Navigate to Israel & The Middle East section

Bring Back the Men in Black

My ancestor, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, was nearly killed by Zionists. Anti-haredi animosity still drives Israel mad.

Liel Leibovitz
March 22, 2013
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters pray in Jerusalem's neighborhood of Mea Shearim on July 8, 2009. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters pray in Jerusalem's neighborhood of Mea Shearim on July 8, 2009. (Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images)

Israel’s new government, inaugurated this week, is the first in a decade—and one of very few in the nation’s history—to include no representatives of the ultra-Orthodox community. This absence was the result of demands by several of the coalition’s parties and was gleefully applauded by many in Israel, exasperated with what they perceived as the undue influence of haredi Jews on the nation’s politics and policies. This is not an entirely unreasonable reaction—for decades, haredi parties have used their position as electoral tiebreakers to demand, often forcefully, everything from political power to oversized budgets.

But the contempt so many Israelis, left and right, feel for the haredis predates all of that backroom skullduggery; nearly a century ago, the same strand of hatred almost killed my great-great-grandfather.

Exactly 81 years ago this week, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld died. He was a difficult and brilliant Jew, a fervent anti-Zionist who ironically believed that the only proper way to be an anti-Zionist was to abandon his Austro-Hungarian yeshiva and move to Jerusalem. Once there, he quickly became the leader of the small community huddled mainly inside the walls of the Old City. Recognizing his constituents’ squalor, he founded a new neighborhood, Batei Ungarin, which eventually became the modern-day Mea She’arim. With his dearest friend and his fiercest critic, Abraham Yitzhak Kook, he rode a mule for days to visit the Zionist pioneers in the Galilee and urge them to abandon their socialism and embrace religion instead. He was widely respected—Thomas Masaryk, the illustrious president of Czechoslovakia, traveled to Jerusalem in 1927 specifically to meet with Sonnenfeld and ask for his advice. For all these reasons, he was the Zionists’ worst nightmare.

The rabbi, the early leadership of the yeshuv, or pre-state Jewish community, understood, was, ideologically speaking, the only other game in town. As they were running around and convincing foreign luminaries that the only way to address the needs of the Jews was to establish a sovereign Jewish nation in the land of Israel, Sonnenfeld was doing the opposite, arguing that real Jews, religious Jews, understood that the only one who could bring about the establishment of a Jewish state was the Messiah and that in the meantime any Jew attempting statehood was to be rebuked.

Naturally, such talk irked the Zionists: In the early 1920s, after Sonnenfeld met with an influential British baron and dismissed Zionism as the fantasies of a handful of heathens, members of Haganah, the paramilitary organization that preceded the Israel Defense Forces, burst into the rabbi’s home, guns drawn. Unmoved, and refusing to do so much as get up from his chair, Sonnenfeld allegedly tore his shirt open, and hissed: “I’m ready to become a martyr. Kindly murder me.”

For whatever reason, they didn’t, and Sonnenfeld, interrogated by British officers, refused to name any of his assailants. But several years later, his right-hand man, a Dutch poet and lawyer named Ya’akov Yisrael De Haan, was less lucky. De Haan was about to travel to London on Sonnenfeld’s orders to meet with British parliamentarians and speak against the Zionist movement. On June 30, 1924, shortly after having completed his daily prayers, De Haan stepped out to the courtyard of his synagogue on Jaffa Street and was immediately shot and struck three times in the neck. The assassin, Avraham Tehomi, confessed years later that the order to assassinate De Haan was most likely given by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who later became Israel’s second president. It was the country’s first political assassination.

The contemporary dislike for Israel’s haredis is nowhere near as murderous, but it blooms from the same sodden ideological soil. What we’re witnessing isn’t so much a struggle between a put-upon majority and a canny, powerful minority, but the clash of two conflicting ideologies, two alternate visions for Jewish life. In the 1920s, with their triumph far from a fait accompli, religious thinkers like my storied ancestor represented, to Zionism’s founding fathers, a possible, and maybe even probable, alternate reality. With Zionism now battered and confused—having achieved its national goals but at risk of losing its soul to the adherents of universalist values on the one hand and the exponents of messianic territorial visions on the other—it’s time for the minted contempt for the pious to pour out once again.

Considered candidly, there’s hardly a better explanation for this animus. All steely arguments, mainly the central one pertaining to military service, hardly sustain serious inquiry. As I had noted in these pages, the demand to force the haredis to serve in the IDF is silly: The Israeli army is already meeting its recruitment goals, has its pick from a vast cadre of well-educated and highly motivated youth, enjoys the fourth-highest ratio of combatant-to-noncombatant soldiers in the world—a sign of robust organizational health—and is generally not in need of new recruits, particularly ones who require extensive training to meet current technological standards and who necessitate adjustments that are nearly impossible for the IDF to meet, such as complete separation between the sexes. The army might have found solutions to this problem, if it was a problem at all; but as less than 20 percent of those Jewish Israelis who fail to serve are haredis, it’s hardly worth dispatching the military police to Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.

There’s also the economic argument: The haredis receive far and away disproportionate sums of state funding. That is true, but so do the settlers, every aspect of whose lives is sweetened with tax payers’ money, and so, once upon a time, did the kibbutzim, and both these groups got—and, in the settlers’ case, get—not only to sit in the government but to dictate its agenda as well.

What we’re left with, then, is hate, the particular flame thereof that burns brightest at times of uncertainty. The new government’s anti-haredi sentiments are made even more visible against the pale white background of its limpness on all other issues: It has no idea how to extract Israel from the stalemate with the Palestinians; no notion of how to avoid another long and bloody conflict with Lebanon; no clue how to dilute the colossal NIS 39 billion deficit, which was double the target of Netanyahu’s previous and failed government; and very few ideological markers to tell its new members apart. Other than engage in creative acts of portfolio gerrymandering—the new Cabinet has a minister of finance and a minister of economy, a minister of foreign affairs and a minister of international relations, and other similar head-scratchers—this government has so far said little, in the very long time it took it to spring to life, that would help it define itself. Nothing, that is, except for the fact that it refuses to let the haredis in.

Or, for that matter, the Arabs. Yair Lapid, the black-maned kingmaker who was the leader of the anti-religious chorus, also expressed similar disdain for Israel’s Arab parties, calling them all Zouabis, after the combative legislator Hanin Zouabi. Both exclusions are equally illiberal, both are maddening, and both should be immediately reversed. The continuous and deliberate refrain from inviting Israeli Arabs to join the government—true of all Israeli prime ministers except Yitzhak Rabin—drove more than a third of that population to recently describe the conditions of their lives as “apartheid.”

This harsh fact wouldn’t have surprised my ancestor in the least. Writing for a Zionist paper shortly after De Haan’s assassination, he emphasized that he did not object to Zionism per se but merely to the form of Zionism that was “power hungry and eager to dominate minority community and imperiously run their affairs contrary to their wills and worldviews.” What the haredis wanted, he added, was “to develop according to the foundations of just law, which grants complete freedom to all denominations and religions for each to preserve its teachings and mitzvahs according to its desires and aspirations.” The same still holds true. It’s time someone listened.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.