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The Right Hand Washes the Left

How ultra-Orthodox Jews and the secular left are forging an unlikely peace coalition in Israel

Toby Perl Freilich
September 03, 2014
Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews protested plans to make them undergo Israeli military service, Jerusalem, March 2, 2014.((THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images))
Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews protested plans to make them undergo Israeli military service, Jerusalem, March 2, 2014.((THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images))

Poisoned relations between Israel’s secular Labor Zionists and its ultra-Orthodox minority go back to the very founding of the state. After independence, Labor leaders were ruthless in secularizing newly arriving immigrants, refashioning waves of refugees into farmers and fighters, the “new Jews” needed by the fledgling nation. Israel’s ultra-Orthodox were horrified at the religious insensitivity of the leftists. Moreover, they rejected Zionism outright as a violation of religious law and so turned their backs in disgust on David Ben Gurion’s state-building enterprise. As the decades passed, the Haredi community swelled in size but continued to live as an insular subculture, treating the government as just another goyish sovereign to be played for communal benefits. When Menachem Begin’s Likud Party wrested control from Labor in 1977 Haredim found a more sympathetic political partner and the Haredi-right alliance remained solid.

But today, a remarkable new path is opening up. After last year’s January elections, a weakened Likud sided with a new centrist party, Yesh Atid, which promised to force the ultra-Orthodox into the military draft and to effectively reduce their economic subsidies. Stung, the Haredi political leadership began to look elsewhere to shore up its diminished political clout. Meanwhile, the left, whose support had been steadily drifting to the center, and which had not won an election since 1999, was searching for new partners.

So the time was right for a younger generation of Haredim and leftists to find common ground and forge new alliances on a shared platform of peace and multiculturalism. The transformed political landscape is fueling their efforts, which had quietly been going on for years but have now suddenly picked up momentum.

One young leader trying to bridge the divide between Haredim and the secular left is 35-year-old B’nei Brak native Moshe Friedman. An Ashkenazi kollel student and graduate of Jerusalem’s Hebron Yeshiva, Friedman is a scion of the prominent Broide rabbinic line and great-grandson of the leader of Jerusalem’s 1920s ultra-Orthodox community, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeldt. But his pedigree has not stopped him from choosing an unconventional path—one that may be a harbinger for the next generation of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox elite. Today he is studying law at Hebrew University, thanks to a program directed at emerging leaders from among Haredi yeshiva students. He is also founder and director of Kama-Tech, a social venture effort to help promising ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students break into the upper ranks of Israel’s hi-tech industry.

Thanks to the success of the Kama-Tech initiative, a few years ago Friedman was invited by the U.S. State Department to join its prestigious International Visitor Leader Program, an exchange initiative designed to bring emerging leaders to the U.S. to expose them to American economic, cultural, and political life.

His road trip across America with a group that included Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, and secular-left Israelis, forced Friedman to consider the stance of Haredim toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and toward Zionism. “I had never been in a situation in which I had to articulate the core attitude of the Haredim towards these issues,” he reflected. “In my yeshiva education, geopolitical concerns were not at the center of discussion.”

He also realized that “nobody actually knows” what the Haredim think about peace issues. “But everyone assumes we’re on the extreme right.” Everywhere he went, religious people were blamed for the conflict; he was told that religious Jews were all settlers, that they were locked in a religious dispute with the Muslims, and that they would be the cause of World War III. “We Haredim are shrouded behind a veil of ignorance,” he concluded.

The ignorance stems from confusion between Israel’s ultra-Orthodox and its national religious—the settlers who believe the West Bank is part of the biblical Land of Israel. For years, the two camps had a marriage of convenience within successive right-wing coalitions. But today they are bitterly at odds.

On his return home, Friedman began to go to meetings devoted to a liberal agenda and dominated by secular leftists; he was usually the only Haredi in the room. He believed Haredim and leftists had a common agenda but that there were decades of mistrust and ignorance to be overcome. One experience in particular turned him “into an evangelist of the thing.”

Friedman had been invited to a roundtable at Jerusalem’s Van Leer Institute to discuss issues of social equality. Many prominent academic and political leaders were there. Going around the table, everyone had to introduce himself and Friedman said, “I’m a Haredi and a leftist.” Across the table from him, a former head of Israel’s Labor Party looked him straight in the eye and said, “You don’t belong to us, you’re not left-wing.” As the two began to argue, Hebrew University professor Hillel Cohen leaped to his feet and exploded. “You in the left are always excluding,” Cohen said. “You never include! This is the story of the left in Israel—you keep pushing people out of your camp. You’re so arrogant. It’s like you’re running an exclusive club for leftist, liberal intellectuals and it’s hard to get a ticket!”

Fired up, Friedman realized that secular left leaders needed to get to know Haredim. So he initiated a monthly encounter session between the inner circle of the secular-left peace camp and representatives from the heart of Haredi religious and cultural life, both female and male. About 20 people have been taking part for a year and a half, and Friedman has expanded the agenda to help strengthen the bond. The group now works on five core issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; social justice and economic issues; the relationship between religion and state; the imposition of a core educational curriculum; and the military draft.


Itzik Sudri, former Shas spokesman and relative of the late Sephardic chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was a pioneer in building these bridges. A signer of the 2003 Geneva Initiative, for over a decade Sudri has led a number of peace initiatives to educate the ultra-Orthodox community on the importance of a peace agreement. He often works with influential rabbinic leaders and key media representatives, but Haredi women dominate one of his programs, which is run by InterPeace and sponsored by the U.N. Development Program. Sudri believes women have brought something important to the negotiating table, “the common fate of being mothers and a greater will to solve problems.”

But Sudri’s audiences are not always receptive to his message. At a recent forum in ultra-Orthodox B’nei Brak, the young Haredi crowd was giving him a hard time. “What kind of peace do you want? Will we have to mix with the Arabs?” a young woman inquired suspiciously. Sudri cleverly responded, “Look, the leftist’s fantasy is someday to eat hummus in Damascus. I don’t want to eat hummus in Damascus because it’s not kosher. I want two states for two people. Separation.” The message resonated.

Sudri is involved with a group preparing position papers to forge a consensus between political leaders from both sides. The demographic forecast is politically compelling. Currently, 18 percent of Israeli children between the ages of five and nine are Haredi, and the community’s reproductive rate is explosive. But several young secular activists involved in this rapprochement, who have asked to remain anonymous because of the delicacy of these negotiations, said it was not only a question of political expediency but also of a shift in ideology.

“If I look at my parents’ generation, they really were anti-Haredi,” said one. “There’s an embrace now of multiculturalism that didn’t exist 20 years ago; it’s not just a cynical look for new partners.”

Adds another, “We don’t believe in a Rawlsian neutral state. We believe in the cultivation of communal well-being as a fundamental right of individuals. That means that public transportation on Shabbat is a value in Tel Aviv as much as blocking traffic in [ultra-Orthodox] Mea Shearim, because both contribute to communal well-being. So is money for yeshivot or rabbis, but in proportionate amounts to the Reform movement as well. This is an important shift.”

The ideological nuances are equally subtle on the right. Recognizing that the ultra-Orthodox are not monolithic, that there are “50 shades of black,” Friedman and Sudri joke, they stick to the central mainstream: Sephardim, Lithuanian Ashkenazim, and the Hasidic dynasties of Belz, Gur and Viszhnitz. “We can’t work with the fringes,” says Sudri. “The common ground is that all are pragmatic and want to compromise.”

One member of Friedman’s group who straddles both the religious and secular worlds is Hagit Ofran. Granddaughter of Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Israel’s legendary Orthodox religious philosopher, scientist, and fierce opponent of the Occupation, Ofran today is the Director of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch team.

“I didn’t grow up secular, so my Jewish identity is very different than my friends in the secular left,” Ofran says. “I can speak the language of the Haredim although I’m not religious. I’m not something so clearly defined” Although she doesn’t believe “the average Israeli media consumer” would regard the Haredi-left alliance as an obvious one, she believes it can be achieved. “On some issues it’s easier than others, but it’s not impossible; it’ll just take lots of work to get there.”

The rabbinic leadership has always been moderate in their attitude toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and Friedman sees that issue, halakhically, as the least problematic. “The national religious groups built an entire ideology that has exalted land over life. Haredim totally disagree,” he says. He cites the Haredi leadership’s support, in 2005, of the withdrawal from Gaza. A group of national religious rabbis came to Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, the ultimate Haredi leader, to challenge his position. Shteinman replied, “Who gave you permission to settle in Gaza in the first place? Every day you were there was a sin.”

“The Israeli left and its peace camp made a crucial historical error,” says Friedman. “Rather than cooperate with the Haredim, they chose to challenge them over religious issues, losing their support on the larger issues of economic justice and peace.”

The diplomatic corps has begun to take notice. When Friedman got back from the American I.V.L.P. program, he tried to convince the U.S. Embassy to get Haredi leaders involved in the peace process. Encountering skepticism, he began taking junior diplomats to meet religious politicians and the heads of the largest yeshivas, eventually working his way up to U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro.

The challenge, as Ofran sees it, is not the leadership but the Haredi rank and file. “I’ve spoken to Haredi friends—they say the street is very racist,” she says. “You see Haredim at the demonstrations of the right wing. Even the killers of Abu Khdeir had a Haredi background, which is astonishing.”

Sudri affirms that he was once at a meeting of young Haredim who were so racist that they “made Kahane Chai look like a chapter of Peace Now.” At the end, though, he asked one of them the “million dollar question.” If his rebbe told him to support a peace agreement that even included returning half of Jerusalem, would he support it? “Of course!” was the reply. “If the rebbe tells us to do something…” So, Sudri is tactical: his efforts lie in getting the leadership to make statements to the media, which will then be watched by the community.

Friedman, too, believes in educating “the young and unsophisticated. The rightist camp cites the Bible, uses terms like the Chosen People, speaks of messianic times; they use a religious vernacular. On the other hand, the left speaks a very secular language, speaking of human rights, universalism, being a nation like all others. Many young Haredim think we are right wing because the right speaks their language. But in reality, the Haredi hashkafa [religious worldview] and rabbinic leadership are all far, far, far left.” He notes that hundreds of piskei halakhah, Jewish legal rulings, issued by the greatest and most authoritative Haredi leaders, like Rav Elazar Schach and Rav Ovadia Yosef with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are almost invariably dovish.

The shoal upon which this political effort may go aground is its potential to be viewed as an anti-Zionist agenda by the electorate. “Any effort that weakens the Haredi emotional connection with the far right and strengthens a moderate Haredi position on a two-state solution is a blessing for Israeli society,” says Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “My concern is that an alliance between the Haredi community and the post-Zionist left could further weaken the Zionist ethos in Israeli society.”

Dr. Hillel Ben Sasson, of the progressive think tank Molad, does not share Klein Halevi’s concerns. “A Haredi-left alliance demonstrates that Zionism is an established, epic moment in Jewish history with which the Haredim have finally come to terms, even as the left is abandoning its attempt at transforming the Haredi into the new Jew.”

Ironically, the issue upon which Haredim and the secular left harmonize most easily is socialism, an ethical pillar of historic Zionism. Citing a poll that showed Haredim in Israel as the group least favorable to capitalism in favor of socialism, Friedman explained, “This is not just out of self-interest but is part of our core belief system. We are not just interested in making money but in justice, caring, charity. These are values that are taught in our society from an early age. It’s an all-consuming culture, and is not part of the capitalist-consumer lifestyle. We are a spiritual people that are values driven, not pleasure driven.”

“Today there’s a rightist bloc, a leftist bloc, and a Haredi bloc,” said Sudri. “At the moment of truth the Haredim will do what’s in their interest. My dream is that, given a choice, they’ll choose left.”


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Toby Perl Freilich’s most recent documentary is Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment. She is currently co-directing a film about the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Toby Perl Freilich’s most recent documentary isInventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experiment. She is currently co-directing a film about the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.