Last week, the Israeli Knesset passed a preliminary bill of legislation that makes hate speech or incitement against Charedim illegal, including Charedim in the section of Israel’s criminal law that defines racism. Earlier in the week, the ministerial committee decided to strike down the legislation, which was proposed by MK Yaakov Asher and several other Charedim MKs. In a loss for the government, the Knesset nonetheless passed the preliminary bill. Naturally, Charedi media outlets celebrated the result. In the words of Yaakov Asher, “It is high time that we put an end to the appalling incitement of the mainstream and social media against Charedim.”
In my opinion, alongside our immediate reaction of support, we should also express a considered qualification of the bill, and perhaps even oppose it outright. More than any other group, the Charedim themselves ought to feel discomfort at the thought of entering the “racism” category
Ostensibly, there seems to be nothing wrong with the bill, which will supply Charedi society with a legally effective defense mechanism in the face of not infrequent attacks and incitement, some of which recall darker hours of Jewish history. However, it seems to me that there is another aspect worthy of highlighting. In my opinion, alongside our immediate reaction of support, we should also express a considered qualification of the bill, and perhaps even oppose it outright. More than any other group, Charedim themselves ought to feel discomfort at the thought of entering the “racism” category.
Below, I will try to explain why.
Of Charedim and Gingerheads
Many groups suffer from insults, slurs, and even incitement. Gingerheads (from personal experience), those who are overweight, Trump supporters (in the US), left-wingers (in Israel), and many others, are likely to suffer slights and affronts of one label or another. Nonetheless, nobody would entertain the thought that incitement against gingerheads or Trump supporters should fall under the racism rubric.
The reason for this is eminently simple: racism relates to negative attitudes drawing on racial differences, such as skin color. Although the current trend is to extend the definition to include other, non-racial groups that possess separate identities, it cannot apply to all those who suffer for being somehow different or outstanding.
Left-wingers, Trump supporters, and gingerheads do not possess a distinct identity, and therefore the racism concept cannot apply to them. Moreover, these groups would never desire to be included in the racism bracket of a separate identity
Left-wingers, Trump supporters, and gingerheads do not possess a distinct identity, and therefore the racism concept cannot apply to them. Moreover, these groups would never desire to be included in the racism bracket of a separate identity. Though this might provide them with a legal defense against slights, it would concomitantly decree upon them an “otherness” that could deny them a sense of unity, mutual responsibility, and shared fate with everybody else. For the sake of gingerheads themselves (excuse me for pushing the example), it is by far preferable to handle matters on their own (or, when really necessary, with the help of the teacher).
And what of Charedim? Should we demand that Israel relate to us as a distinct group, different by definition from the rest of the Jewish population? Do we want to be a minority group somehow outside the Jewish majority, or do we want to be gingerheads—different, but without a distinct identity? This, I believe, is the deeper question underlying the suggested amendment of Israel’s racism legislation to include Charedim.
Whom Does the New Legislation Serve?
It seems that the proposed legislation serves three different groups.
The first group is the Charedi political machinery—parties and their representatives. Strengthening the separate identity of Charedim vis-à-vis the rest of Israel reinforces the voting pattern whereby Charedim cast their ballots for Charedi parties, irrespective of agreement or otherwise with their policies. If being Charedi is primarily a matter of identity, it follows that the voting will be along identity rather than policy lines, which could help stem the recent tide of Charedi voting for non-Charedi parties. Moreover, it also gives Charedi society, which includes a tremendous variety of communities and sub-communities, a certain political adhesive: all Charedim dwell in a single identity tent.
The second group is Charedi institutions—municipal, community, educational, welfare, or other. As a weak and victimized minority group, Charedi institutions can make bolder claims for funding, government or private. This concept has already been exploited by Aryeh Deri, who in 2015 (as a minister in the government) added the word “Periphery” to the “Ministry for Development of the Negev and the Galilee.” In the wake of this inconspicuous adjustment, Charedi communities everywhere could be defined as part of Israel’s “periphery” and thereby qualify for the ministry’s funding. Placing Charedim with other minorities vulnerable to racism consolidates this position.
Seeing the Charedim as a “non-national minority,” the Israel Left longs to place them in one basket with the Arabs, the Druze, and other minorities (as President Rivlin did with his Four Tribes initiative), creating a multicultural society bereft of Jewish identity
The third group that stands to benefit from the legislation is the Israeli Left. Seeing the Charedim as a “non-national minority,” the Israel Left longs to place them in one basket with the Arabs, the Druze, and other minorities (much as President Rivlin did with his Four Tribes initiative), creating a multicultural society bereft of Jewish identity. Relating to Charedi society as a minority whose otherness matches that of the Arabs or the Druze undermines our capacity to strengthen the Jewish nature of Israel. Indeed, Prof. Alon Harel has even suggested (somewhat counter-intuitively) that as a Jewish but non-nationalist group, the Charedim are the primary reason why Israel must disengage from its Jewish identity. The legislation plays into his hands.
The proposed legislation thus serves these diverse groups. But does it serve Charedi society itself? Moreover, is this good for the Jews? I think the answer to these questions is negative. The legislation runs against the grain of a fundamental Jewish and Torah principle, and there is good reason to oppose it.
The Right to Take Responsibility
Cultivating a separate Charedi identity, one that leads to a “covenant of disadvantaged groups”—a theme raised in the Knesset last week when MK Gafni (UTJ) turned directly from the podium to MK Mansour Abbas—perpetuates the status of Charedi society as a victimized minority, a group unable to take responsibility for itself, let alone for Israel. This might gain us a few shekels and some jobs via affirmative action programs, yet I believe the damage is far greater than the gain.
The Talmud teaches that poverty is akin to death (Avodah Zarah 5a), which the Maharal connects to the human capacity for self-reliance: “This is due to the fact that he receives from others and cannot live from himself; this is not called life, for only somebody who is self-reliant is considered alive” (Netiv Ha’Osher, Chap. 4). If this is true on the individual level, it is surely all the more critical on the public level, as groups and communities. The decree of victimhood and disadvantage on Charedi society is harsh indeed, and it is incumbent upon us to ensure that our valued choice of a modest lifestyle does not drag us into the race to the bottom as the most underprivileged group in Israel’s social periphery.
The social position of underprivilege does us no favors. It prevents us from caring for ourselves and also precludes our capacity to exercise a Torah-spiritual influence over the State of Israel—an influence that could be key to Israel’s future.
The social position of underprivilege does us no favors. It prevents us from caring for ourselves and also precludes our capacity to exercise a Torah-spiritual influence over the State of Israel—an influence that could be key to Israel’s future. Concern for the operation of the Jewish State’s apparatus and public sphere in line with Torah principles ought to be at the fore of our minds, yet our self-perception as “others” decrees that the reality of our surroundings is “theirs” while only the four cubits of Halacha are “ours.” When the Torah and our actual surroundings are situated on parallel lines, the result is that our potential influence, which could be so beneficial, becomes negligible. The “them-and-us” thinking that the proposed legislation enshrines in law is a perpetuation of Galus.
The truth of the matter is that being Charedi does not imply belonging to a distinct identity, but rather espousing a distinct value set—one that defines the great responsibility placed on our shoulders. Life in cultural and geographic isolation, which is bolstered by a sense of antagonism and adversity (fueled, often, by both sides of the political bench), has albeit cultivated a sense of distinctness, but this must never supplant our primary mission and identity. Before being Charedi we are simply Jews—Jews faithful to Hashem and His Torah, with a responsibility to every Jew and even to the Jewish State. Our Charedi identity, while expedient for distancing ourselves from the corrosive elements of secular culture and ideas, must never push aside the values deriving from our primary one.
The proposed legislation, notwithstanding its superficial gleam, does us a gross disservice.
This is why I believe the proposed legislation, notwithstanding its superficial gleam, does us a gross disservice.
Haters, Not Racists
The Jewish nation, in all its layers and groups, needs our contribution in multiple areas—fighting the caustic aspects of liberalism, enshrining morality and family values, infusing our private and public spheres with Torah, and much besides. However, this contribution is contingent on shedding our public facade of weakness and underprivilege and internalizing that “the matter”—the matter of the Jewish People, including the State of Israel and those who dwell therein—”depends on us alone” (Avodah Zarah 17a).
Rather than push us further to the extreme of Israel’s periphery, the harsh crisis we are going through vis-à-vis the present government only serves to reinforce this insight and stress its urgency. The connection of the State to Torah, and the potential for millions to draw closer to their Jewish foundations, depends on us.
Haters and inciters should remain just that—haters and inciters. For our own good, they should not be branded racists
If we love and desire life, we should be wary lest we fall into the comfortable but malignant place of public victimhood. Haters and inciters should remain just that—haters and inciters. For our own good, they should not be branded racists. It is down to us to internalize our deep responsibility for our story and for that of the Jewish People. Insofar as we are “others,” these become, Heaven forbid, two distinct stories. Thankfully, we aren’t.
Photo: Amos ben Gershom, Le’am