ashkenazi with some Hasidism, and Degel HaTorah, which is also Ashkenazi but opposed to Hasidism. Despite their tension and bickering, they run in national elections on a single ticket called United Torah Judaism.

The demands of these three parties have always been focused on their own needs: obtaining resources for their community’s social and educational structures. They have successfully played off the secular parties against each other toward this end, offering to serve in a coalition government under one or the other in return for more money and more consideration of their demands.

Sometimes these parties have pressed hard for their secondary goal: to make Jewish law the law of the state. This is represented best by their efforts to enforce a halachic definition of “who is a Jew”—who can immigrate to Israel, who can control conversion processes, and who can dominant personal status issues like marriage. They have been less successful in this arena. The secular parties, sometimes under pressure from diaspora Jews, have resisted most of their efforts and even worked together at times to resist them, though the general trend toward religiosity and the political right in Israel has facilitated greater acceptance of their preferences among the population.

On foreign policy, these parties have been more agnostic than anything else. The major exception is the West Bank. In the past, only the religious Zionists held a strong political and policy position on this subject. After 1967 they pushed hard for settlements across the Green Line, in line with their understanding of the Land of Israel as sovereign Jewish territory. Indeed, the increasing radicalization among the religious Zionist youth has been one of the main drivers of the settlement enterprise.

Most non-Zionists were content to wait for the divine plan to reveal itself, and where they did take positions, this was contingent on other factors. At its beginnings in the 1980s, for example, Shas’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, often proclaimed that giving up territory was acceptable for the sake of Jewish lives. His position has changed over time, and it’s not clear what his final ruling will be in the event of a genuine peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Mostly, apart from the staunch anti-Zionists who call for Palestinian rule over the entire Land of Israel, haredi groups have simply mistrusted the Palestinians. Chabad, in particular, has been active in opposing land-for-peace formulae on this basis. Their role in foreign policymaking, then, is limited.

3 thoughts on “Who Are the Religious In Israel? Part I

  1. Pingback: Jostling in the Religious Parties | Mideast Matrix

  2. Pingback: Re-Crunching the Israeli Poll Numbers | Mideast Matrix

  3. Pingback: No, The Israeli Right Does Not Have A Permanent Majority « Ottomans and Zionists

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