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When Religion Had Its Place

Birth of a Nation: When Israel was founded, even Orthodox leaders foresaw little of the special accomodation for Haredim that has become a hallmark of modern Israeli life. Image by getty images

Israel is being torn apart by ideological forces. Ultra-Orthodox zealots are determined to shove women to the back of our common civic bus, while Haredi army recruits defy not only the military code of conduct, but also the very vision of Israel’s founding fathers and mothers who dreamed of a humanistic and pluralistic country. It is also, as always, political horse-trading season, and the privileges of the Haredi sector seem to be forever safeguarded and preserved in the minutest detail. While it is hard to imagine now, Jewish public opinion once held very different convictions.

Throughout the 1930s and ’40s there was much discussion about the nature of the future Jewish state, including among the ultra-Orthodox. In Hanukkah of 1947, soon after the United Nations General Assembly voted for partition, the New York-based Research Institute for the Post-War Problems of Religious Jewry, founded by Agudath Israel, published a collection of articles by rabbinical luminaries, “Material of a Constitution for the Jewish State.” Though ultra-Orthodox in orientation, this collection offers a shockingly moderate worldview in relation to where we stand today.

It’s not that the forbearers of today’s extremism and intolerance were absent from this discussion. Rabbi Moshe Blau, a Haredi leader from Jerusalem, called for a strictly Haredi state to be imposed on everyone, with no negotiation. But there were many other voices. In a secret memorandum prepared for the 1937 Royal Commission of Lord Peel (and reprinted in the 1947 compilation of documents), Isaac Breuer, first president of Agudath Israel and an ordained Orthodox rabbi who also held a doctorate in law, wrote: “Agudath Israel demands that a Jewish state… will recognize the Torah… as a legal foundation of the state and will establish all public life accordingly… and will never give this up.” Nevertheless, Breuer wrote in the same breath that Agudath Israel must recognize the authority of the state and participate in the state’s political life because “a culture-war must not be fought by force but through means of spiritual conviction.” Likewise, while insisting on maintaining the Sabbath, kashrut and ultra-Orthodox autonomy, Breuer highlighted universally acclaimed principles founded in Jewish values. Thus, the attorney in him was anxious lest the Jewish state should exercise the death penalty ”that Agudath Israel must oppose… in the spirit of the Torah.”

In foreign affairs, Breuer advocated that “the state should refrain from the use of power and might in international relations” and that it should “uphold a system built on law and justice.” He supported animal rights and called for fair and just work laws, “because social peace is built on the foundations of social justice of the Torah.” Back in 1937, it was amply clear to Breuer that Haredim must work like everyone else, and to this end he recommended the establishment of vocational schools for Haredi youth, side by side with traditional yeshivas.

Other religious leaders were even more lenient. Rabbi Meir Berlin, leader of the Mizrachi movement of religious Zionism, also wanted to see the Torah as the foundation of the state; however, with the exception of issues of marital status, which in his view must be performed in the traditional Orthodox way, he showed a great deal of tolerance. In this spirit, he proposed a committee of experts to explore the relations between the Torah and the state, and he supported pluralism in education.

In light of the approaching confrontations and challenges, the leadership of the yishuv, the organized prestate Jewish community, responded constructively. On June 19, 1947, David Ben-Gurion wrote a letter to the leaders of Agudath Israel. It became the foundation of the “status quo” agreement between the secular majority and the religious minority. It was a true reflection of Ben-Gurion’s views of the future State of Israel as a modern and liberal country and of his unequivocal opposition to theocracy. While he agreed to discuss marital issues and to support kashrut for all government-funded institutions, the only commitment he made was that the state would define Saturday as the official day of rest for Israeli Jews. He later introduced an exemption from military service for a limited number of rabbinical students. In this June 1947 letter, he made no further concessions and insisted on pluralism in the school system.

That was the nature of the state-and-religion discourse in the long forgotten days of prestatehood. Who would foresee that, 65 years later, Israel would have no constitution; that the ultra-Orthodox establishment would hold such a disproportionate influence over the vast majority of Israeli Jews; that only a fraction of Haredim would share the burden of defense, and that the majority of this community (65% according to the Taub Institute) would choose to opt out of the workforce to live off state-sponsored handouts? In a letter to his successor, Levi Eshkol, dated September 12 1963, Ben-Gurion acknowledged the unhealthy situation and assumed some responsibility for it. He criticized Haredi conduct bitterly and wondered whether the general exemption from military service should continue.

Today, the younger generations of Israelis must negotiate their joint future in the Jewish state. They are encouraged to keep in mind that the views expressed by the Orthodox community leadership in prestate days suggest that an alternative road could have been taken — an option that is still open.

Shulamit Binah is a Ph.D. candidate at Haifa University, researching diplomatic history.

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