Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Identity > Multiculturalism, Identity Politics, and Haredi Society

Multiculturalism, Identity Politics, and Haredi Society

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Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer Editor-in-Chief, "Tzarich Iyun"

On the face of it, multiculturalism is tailor-made for Haredi society. Not only does it support the right of cultural minorities to preserve their uniqueness, but it also demands that government assists them in doing so. This applies even when the minorities in question don't share the same national sentiments as the majority. The same will apply of engagement in identity politics, which takes multiculturalism to its political extreme. However, a joint examination of the foundations of multiculturalism and those of the Haredi worldview reveals that they cannot be easily reconciled. Each in fact has very different aspirations. Looking ahead, this can have far-reaching ramifications for both Haredim and for broader Israeli society.

Sivan 5779 / July 2019
 

Israel is a multicultural society. At the descriptive level, this statement can hardly be disputed: Shortly after inception Israel welcomed tens of thousands of Jewish immigrants from all over the world. No social melting pot could possibly erase the diversity of Israeli society. However, the word ‘multiculturalism’ also serves as a normative term providing a specific answer to the question: “how should society treat minority groups with their own distinctive cultures?”

The multicultural approach suggests that different cultures should keep themselves distinct from other groups and strive, often with assistance from government authorities, to maintain particular identities. Opinions differ as to how much of their distinctiveness minorities ought to preserve, and as to how tolerant a liberal society ought to be toward illiberal practices prevalent among some minorities. But the shared assumption is that cultural differences should be maintained, alongside an aspiration to harmonious coexistence, the result of cultural pluralism that acknowledges and respects those who are different from the majority. The multicultural approach is the polar opposite of the melting pot policy popular in Israel’s formative years, which aimed to supply all citizens with a common national ethos stronger than their diverse cultural backgrounds.

Although the culture and lifestyle of the Haredi minority group distinguish it from the majority, Haredim don’t generally identify with the key tenets of multiculturalism, or with the mindset that characterizes it.

Canadian political philosopher Will Kymlicka has contributed greatly to the development of the multicultural model that defends the “right to culture” of minority groups, even at the cost of preferential (non-neutral) treatment of minorities (in the case of Canada, his focus is on protecting the culture of native tribes). Granting such preferential treatment appears to be a departure from the common liberal model, which claims to be color blind to the particular identities of different groups. However, supporters of multiculturalism (generally) believe that the deviation is worthwhile to ensure the survival of cultural diversity, and to enable—as Kymlicka emphasizes in his writings—“meaningful choice” between competing versions of the good life.

Haredi society is commonly viewed as a part of the multicultural mosaic of Israel. For instance, when the Hebrew University Center for the Study of Multiculturalism and Diversity wished to discuss “the multicultural experiment of Israel,” researchers defined the relevant minority groups as Arabs, Haredim, Ethiopian immigrants, immigrants from the FSU, and the LGBT community. Haredi society (in all its sub-group richness) is certainly a significant minority group with substantial cultural differences from broader Israel, which aspires to maintain its uniqueness and protect itself from cultural assimilation.

In this article, however, I wish to challenge this common perception by discussing the way in which Haredi society views multiculturalism, and its own place within multicultural society. Although the culture and lifestyle of the Haredi minority group distinguish it from the majority, Haredim don’t generally identify with the key tenets of multiculturalism, or with the mindset that characterizes it. The Haredi sector is better described by employing a community model: it lives a community life within a sovereign country, while expressing a distinct lack of interest in any special recognition or acknowledgment from the majority.

Does this make any difference? I believe it does. Moreover, the difference might even be of some significance for the future of Israel.

 

Haredim: A Paradigmatic Minority Group

Israel has undergone many changes and transformations since its early years, in which public policy adhered to the Ben-Gurionite ”melting pot” ideology. Policymakers in recent years have adopted the exact opposite idea: multiculturalism. One prominent example is the recent initiatives of President Rubi Rivlin and several NGOs working with him, which promote pluralist and multicultural collaborations between the “Four Tribes of Israel” (as Rivlin describes them): Haredim, Arabs, Secular Jews, and national-religious Jews.

It is natural to consider Haredim as natural allies in the new multicultural world order. From the early days of the state, Haredi society was known for fighting the melting pot policy on every possible front: educational independence, geographical isolation, and longstanding objection (to varying degrees) to military service, certainly as the cultural melting cauldron for fashioning the “New Israel Jew.” Haredim’s ambivalent (at best) attitude towards the Zionist movement even turned them into a “non-nationalist” minority, and many studies compare them with other minorities in tense relationships with the majority group, whether in Israel or elsewhere.

A multicultural regime implies sovereign recognition of the Haredi minority group, granting it equal rights and even state-sanctioned encouragement to preserve its unique way of life. Organizations promoting a multicultural worldview make ample room for Haredim in their big tent and recognize their place in the Israeli public sphere.

Haredi society also provides an important example of an illiberal minority living within a liberal democracy, raising a substantial question that concerns many Western countries: How should a liberal country treat its own illiberal minorities? What are the legitimate boundaries for tolerance towards such groups? This is a controversial issue. Kymlicka and his supporters believe that a liberal state cannot allow minority groups to suppress the autonomy of their own members; doing so would run against the core concept of a liberal society. Others, however, maintains that a liberal society should not necessarily be comprised only of liberal groups protecting their members’ autonomy. Be this as it may, Haredi society, both in Israel and abroad, has become a popular example in multiculturalism research. It is not hard to see why.

In theory, then, it seems that Haredim ought to unconditionally embrace multiculturalism. A multicultural regime implies sovereign recognition of the Haredi minority group, granting it equal rights and even state-sanctioned encouragement to preserve its unique way of life. Organizations promoting a multicultural worldview make ample room for Haredim in their big tent and recognize their place in the Israeli public sphere. In the multicultural vision, the new dawn of Israel will have Arab sheikhs sitting side by side with Haredi scholars, feminist women next to settlers, and LGBT activists sharing a table with Hassidic rabbis. All attendants will receive seats of honor (somehow resolving the thorny issue of gender separation), reflecting a colorful and diverse Israeli society. The wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard lie down with the goat.

But does Haredi society share this aspiration? Do Haredim perceive themselves as being a part of the multicultural mosaic of Israel? Do they consciously play the game of social pluralism, or do they actually distance themselves from such ideas?

 

Part of the Multicultural Coalition?

I believe the common perception among Haredim, as well as among Haredi political parties, to be quite different.

The guiding principle of minority groups in a multicultural structure is the same guiding principle of classic liberalism: individual rights. The multicultural claim is that color blindness toward group identity, which characterized liberal thinking in the past (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, does so even today), fails to achieve the desired outcomes. In reality, a social and political situation that includes majority and minority groups discriminates against certain minorities, the result being that members of minority groups cannot enjoy their individual freedoms (including “the right to culture”) to the same extent that members of the majority group can. It follows that a simplistic application of liberal principles creates an unsatisfactory distribution of liberal goods, and therefore a flawed realization of the liberal ideal.

To correct this imbalance, multiculturalism supports some divergence from the original principals of liberalism itself, so that even individual members of minority groups can fully enjoy their rights and freedoms. In other words, multiculturalism battles, which often turn into so-called identity politics, are the battles of individuals belonging to minority groups. The African American or Hispanic individual in the USA, the Arab and the Ethiopian immigrant in Israel (along with members of other minority groups), demand that liberal neutrality should be overridden to amend a historical injustice committed by the majority toward minorities. By way of illustration, a recent video released by an American music channel stated with conviction that America was never great for those not fortunate enough to have been born as white men. The clear policy goal of such self-reveling is that white men must extend special rights to minorities that have been discriminated against, so that they too can enjoy the blessings of America.

Minority groups and their supporters are thus seeking to address social injustices by breaking the cultural, intellectual and political hegemony of the white man and dismantling the dominant identity by empowering minority groups—adopting a political strategy often dubbed “identity politics.” These methods, they believe, can lead to a fairer distribution of social goods and a true realization of the liberal ideal.

Haredi society is not concerned about the “right to culture” of its constituency, but seeks rather to a thriving continuity of Jewish tradition among the Jews, notwithstanding the threats of secularization, Western values and secular culture.

Haredi society, on the other hand, is embroiled in a very different political struggle. Haredim don’t fight for the individual rights  sacrosanct to the liberal worldview. Their struggle is over religious observance and passing on the Jewish tradition—the primary foundations of Haredi worldview. Haredi society is not concerned about the “right to culture” of its constituency, but seeks rather to a thriving continuity of Jewish tradition among the Jews, notwithstanding the threats of secularization, Western values and secular culture. Likewise, individual voting in favor of Haredi parties does not seek to defend private liberties but rather to perpetuate traditional Jewish life. The voting individual believes the best way to ensure such continuity is by being a part of Haredi society and maintaining the separateness of that society.

If the multicultural struggle is an offshoot of liberal philosophy, founded on the assumption that individual freedoms are the basic moral standard, then it is no wonder that Haredi society does not see itself as part of the multicultural cause. Haredi society has never internalized the principles of liberalism—certainly not to the extent that Western society has.  Instead, it places a moral emphasis on the community rather than the individual. It seeks the greater good of Judaism in general and Torah Jews in particular, rather than the private good of any given individual. Granted, the freedom of individuals to be religiously observant in their chosen way is itself a general good of society—but the emphasis is on society and not on the individual. What matters most is the upkeep of community norms, not individual rights.

The prioritizing of community over individual is embedded into the structure of Haredi society and its decisionmaking processes. A centralized leadership of Torah scholars determines the community agenda: their decisions dictate study methods for yeshivas, curriculums for Haredi schools, and the character of the Haredi public space. Haredi politics operate along similar lines: the greater community good is always prioritized. This is probably why Rabbi Elazar Menachem Shach, of blessed memory, stated that “democracy is a disaster to the world […] whose entire intention is to negate Jewish tradition and destroy it.” The statement is albeit extreme, but the underlying idea is that democracy prioritizes individual rights, while the traditional society Rabbi Shach wished to preserve prioritizes the community.

Haredim are thus not a part of the minority struggle for fairer allocation of individual rights by liberal regimes. They simply don’t fight on the liberal battleground of rights, but rather on a pre-liberal battleground of the greater good, sounding a community call for educational, communal, and cultural independence. As a general rule, even the basic tenets of today’s rights discourse remain foreign to Haredi society, which places emphasis on duties rather than rights. In turn, Haredi politics focus on creating appropriate community conditions for the fulfilment of religious duties fundamental to the Haredi worldview. This is a very different story from the multicultural narrative.

 

The Fight against Exclusion

From a multicultural perspective, voting is an act by which a minority group stands up to the threat of subordination by the majority hegemony. Multicultural policies emphasize the visibility of each group within the cultural mosaic, as well as its inclusion in the higher upper echelons of government. Great importance is attached to symbolic representations of minority groups in official ceremonies and state-sanctioned cultural institutions. The adoption of this philosophy as the bon ton of Israeli society has brought about a marked increase in the prominence of Haredi individuals and culture in broader Israel: Haredi individuals annually light Independence Day torches; Hasidic music is played on public radio; and journalists in traditional Haredi garb are commonly seen on television. Such inclusion gestures toward Haredim, alongside similar gestures toward other minority groups, clear the majority of exclusion accusations and atone its sin of denying “the right to culture.”

The war against exclusion waged by minority groups is a direct descendant of the liberal infrastructure at the heart of multiculturalism. Excluding a minority from the majority culture and denying it appropriate representation are interpreted as a mistreatment of individuals belonging to the group, who are citizens deserving of equal rights. “Group rights,” which often include demands for national recognition of the language, symbols, and culture of the minority group, as well as a demand for representation in all levels of government, originate from this line of thought.

The main demand of Haredi society echoes the ancient plea: “give me Yavne and its sages.” Israel is of course nothing like the Roman Empire, but the underlying aspiration is the same: preserving Jewish tradition.

Haredim, however, are rarely troubled by the way they are perceived by the majority. Haredi voting is not an act of rebellion against hegemony but an act of self-preservation. Voters are not driven to cast their ballot because they wish to express resistance; they vote because they consider national politics an appropriate arena for the promotion of Haredi society’s goals and values. They are not driven by an all-consuming desire that local culture, education and language will stop excluding them, and make no claim from the hegemonic majority “to right a historical wrong.” The main demand of Haredi society echoes the ancient plea: “give me Yavne and its sages.” Israel is of course nothing like the Roman Empire, but the underlying aspiration is the same: preserving Jewish tradition.

This is not to say that Haredi society has no ambition to influence the majority. Even outside of their ever-expanding boundaries, Haredim would unquestionably like to have more influence and raise the status of religion in the country. Haredi society and its political leaders have to a great extent inherited the traditional role of the Mafdal (Israel’s national religious party) as the state Mezuzah: the gatekeepers fighting to maintain the Jewish element of the “Jewish and democratic state.” But such battles are not fought in the name of liberal values; they are the simple result of a traditional worldview underscores the mutual responsibility of a single Jewish nation.

The issue of ever-increasing Haredi involvement in broader national affairs and the causes leading to it is worthy of a long discussion. For our purposes, it suffices to say that this development is not the result of multicultural ideology, but an implementation of well-known Jewish principles, which are relevant not only internally but even outside the boundaries of Haredi society.

 

Mutual Responsibility

Do these distinctions really matter? After all, Haredim certainly employ political means to achieve the goals closest to their hearts: exemptions from military service for women and Yeshiva students; funding for yeshivas and synagogues; appropriate housing solutions for Haredi families; control of the rabbinical courts and sacred sites; child benefits; and so on. Does it matter whether this is done in the name of multiculturalism or in the name of a different set of values?

I believe that yes, this is an important and fundamental question. As mentioned above, Haredi society (which continues to enjoy high population growth despite being less insular than in the past) is becoming increasingly more involved in state institutions and in Israeli society in general. The underlying question under investigation in this article can thus be framed as follows: Will this trend play out as a minority group demanding the rights it perceives it deserves, or will it reflect a deep identification with Israeli society, born of fraternity and mutual responsibility? Will Haredim imitate Israel’s Arab parties, seeing the majority as an oppressive hegemony bent on silencing their voice and pushing them aside, or will they adopt a mindset of national and civil responsibility, without giving up communal independence and Haredi unique lifestyle?

The answer to these questions is complex. On one hand, there are built-in tensions between the Haredi worldview and Israeli nationalism, as well as between Haredi lifestyle and liberal culture. These tensions and differences lead some Haredi sub-groups to utilize the strategies of other minorities, identifying as one of Israel’s “tribes” and speaking the language of multicultural rights. Some years ago, when a committee was appointed to discuss gender separation in Haredi society, Haredi minister Arye Deri sent a letter to the then-attorney general Yehuda Weinstein, stating that “some communities, among them the Haredi community, are characterized by significant cultural and religious differences in comparison with the majority in Israel.” He continued to write that “in a liberal social context there is inherent value in acknowledging multiculturalism and protecting the cultural uniqueness of different communities.” He thus requested that a Haredi representative be included in the committee, since
“acknowledgment of multiculturalism that goes beyond lip service demands inclusion of at least one representative of the population under discussion.” Without commenting on the legitimacy of the request, the language of the letter testifies to the adoption of multicultural principles, including the group rights of Haredi society.

Thanks to changes taking place both in Haredi society and in Israel generally, more Haredim than ever are involved in projects and initiatives—in the workforce, in education, and in the NGO sector—that bring together Haredim and non-Haredim under one roof. They feel a sense of responsibility for the success of the entire Israeli society, and act in turn.

But on the other hand, Haredi society holds a profound faith that the Jewish people is a single entity with one common goal. These feelings of fraternity are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. The average Haredi person cares deeply about all parts of Israeli society, and strongly identifies with the state of Israel as the national representative of the Jewish people—despite built-in tensions. Skimming through any Haredi newspaper reveals a large measure of pride in Israel’s security and economic achievements, as well as pain over its educational and cultural failures. This caring attitude derives from concern for the prosperity of the Jewish people in general and the Jewish State in particular. The Haredi attitude, which also finds expression in a clear preference for the Israeli right, is hardly aligned with multicultural tendencies.

Thanks to changes taking place both in Haredi society and in Israel generally, more Haredim than ever are involved in projects and initiatives—in the workforce, in education, and in the NGO sector—that bring together Haredim and non-Haredim under one roof. They feel a sense of responsibility for the success of the entire Israeli society, and act in turn. Such members of Haredi society shun the identity politics of dismantling and dividing, rejecting the exclusive focus on a rights discourse that sows division and creates alienation. Instead, they emphasize the responsibility that originates in a sense of fraternity and mutuality, and includes communal responsibility, Jewish responsibility, and civic responsibility. These are responsibilities that all of us—Haredim, Jews, Israelis—need to shoulder.


photo: Bigstock

One thought on “Multiculturalism, Identity Politics, and Haredi Society

  • Actually, there are plenty examples of societies where the “common good” prevailed over the rights of the individual: communist, fascist , Roman-Catholic during the time of the inquisition, and Islamic societies.
    In short, all dictatorial societies. Sacrificing the rights of the individual is their distinctive feature.
    Not the best companies to keep.
    Judaism, on the other hand, can pride itself in NOT upholding these features, on the contrary.
    70 paths to Torah. That is a whole lot more than the amount of political parties, even here in Israel.
    The individual take precedence in Halacha. It says in Pirkei Avos that we are make ourselves a rav
    meaning to choose ourselves a rav. If the law would be ordained from above, that we all have to abide by for the greater good, then why would we all need a personal rav? Because each individual needs to make his own sheilos, in order to get his own answers. What is right for one individual might not be right for another.
    Aside from this, most political parties have nothing to do with “rebellion”. They exist in order to promote the interests of certain groups they represent, it might be a group that has suffered a historical injustice, but mostly it is about a certain viewpoint on how to best govern a country, politically and financially.
    With any kind of government there are situations where not every individual might get what he wants or needs. If that would be the case, all traffic lights would be green all the time. They aren’t. In making the claim that this is what secular society strives for, this is what you are suggesting. No rules, drive however you want. Incidentally, that is the way, many Israelis, in particular Chareidim (I live in Beitar, every day is a battle to survive the insane traffic here) drive. “For me the world was created” , and ONLY for me, it seems. Highly individualistic, no greater good in sight.
    So Chareidi parties represent Chareidi interests. Very normal for any political party
    Maybe nowadays it has become normal for Chareidi society to be so very concerned about self preservation, that there is less regard for the individual, but that is about the society, certainly not about Judaism.
    A last remark about the evils of democracy: remember the Gemore which brings that one Sage only represented Hashems will, against the opinions of all the others. And that , although he could prove it by moving the trees and even bringing a Bas Kol, he was decided against, “because Halacha is decided here on earth, by the majority, and not in heaven.
    It is my impression that Chareidi society is supposedly against multiculturalism, because it is something modern, and anything modern can’t be good. or can it?

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