In a now legendary conversation that took place between the Tzanzer Rebbe (Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstaman) and David Ben Gurion, it is reported that the founder of the State of Israel asked the great Chassidic leader what the latter expects concerning 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, will wear a shtreimel.
Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg adds that the Tzanzer Rebbe communicated his view of the appropriate 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, you never know when a minority might become the majority. This, too, is a minority right that should be upheld. The Tzanzer Rebbe alluded to both these elements in his response to Ben Gurion.
In today’s reality, the facts on the ground speak for themselves. Clearly, Israel’s majority has allowed (and perhaps encouraged) Charedi society to grow and flourish. In recent generations, Charedi society has grown at an almost unprecedented rate, for which we must of course be grateful to the Almighty. Some, on the more militant flanks, will argue this growth occurred despite ongoing efforts on the part of Israel’s authorities to prevent it (as was the case in ancient Egypt). This of course amounts to nonsense. The secular majority in Israel acted in good faith and certainly did not prevent (or seek to prevent) the small Charedi minority from growing into a far more significant group. Today’s Charedi sector is poised, over 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 Israel’s population, will maintain the same good faith. If Charedim were a majority, would they, too, allow other groups to live as they wish? Or might 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 – Avigdor Lieberman of late, and previously Yair Lapid – manipulate popular fear of Charedi domination to gain electoral popularity.
A useful litmus test for this matter is the case in point of “mixed neighborhoods” – residential areas shared by an indigenous secular population and a growing Charedi influx. Such areas, such as Kiryat Yovel in Jerusalem, raise the question of how a powerful Charedi group behaves toward its anxious, non-Haredi neighbors. Will the Charedi newcomers seek a harmonious integration into the neighborhood without overtly seeking to change its character? Or will they embark on a “Charedi conquest” that imposes their standards and way of life on the neighborhood? Moreover, are such attempts legitimate or ethical? Are they a religious imperative?
If the answer to any of these questions is in the affirmative, then the secular population’s fear seemly well-justified. The burden of proof rests with us.
When the Minority Behaves Like a Majority
Over twenty years ago, Justice Aharon Barak, then president of Israel’s Supreme Court, stated that the Charedi community is a minority that acts like a majority, a fact that distinguishes it from the Arab minority. He further argued that a minority wielding political power as though it were a majority – Charedi political parties have often functioned as a tipping point for forming coalitions, granting them political power far beyond their relative size – is not entitled to the protection of minority rights. The formulation naturally sparked the ire of Charedi politicians and laymen alike. To all appearances, Charedi society was being held to an unprecedented political standard as the price for preserving its rights.
But setting aside the specific context and legal ramifications of the remarks, the argument itself is worthy of closer consideration. Historically, Charedi attitudes have not supported the concept of “standing up for our rights.” The Charedi political effort generally sought to preserve cultural autonomy, alongside protesting arrangements of religion and state harmful to the religious integrity of the community. They did not seek to take advantage of minority rights for housing and similar benefits. Though it is unclear when and why this happened, at some point in time the general attitude shifted. Perhaps Charedi society began to see itself as an inseparable part of the State of Israel, and as such began to demand its rights; and perhaps the rights discourse prevalent for other minority groups permeated Charedi society and cultivated a new set of values. It may also be that as Charedi participation in local and national government grew, so did the community’s sense of power. With this came an increased awareness of the capacity to achieve civic goals beyond a limited 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. Absent such moderation, rights can become a dangerous tool. Any sector that sees itself as overly powerful is likely to conduct itself unpleasantly, to say the least. The more a group is unified and cohesive, the greater the potential threat. Intoxication with power easily deteriorates into aggression and abuse. When asked about the behavior of Jews in the diaspora, Albert Einstein responded that “we were lucky not to have had power.” It is tempting to dispute Einstein and claim that in the Jewish case, wielding power would have provided an opportunity to demonstrate Jewish moral superiority. Even Einstein would have trouble proving the truth of his assertion. Yet all the same, power is certainly a dangerous resource, and we would be foolhardy to 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 some insults of his own, at which the Rabbi told the student that a “ben Torah” (Torah scholar) does not respond in such style. When the student inquired what the appropriate response should be, the Rabbi answered that a ben Torah does not respond at all.
I was raised on stories like this, and remember wondering if this approach is not a little exaggerated. While inculcating children with refinement and moderation, this educational spirit entails something else, too. After all, is this proposed attitude not akin to giving the other cheek and not simply an expression of internal refinement? Do we really need to remain silent and keep our heads down under abuse? What is the point of such silence? But above all, perhaps the Rabbi meant to teach his student that it is wrong to enter into conflict with such youths. The moment he responds, he becomes part of the fight and behaves exactly as they do. That, in itself, is a loss.
The attitude is exilic, to be sure, and the State of Israel has forever changed the balance of power. But it is worth remembering that the nature of power is 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 capacity to establish facts on the ground. What need is there for dialogue if a person can simply do what he wants? A weak group may need to explain, apply pressure or reach a compromise; a strong group can simply coerce. A sense of power dominates human interaction and leaves little room for deliberation.
When a person can choose between achieving something by deploying rational arguments or simply by using force, the moral position seems clear: the 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 most expedient way to achieve one’s goals. As the responsible body for the welfare of its citizens, a government can legitimately use force to protect their lives and property. Parents are responsible to raise their children, and they, too, may resort to force if need be. A teacher is responsible for the education and protection of his students, and even he might be called upon to use force as part of his duty. But when the possibility of force becomes the justification for its use, restraint should be encouraged, and other methods of achieving the relevant goals should be examined and employed. Possession of power must never eliminate the need for explanation and examination.
This does not mean that there is moral value in being weak. Rather, the moral imperative favors the soft power of arguments made with integrity, fairness, and good faith. Under conditions of oppression and tyranny, in circumstances where arguing for justice and morality are of no avail, a person can be duty-bound to take responsibility for his condition. But doing so comes with a costly price tag. Specifically, when a minority wields force against the majority, it forfeits any claim that the majority should protect its rights. The use of force implies there is nobody with whom to speak. One cannot both use force and speak the language of an enlightened rights discourse.
Demographic shifts have brought Charedi society to a position of social and political power, which behooves us to care and be vigilant in using it. Right must be weighed up against wrong, positions need to be articulated with moderation, and the use of force must be preserved for true emergency cases.
Living in Mixed Neighborhoods
In yeshivas in Israel, it is widely recognized that students who come from integrated cities — mixed cities including both Charedi and non-Charedi residents — are stronger and more mature in their Yiddishkeit than those raised in a purely Charedi environment. Notwithstanding, the Charedi educational ethos continues to espouse complete separation as the ideal. There are several reasons for this preferred strategy.
One of the sources supporting a policy of disengagement from the general public is a report that the Vilna Gaon would study Torah by candlelight in a closed and dark room — even at midday. It is said that this was done to keep the secular winds of the outside at bay, away from his Torah and his person. A famous anecdote tells of how the Dubno Maggid once met with the Vilna Gaon. The former’s reputation as somebody with the power to foment spiritual arousal led the Gaon to ask the Maggid: “Give me some mussar too!” Upon hearing the request the Maggid, filled with trepidation as a young student before his venerable teacher, asked the Gaon: “Rebbe, what wisdom and greatness is there in sitting here, windows closed, in perpetual fear of the outside? Wisdom lies in influencing the outside, not in closing oneself off.” We are all familiar with this argument, which is more relevant today than ever before. Yet, the Gaon was unconvinced. 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 tried nor humiliated.”
Whether accurate or not, the anecdote characterizes the reason why most of Charedi society prefers to distance itself from the general Israeli public and live in separate communities, notwithstanding the disadvantages of such community arrangements. But there are always those who choose, for various reasons, to live in mixed neighborhoods, and these Charedi concentrations continue to grow rapidly. Indeed, housing shortages and other factors have led to significant growth in the number and size of Charedi groups living in mixed cities and neighborhoods. While this decision is forced by circumstances, subsequent conduct in such areas requires careful consideration. Is it legitimate to relocate to a new area and deploy political force in seeking to modify its character, ultimately transforming a secular area into a Charedi enclave where non-Charedi residents will feel uncomfortable?
A new and cohesive group arrives wielding a certain power. The very fact of its cohesion supplies it with social strength and threatens existing residents, who fear being crushed by the collective strength of the newcomers. Even when the new group’s demands are legitimate claims to civil rights, they can easily be construed as a declaration of war. The atmosphere is poisoned before any discussion or attempt is made to find compromise and encourage mutual understanding.
It may be that changes in the character of residential neighborhoods are inevitable. The migration of a population and the retreat of one sector before another happens everywhere, all the time. Such processes take place worldwide 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 can impose our will. Mutual respect and civic discourse must take precedence over power play.
The case of mixed neighborhoods is important not only in its own right but also as a microcosm of Israel more broadly. As the political, economic, and social power of Charedi society continues to grow, it needs to ensure that it wields its power with the measure of responsibility appropriate for a large and robust group. As the Talmud notes (Yoma 86a), a Torah scholar is judged not only by his scholarship – the internal measure of the study hall – but even by his interaction with general society. The lesson is all the more relevant for Charedi society as a whole.
Picture: Eli Segal, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons