In a now legendary conversation that took place between the Tzanzer Rebbe and David Ben Gurion, it is reported that the founder of the State of Israel asked the great Chassidic leader what the latter expects for his community in the new country. The Tzanzer Rebbe responded that at a minimum, he expects that Tzanzer Chassidim should be able to wear their shtreimels unhindered; at a maximum, he hopes that Ben Gurion, too, would wear a shtreimel.
Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg adds that the Tzanzer Rebbe was communicating his view of the correct relationship between a majority and a minority. At a minimum, the minority’s right to live according to its values and culture must be preserved. At the same time, in a functioning democracy, there is always the possibility that a minority may one day become the majority. This, too, is a minority right that should be upheld. The Tzanzer Rebbe was alluding to both these needs in his response to Ben Gurion.
Turning now to today’s reality, has the majority—the general secular Israeli sector—allowed the Charedi community to grow? I believe the answer to that question is clear; the facts speak for themselves. In recent generations, Charedi society has grown at an almost unprecedented rate, for which we must of course be grateful to the Almighty. Some will doubtless argue that this growth occurred despite ongoing efforts on the part of Israel’s authorities to prevent it, as was the case in ancient Egypt. Yet, I firmly believe the secular majority acted in good faith, and certainly did not prevent (or even try to prevent) the small Charedi minority from growing into a far more significant group. Today’s Charedi sector is poised, over the course of the next several decades, to become a full quarter of Israel’s population.
The difficult question, over which many lose sleep, is whether the Charedi community, as a significant portion of the Israeli population, will maintain the same good faith. If the Charedim were a majority, would they allow other groups to live as they wish? Or would a Charedi majority attempt to change the face of Israeli society? This question comes to the fore at every election campaign, when one or more secular politicians manipulate the fear of Charedi dominion to gain electoral popularity. Moreover, it is likewise the underlying concern at the forefront of ongoing Charedi-secular feuding in “mixed neighborhoods.”
Unlike fully Charedi neighborhoods or clearly secular ones, where there is no friction, the integrated neighborhoods surface the tensions of a shared public life between religious and secular Israelis. And here the Charedi residents bear the burden of “proving” themselves. Most of these mixed neighborhoods were originally secular. Down the line Charedi families, seeking new housing options, moved into these already existing areas. Newly relocated, are the Charedi residents trying to integrate as part of the neighborhood, or are they attempting to change its character by making it better accommodate their own way of life? Are such attempts legitimate or ethical? Might they even be obligatory, a religious imperative?
If the answer to any of these questions is in the affirmative, then the secular population’s fear seemly well-justified.
When the Minority Behaves Like a Majority
Over twenty years ago, Justice Aharon Barak, then Israel’s Supreme Court President, said that the Charedi community is a minority acting like a majority. He further argued that a minority wielding political power as if it were a majority is not entitled to the protection of minority rights. At the time this was an infuriating formulation, evidently aimed at blocking Charedi minority rights. To all appearances, the Charedi community was being held to an unprecedented standard of political obedience as the price for preserving its own rights.
However, setting aside the source of the remarks, we ought to examine the argument itself, detached from its original context or any legal ramifications thereof. Historically, Charedi attitudes did not support a policy of demanding rights. The Charedi political effort generally sought to preserve cultural autonomy or protest various arrangements of religion and state that would be harmful to the religious integrity of the community. They did not seek to take advantage of minority rights for the purposes of housing benefits and the like. At some point this general direction shifted; it is not clear precisely when or why. Perhaps the Charedi community began to see itself as an inseparable part of the State of Israel, and as such began to demand rights; maybe the rights discourse prevalent for other minority groups penetrated deeply enough into Charedi society and cultivated these new values. It may also be that as Charedi participation in local governments grew, so did the community’s sense of power. With this came an increased an awareness of their power to achieve further civic goals, beyond simple engagement in matters of religion and state.
While the fundamental morality of the minority rights discourse is in the eye of the beholder, demanding those rights must certainly be done with moderation and responsibility. Otherwise, rights can become a dangerous tool. Any sector that sees itself as overly strong and all-powerful is likely to conduct itself in an unpleasant manner. The more a group is unified and cohesive, the greater the potential threat. Intoxication with power easily deteriorates into aggression and abuse. Albert Einstein was once asked about the behavior of Jews in the Diaspora and he responded that we were lucky we did not have power. Sure, it is tempting to dispute Einstein and claim that if we had power throughout history, we would have behaved more morally than other nations. And, indeed, even Einstein would have trouble in proving the truth of his assertion. All the same, power is definitely a dangerous thing, sometimes less and sometimes more so, and we cannot ignore the threat it presents.
A Minority Needs to Behave Like One
A Gadol of the previous generation was walking down the street with a student when some Polish thugs jeered at them. The student responded in kind with his own insults. The Rabbi told the student that a Ben Torah does not respond in such style. When the student inquired what the correct response is, the Rabbi answered that a ben Torah does not respond at all.
I was raised on stories like this, and I remember wondering if this approach is not a little exaggerated. It cannot be explained as merely a means of teaching refinement. After all, the proposed attitude is akin to giving the other cheek, not refinement. Do we really need to remain silent and keep our head down under abuse? What is the point of such silence? But perhaps what the Rabbi wished to teach his student more than anything was that he cannot enter a conflict with those youths. The moment he responds, he is part of the fight and behaves exactly as they do. That, in itself, is a loss.
It is in the nature of power to render superfluous any need for argumentation or justification. The more power one has, the more one can forgo dialogue and persuasion. Power affords the ability to establish facts on the ground. When one can simply do what he wants, what need is there for argument? A weak group may need to explain or apply pressure; a strong group can simply coerce. The sense of power dominates the interaction and leaves no room for discussion.
When a person can choose whether to achieve something by deploying rational arguments or simply by using force, the moral position is clear. Use of force is appropriate only as a tool to achieve a justified aim. Force should not be used simply because one can and doing so is the easiest way to achieve one’s goals. The government is responsible for the welfare of its citizens and it may use force to protect their lives and property. Parents are responsible to raise their children and they may need to use force to do so. A teacher is responsible for the education of his students and may need to use force to fulfill his role. But when the possibility of force becomes the justification for its use, restraint should be encouraged and other methods of achieving the goal should be examined. Possession of power should not eliminate the need for explanation and examination.
This does not mean that there is moral value in being weak. Rather, strong force and use of the outstretched arm should be set aside, and we should favor softer power, arguments made with integrity, fairness, and good faith. When one believes he is oppressed under by tyranny, and all his please arguing for justice and morality are to no avail, then he is duty-bound to take responsibility for his condition. When a minority wields force, usually the means of enforcement of the dominant majority, it forfeits any claim that the majority should protect its rights.
If our public conduct as a Charedi community is changing because we now have power (as opposed to our historical powerlessness), then we must be very vigilant to ensure that we do not shortcut proper weighing of right and wrong as result. The Charedi public must use its power with great care and preserve it for true cases of emergency.
Life in Mixed Areas
In yeshivas in Israel, it is widely recognized that students who come from integrated cities are stronger and more mature in their Yiddishkeit than those who were raised in a purely Charedi environment. However, the Charedi educational ethos continues to espouse complete separation as the ideal, for many reasons.
One of the known sources supporting a policy of disengagement from the general public is a report that the Gaon of Vilna would study Torah by candlelight in a closed and dark room, even in the middle of the day. He did so—so it is said—to keep the secular winds of the street away from him and his learning. It is said that the Maggid of Dubno once met with the Vilna Gaon. The former’s reputation as one who might rouse anyone to spiritual awakening having preceded him, the Gaon asked that the Maggid give him mussar too. Upon being asked, the Maggid, with awe and fear as a student before his teacher, asked: “Rebbe, what is the wisdom of sitting like this with closed windows in fear of the outside? Wisdom lies in coping and influencing the outside, not closing oneself off.” We are all familiar with this argument, more relevant today than ever before; but the Gaon was not convinced. He responded to the Maggid: “I am not seeking wisdom. I wish to do my Creator’s will and not take chances; not to be tested nor humiliated.”
Whether accurate or not, the anecdote characterizes the reason why most of the Charedi community prefers to distance itself from the general public and live in separate communities. There are always those who, for various reasons, choose to live in mixed neighborhoods but opt for separation; these Charedi concentrations continue to grow rapidly. In recent years, due to a housing shortage, there has been a significant growth in the number and size of Charedi groups living in mixed cities and neighborhoods. While this is a decision forced by circumstances, one’s conduct in such areas requires careful thought. Is it legitimate to relocate in a place that already has a particular character and deploy political force to try to change it?
When a new and cohesive group arrives, it carries power within it. The very fact that it is cohesive and identifiable gives it strength and threatens the existing residents, who fear being crushed by the interlopers’ cohesion. Even when the new group’s demands are legitimate claims to civil rights, they are construed as a declaration of war. This reaction is immediate, before any discussion takes place or an attempt is made to see and do things differently to everyone’s mutual satisfaction.
It may be that changes in the character of residential areas are inevitable. The migration of a population and the retreat of one sector before another happens everywhere, all the time. Such processes take place throughout the world and lead to the dissipation of existing communities. There is no correct way to deal with the difficulties resulting from friction between communities. But even if the tension is inevitable, we must make sure our actions are taken in light of proper moral considerations, and not simply because we are able to impose our will.
Picture: Eli Segal, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons