Are Israel's Haredim Leaning Left or Right?

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The deep fear expressed by the leadership of Israelis haredim is not of external criticism, but of an internal blurring of identity and straying from the path.

Last Thursday morning, while sipping their morning coffee, many haredim were amazed to discover that their citizenship is under threat. No, it’s not their Israeli citizenship that is in danger, but rather their status as an autonomous haredi community.

The front page of Yated Ne’eman, the newspaper of the Lithuanian Degel HaTorah party, featured a long and resolute editorial declaring that anyone who dares to participate in the major demonstrations in support of the government’s proposed judicial overhaul, would lose their haredi citizenship: “Anyone who takes part in the demonstrations of the Right is not a member of our community and is not one of us – period. Their citizenship in the House of the Lord is revoked. Their passport has expired.”

Opposition to haredi participation in the demonstrations was not limited to the printed page. For the benefit of those who for some reason skipped the morning paper, cars with loudspeakers roamed Bnei Brak later in the day announcing that in keeping with the senior rabbinical leadership’s dictates, “No one should abandon their Torah study and desecrate the name of the Lord for demonstrations that are conducted immodestly and not in the spirit of the Torah.”

The haredi news websites and the spokespersons on behalf of leading haredi rabbis and politicians explained that the call to stay away from the protests stemmed from deep-seated concerns as to haredim being in the eye of a very public storm. Haredi leadership believes that there is a risk of jeopardizing the only cause that truly interests it: passing the new conscription bill.

Of course, one of the main bones of contention in the current protests, the override clause, was formulated and advanced under haredi pressure in order to neutralize the power of the Supreme Court to strike down any law that would exempt haredim from the draft, as it has done with all previous legislative attempts on the matter since 1998.

There is no doubt that it is this tactical consideration that is guiding haredi politicians, and that also influenced the decision by Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the most senior Lithuanian rabbi, to publish the call not to participate in the demonstrations mentioned in Yated Ne’eman. But at the same time, it is important to note that this is not the main reason cited in the editorial itself. The deep fear expressed there is not of external criticism, but of an internal blurring of identity and straying from the path.

In the article, the author warns against the trend of identification with the Right that is spreading throughout the haredi public and especially among its younger generation. He blames the haredi media in its broadest sense – haredi news websites and popular haredi Twitter figures – who espouse right-wing views and even call for affiliation with right-wing parties: “For a long period, a veil has cast a shadow over the minds of our young generation. The distorting haredi media often expresses right-wing political views. Demands for working hand-in-hand with the Right... bring many young people closer to an attitude of sinful pride in his or her own achievements.”

The findings of the Israel Democracy Institute reveal that the haredi leadership’s fears with regard to the drift to the Right are indeed justified. In the 2016 Israeli Democracy Index, in response to the question “How do you define yourself politically (on security and foreign affairs)?” the majority of the haredi public identified itself as right wing or moderate right wing.

Rabbi Gershon Edelstein spiritual leader of Degel HaTorah: He decided to publish the call in ‘Yated Ne’eman’ not to participate in right-wing demonstrations. Photo by Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90

Understanding the divisions in Israeli haredi society

But it is important to note the distribution of the responses among the three main groups that make up the haredi public: 43% of hassidim identified themselves as on the Right, as did 44% of Sephardim, compared with only 22% of Lithuanian haredim. In addition, around 28% of the hassidic public identified itself as moderate right wing, along with 42% of the Sephardi public and 48% of the Lithuanian public.

Not surprisingly, the Lithuanians make up a large majority of those in the Center and this is what the struggle is all about. The influence of the late Rabbi Elazar Shach’s pragmatic and dovish approach is still evident among the Lithuanian public, relative to the other haredi groups, but it is on the wane.

This can be attributed to the alignment of the haredi parties with the Right in recent decades, to the Right’s acknowledged identification with religious tradition, and perhaps also to the fact that the haredi population is the youngest in Israel, and as we know, right wing and even extreme right-wing views are usually the most popular among young Israeli Jews.

The Yated Ne’eman editorial also takes aim at the blurring of social boundaries between the haredi and right-wing publics, as well as at the adoption of hawkish views within the haredi public itself.

The writer clarifies that somewhat paradoxically, it is precisely the Right’s traditional closeness to religion and because there are kippah-wearers who identify with the right that the danger posed by them is even greater. Like a chameleon, through its external appearance, the right’s affinity to religion may fool the ultra-Orthodox world into thinking that they are an integral part of their religious world.

Yet while the struggle to delineate the boundaries of the haredi public will in principle be decided by the entire haredi leadership, the attack on the holding of hawkish, right-wing views is more complex.

The editorial in the Lithuanian Yated Ne’eman expresses contempt toward those who listen to “the little Kahanist that dwells inside people who do not have the politically correct outlook,” and even forcefully argues that, “the Torah perspective is diametrically opposed to the outburst of emotions that come from the gut and even those that come from the head; rather, [it only accepts] those based on the Torah... The Torah outlook is opposed to actions and sayings that can set the entire country aflame and endanger people’s lives.”

However, the views expressed by haredi Knesset members – mainly the hassidim among them, though not exclusively – tend more toward Ze’ev Jabotinsky than toward Shach.

“We belong to the right-wing bloc, we want to keep the land of Israel whole.”

Yitzhak Goldknopf

Some of the ministers who belong to the hassidic stream openly hold hawkish views and publicly oppose any territorial concessions to the Palestinians. At the annual conference of the Israel Democracy Institute’s Religion and State Program in September 2022, the chairman of United Torah Judaism, Yitzhak Goldknopf, declared, “We belong to the right-wing bloc, we want to keep the land of Israel whole.”

And in an interview in 2020, MK Meir Porush expressed complete opposition to giving up “even a single piece of the territory of the land of Israel.” Thus, it is not surprising that Porush spoke out against the editorial published in Yated Ne’eman, saying that it applies only to yeshiva students but not to the haredi public as a whole, which should attend the Right’s demonstration in droves.

A similar shift is evident among Lithuanian members of the Knesset. MK Moshe Gafni, who was identified for many years as a pragmatist who was closer to the position of the Left, today positions himself as being closer to the Right, due to the latter’s more religious character. And the next generation of Lithuanian public representatives includes MK Yitzhak Pindrus, who was raised in the far-right and almost messianic Zilberman community.

If the last barricade of haredi pragmatism collapses and Yated Ne’eman is left as a lone voice in the desert, then the demographic growth and internal processes within the haredi public will have an impact not only on social issues in Israel, but also on the country’s foreign and security policy, and will create a clear and steady majority for the views of the Right.

This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post.