A middle-aged man I hadn’t previously met approached me last week and expressed his appreciation for Tzarich Iyun and its attendant publications and programs. “The Charedi project is the most important undertaking for Israel today,” he opened. “It holds the future of Zionism.” A short discussion revealed that as a secular Israeli, he made the statement with no little angst. “Sadly,” he concluded, “the secular Zionism I grew up with has lost its direction.”
In this short piece (relative to the required length to do the issue justice), I want to expound on this brief encounter. Though I am no expert in the field, I want to comment on what might be awry with secular Zionism, or parts thereof, and why Charedi society, somewhat counterintuitively, provides real hope for the future.
My framing will relate to a statement made by Professor Ruth Gavison, a friend and mentor whose untimely death denied Israel one of its most astute intellectual leaders. In 2006, Gavison published a paper (Hebrew) entitled “Conditions for the Prosperity of the State of Israel,” in which she decried those who deny the claim that Israel is the realization of the Jewish People’s right to self-determination:
In their eyes, Israel needs to strive toward a condition in which the state can forego the Jewish element of its identity and self-definition and become a liberal, neutral state, or, still better, a state of all its nations or a multicultural state. This is one of the most important sources of the deep fissures in Israel’s Jewish society and a principal cause of the loss of direction sensed by the Jewish public and the extremism of parts thereof. (p. 48)
Recent events in Israel demonstrate how right she was in her assessment. The fissures exposed over the past months indicate a lack of achva, the Jewish sense of brotherhood that has always kept us together. In this matter, the Charedim have much to contribute.
Nation Over Land
While in mandatory Palestine sometime in 1929, Zeev Jabotinsky once visited one of the newly established Hebrew schools. The teacher prepared her students ahead of time, and when the dignified visitor asked the children what was “the most important thing,” they immediately knew the answer: the Land of Israel! But Jabotinsky was not entirely satisfied: “And what other thing is of great importance, no less than the Land of Israel?” Neither children nor teacher were ready for this question, and Jabotinsky himself answered: “Am Yisrael.” The Jewish people, he explained. The nation.
God gave our forefather Avraham two promises: the promise of offspring and the promise of the land. The second, of course, is contingent on the first. “To your offspring, I shall give this land” (Bereshis 12:7): the land is given to the offspring. This principle was clear to Jabotinsky, who implemented it in word and deed. While warning European Jews of imminent calamity – Jabotinsky was among the few who foresaw the impending doom – he called them first to flee, to immigrate anywhere outside the borders of Europe. “Best of all,” he added, “immigrate to Israel.”
The prosperity of a nation-state, whose very purpose is to give political expression (national self-determination) to a distinct people, depends on a sense of national identity. Absent a clearly defined national identity, nation-states will inevitably weaken
The primacy of the nation over land is axiomatic for the existence of any nation-state. The prosperity of a nation-state, whose very purpose is to give political expression (national self-determination) to a distinct people, depends on a sense of national identity. Absent a clearly defined national identity, nation-states will inevitably weaken. Their social fabric will show signs of coming apart at the seams, fertility rates may fall dramatically, and the degree of loyalty to crown and country will decline. We know these signs from various European countries, which are finding it hard to maintain the nation-state model in a post-national and multicultural era (as described, for example, by Douglas Murray in “The Strange Death of Europe”).
In the Israeli context, the principle of nation-before-land was unambiguous to the Zionist leadership that brought the state into being – not only to Jabotinsky on the right but to the entire leadership. Ben Gurion, Jabotinsky’s great rival, acknowledged this unequivocally: “First of all, I am a Jew,” he declared in a 1963 speech (delivered in Yiddish), “and only then am I an Israeli. […] My first loyalty is to the Jewish people, and only then to the State of Israel, because the State of Israel was created for the Jewish people.”
The remarkable energies invested in every field during Israel’s early years – in the military and security services, infrastructures, settlements and kibbutzim, education, health, the economy, and whatnot – were mobilized with extraordinary vigor under this great banner. Today, however, seven-and-a-half decades later, it seems that the moral clarity that underlies the Jewish state is falling into question.
“Is there an Israeli nation?” Uri Avneri once asked rhetorically. He proceeded to answer: “Certainly there is.” His primary intention, however, was to speak about the Jews:
But is there a Jewish nation? Certainly not. The Jews are an ethnic-religious community scattered throughout the world. They belong to many different nationalities. They have a strong connection to the State of Israel, and blessings should come upon them.
It comes as little surprise that Avneri was among the few petitioners who demanded (in the year 2000 – a final decision on the case was issued by Israel’s High Court of Justice in 2013) to replace the Jewish nationality that appeared on his identity card with an Israeli nationality. Avneri and his fellow petitioner, in the words of (renowned author) A. B. Yehoshua, claimed the existence of “a new Israeli nation, detached and disconnected from any diaspora Jewish identity, historical or religious.”
Peace is not an end in itself. It is a means of moving Israel from one era to another, to an era of what I consider a normal country. The ‘Israelization’ of society instead of its ‘Judaization’
The aspiration to tip the balance between Jewish and Israeli in favor of the latter has inspired some historic moves. Ron Pundak, often labeled the architect of the 1995 Oslo Accords, revealed years later that the ultimate goal of the agreements was the dilution of Israel’s Jewish identity: “Peace is not an end in itself. It is a means of moving Israel from one era to another, to an era of what I consider a normal country. The ‘Israelization’ of society instead of its ‘Judaization’” (International Crisis Group report, April 2014). We must strive, to cite A. B. Yehoshua again, towards “the blurring of our historical Israeli identity and its transformation into a matter of citizenship alone, along the lines of American or Australian identity.” “Oslo, for me, is forgetting that you are Jewish,” clarified author Dorit Rabinian.
Though full Canaanism – participation in the cultural and ideological movement that sought to detach Israel from its Jewish roots entirely – was adopted by few alone, many more share the inclination to weaken traditional Jewish identity, preferring an Israeli identity devoid of meaningful Jewish content. A current example is the ongoing campaign (since 2018 or so) against the “religionization” of Israeli society, coming specifically at a time when much about Israel has become more secular than ever: more establishments and more public buses operate on Shabbat, mixed-gender units have become commonplace in the IDF, there are less Tanach and religious studies in state schools, and today’s mainstream media openly promotes polyamory and other models that undermine the traditional (Jewish) family. Rather than a concrete fear of religion, it thus seems, for the most part, that the campaign employs the threat of religionization (and the corresponding fear of Charedim) to weaken Israel’s Jewish character.
The effort to dilute Israel’s Jewishness does not necessarily reflect a hatred of religion or a sinister auto-anti-Semitism. It is fueled, among other things, by lofty ideals, chief among them the value of equality, which, taken to its logical end, has a hard time with the kind of national exceptionalism that predicates nation-states. The current liberal bon ton, which parts of the Israeli left have been quick to espouse, strongly favors the universal over the particular, and the concept of equality is the chief embodiment of this trend. While I believe it is still strong, an immediate outcome is the weakening of Jewish fraternity, the sense of Jewish brotherhood.
This final point provides a useful segway into the current affair of Israel’s anti-government protest movement.
A Protest of Equality
Israel’s 2023 protest movement has demonstrated, quite vehemently, against judicial reform, one of the core election promises of Israel’s 37th government. It has also demonstrated against the Israeli Rabbinate, against proposed legislation that exempts Yeshiva students from army service, and even against the Charedi civilian population of Bnei Brak (not to speak of the sordid incidents of female protestors singing at several astonished Charedim on a public bus). Some protestors, predictably, have taken up the Palestinian mantle, though the anti-occupation theme has (wisely) been left out of the formal agenda. So what is the protest movement all about?
Barak Medina, former rector of Hebrew University and among the leading ideologues of the protest movement, recently explained that the protest isn’t about judicial reform per se or any other specific move on the part of the government. It is about equality. MK Omer Kassif quoted his open letter in a recent Knesset speech:
It is crucial to emphasize: my friends and I have criticized [Israel’s] judicial system, especially the Supreme Court, which systematically lent its hand to the great majority of injustices related to [Israel’s] occupation and Jewish supremacy, and more than once toed the line of tycoons and the wealthy. Yet, its elimination will only make the situation worse. […] The right to equality is the main thing that this “government of atrocities” strives to erase. As Prof. Barak Medina wrote last week, our struggle is not over judicial review but equality. In his words, “We have no choice but to win the fight. If we lose, there will be no democratic state even within the borders of the Green Line. Therefore, instead of dealing with the details of the expected effect of this or that amendment to the Basic Law: The Judiciary that might detract from the [court’s] capacity for judicial review, we need to consider the big picture. Any depreciation of the scope of judicial review is a true and imminent danger to the commitment of the current government and the Knesset to the right to equality. It is, therefore, illegitimate.”
As Medina emphasizes in his letter, the struggle surrounding the reform is the core principle of equality. In Medina’s words, “The present coalition is interested in eliminating judicial review because it wishes to bring back the system that prevailed until the ‘judicial revolution’ of 1992, a system of ‘Jewish superiority’; the struggle against this plan is based on a desire to refrain from a return to this atrocity.” The protests against the government are not about the balance of power in the state, nor about the separation of powers between the different branches of government, but about morality: “The debate is about a moral issue – the duty to behave with equality.”
Was the situation in Israel prior to 1992 an atrocious vindication of Jewish supremacy, as Medina would have it? True, before the Ka’adan decision of 2000, to mention just one example of what Medina is referring to, Israel was free to prioritize Jewish settlement of the land – yet most Israelis see such prioritization as a realization of the Jewish state’s essence rather than an atrocity. This discrepancy is exactly the point. A small minority in Israel, which has become a vocal and prominent part of the protest movement, is actively undermining the sentiment of Jewish fraternity that it views as a discriminatory and illegitimate form of Jewish supremacy. Like Avneri and his friends, this group wishes to supplant the traditional achva with an equality-based civic identity that transforms the character of Israel.
As an illustration, it comes as little surprise that the same professors leading the medical establishment’s part in the protest movement (the “White Coats”) recently demanded that Israeli hospitals cease to perform live kidney transplants when altruistic donations are slated for Jewish recipients. Israel leads the world in altruistic kidney donations (donations made to anonymous recipients), a project spearheaded by the organization Matnat Chaim, which facilitates donations and allows donors to determine the recipient’s identity. This option, which approximately ninety percent of altruistic donors employ in preferring a Jewish recipient (based on estimates of Matnat Chaim staff), has induced a massive uptake in the number of donations. Of course, beyond directly saving the recipient’s life (or close to it), donations benefit all patients by shortening the transplant line and raising everybody’s chances of receiving the required organ. For those who weaponize the liberal-egalitarian lexicon, however, the preference of a fellow Jew is a deontological evil that trumps any utility. The Torah concept of achva – the expression by which the Torah frames the duty to assist one’s fellow Jew in times of need – is considered nothing but racism and hatred.
Equality does have its place on the ladder of values, but it needs to be applied in a measure that does not undermine the core institutions that enable the social function we all desire. Certainly, suppressing our historical intra-Jewish sentiment and replacing it with a neutral and egalitarian “Israeliness” would have harshly destructive effects and make it very difficult for Israel to exist in the long term. Kidney donations – it is not irrelevant that a vast majority are made by religious or Charedi Jews – are just one modest example. A more sinister case is the recent refusal by some Israeli reservists to answer the call of duty. And this, too, could be just the tip of the iceberg.
The core issue is that Israel is built on a foundation of achva, a sense of love and fraternity shared by the entire nation. The strength of a given nation-state depends on its citizens recognizing a common belonging to a single people, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good requires a deeply-felt emotion that derives from this group belonging. The love within close relationships inspires us to action, and the Torah expects us to expand this sentiment beyond the immediate family circle to include the entire nation. As noted above, it is unsurprising that a great majority of altruistic kidney donations are slated for Jews. Although a minority is ready to donate to anyone, such acts of selflessness are mostly performed out of emotions reserved for the close and the beloved. In a national sense, too, we are inspired to action by achva, national love. Its erosion poses a severe threat to our future.
Achva begins in the family, develops to the dimensions of a community, and expands to encompass an entire nation. It cannot be grown in a lab, and it doesn’t develop within social frameworks founded on a fragile contract between rights-bearing individuals
Why is it impossible to convert the Jewish concept of achva into a parallel Israeli-civic version? The simple reason, which the Zionist founders clearly understood, is that achva is a human feeling that cannot be programmed and engineered. Moreover, it does not tend to grow in an environment that prioritizes individualism over group belonging and prefers individual rights over community duties. Achva begins in the family, develops to the dimensions of a community, and expands to encompass an entire nation. It cannot be grown in a lab and doesn’t develop within social frameworks founded on a fragile contract between rights-bearing individuals.
“The fact that we are all Jews,” wrote journalist Yossi Melman in a recent Haaretz piece, “no longer has a unifying meaning.” “Smotrich,” ran the headline, “We’re Not Brothers!” MK Ram Ben-Barak (Yesh Atid) likewise used the refrain, sadly popularized among protest leaders, “These people are not my brothers.” I do not place exclusive blame for this unfortunate rhetoric on the protest movement or the Israeli left. Significant strategic errors were made on the right, too, which thus shares partial culpability. My point here is that there is nothing more dangerous for the future of our country.
The Charedi Hope
This brings me to the Charedim.
I sometimes critique some of my Charedi brethren on the issue of citizenship. As we saw during the Covid-19 period and in many political episodes, Charedi society does not excel in civic responsibility as understood in the modern sense. As many Tzarich Iyun articles have noted and discussed, this matter requires work. Yet, the lack of civic awareness and responsibility does not reflect a parallel lack of fraternity. The very opposite is true: a certain tension comes between Jewish achva in its traditional form – taking action on behalf of individuals, communities, and Klal Yisrael – and the conception of modern civic duty. Integrating them while moving from a traditional concept of the local askan to a state equivalent is a challenge that still lies before us. Here, I wish to emphasize the value of achva itself.
The Satmar Rebbe, renowned for his fierce opposition to the State of Israel, is an extreme example of the distinction between Jewish achva and Israeli citizenship. In the build-up to the Six-Day War, he was one of the first Charedi diaspora leaders to address the precarious situation in the country. In his anxiety over the fate of the Jews of the Land of Israel, he established a prayer liturgy for Jews of Israel, led special prayer services, and even decreed a public fast. When a group of Chassidim accused him of leaning toward Zionism and expressed opposition to prayer for IDF soldiers, the Rebbe rebuked them with extreme severity, referring to them as malshinim. The Rebbe saw every Jew as family, including those at the other end of the religious spectrum, and would consistently offer help and intervention even for bitter ideological rivals.
The same principle holds, respectively, for Charedi society. Of course, there are significant tensions between the Charedim and the rest of Israel, especially among the more secular echelons of society. But from the Charedi side, these tensions do not threaten to undermine the basic sentiment of achva. This is evidenced by several remarkable welfare organizations that grew out of Charedi society to become national organizations assisting all stripes of Israelis – Yad Sarah, Yad Eliezer, United Hatzla, Zaka, Ezer Mizion, Chasdei Naomi, Matnat Chaim (as mentioned above), and the list goes on.
As noted above, the translation of this sense of brotherhood and belonging to core areas of citizenship – the IDF, Israel’s economy, the various state authorities, and so on – is a complex issue that other Tzarich Iyun pieces address. For the purpose of this article, it is enough to note that the Jewish fraternity, love of fellow Jews without distinction, definitely exists. Indeed, setting aside the cynical attitudes that characterize party politics, the Charedi populace’s (or large parts thereof) disenchantment with the government judicial reform program seems principally related to concern for a lost achva. The price is just too high.
The great historian Yechezkel Kaufman demonstrated (with signs and wonders) how the survival of the Jewish people over hundreds and thousands of years of exile was contingent on one principal factor: the Torah. This preserved the distinctiveness of the Jewish people throughout our exilic period and created a national cohesion that could transcend vast geographical and cultural distances. Secular Zionism believed that in an era of political sovereignty, the Torah is no longer necessary: national identity and social cohesion can be preserved through political Judaism bereft of Torah. It is still too early to say how right or wrong Zionist leaders were in this hypothesis, but it seems that the period we are going through today presents us with significant warning signs.
For Charedim, the Torah and the people are inseparable, and the principle of national fraternity and brotherhood resides within them even in the most challenging times
“There are no brothers,” wrote author Ariel Horowitz in a recent post – a surprising position for a kippah-wearing, religious-Zionist individual. “In a democratic country, there are no ‘brothers.’ There are citizens. I have biological brothers for whom I will do anything, but other citizens in the country are not my brothers.” Excepting the truly exceptional, we would never hear such a statement from a Charedi individual, whether leader or layman. Certainly, I have never heard such a statement. Horowitz, too, is hardly representative; the great majority of Israeli Jews, religious or otherwise, maintain a strong sense of Jewish unity and belonging. For Charedim, however, who forever emphasize the primacy of Torah over land, the sentiment is firmly anchored: the Torah and the people of the Torah are two that cannot be parted. They precede the land and cannot be superseded. The principle of national fraternity and brotherhood resides soundly within them, even during the most challenging times.
Just like the change that the organizations noted above underwent, Charedi society is set to experience (with the assistance of some brave leadership) a similar transition from a focus on local and community responsibilities to extensive civic engagement, all this while preserving its fundamental principles. Among those fundamental principles is maintaining an unshakable sense of achva, love of all Jews, even in a democracy that rightly treats all its citizens as equals. In this sense, Charedi society is positioned to be a tremendous positive force for the Jewish State. Indeed, for Zionism, even if not quite how it was initially envisioned.
In many ways, the transition is already happening. While significant challenges remain, it is a great hope.
In conclusion, I wish to quote again from Ruth Gavison’s 2006 paper:
A condition for the continued existence of Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish People is the will of the great majority of the Jewish public for this perpetuation. This desire exists among the majority, but it’s no longer obvious. It has been eroded, unwittingly, because of the weak cultural character of our Judaism, the concern of secular Jews around religious coercion that creates antagonism to anything Jewish, and the opposition of the “peace camp” to followers of the “complete Land of Israel” movement that weakens their connection to the justified right of Jews to self-definition in parts of their historical homeland.
The erosion of support for Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish People, as noted by Gavison, is the same erosion of Jewish achva that this article discusses. Sadly, the phenomenon is all too familiar internationally, expressed in intermarriage rates and opposition to Israel; it is painful to see it creeping into Israel, even at the edges of the camp. As noted, the Charedi public deeply cherishes the concept of Jewish brotherhood, and it comes as little surprise that except for extreme factions (such as Satmar), Charedi society is becoming a deep supporter of the Jewish nation-state. The current period demonstrates the crucial need to reinforce this support and its multiple expressions – a process that requires us, Charedi society, to leave some of our local comfort zones in acting for the sake of the entire Jewish people.
“Be strong and let us both be strong, for the sake of our people and for the sake of the cities of our God; and Hashem will do what is good in His eyes” (II Shmuel 10:12).
 “Jews, Israelis, it’s time to decide who we are” Haaretz 7.8.2018 [Hebrew].
 Haaretz 13.9.2013 [Hebrew].
 Knesset Meetings from 23.7.2023, p. 109.
 Barak Medina, “A Jewish and Democratic State and Prioritizing Jewish Interests: The Revealed and the Hidden” Minerva Human Rights Center Blog, 17.7.2023 (available here: https://openscholar.huji.ac.il/minervacenter/blog/medina).
 On the letter demanding to outlaw such altruistic kidney donations, see the news item (Channel 12) from 9.8.2023 here (22:10 and on); on the relevant professors’ political activism, see, for example, here.
 Yossi Melman, “Smotrich, we’re not brothers. ‘We’re All Brothers’ no longer has unifying power” Haaretz 11.2.2023.