The Haredi-Secular Schism: Engaging the Ultra-Orthodox in Israeli Polity and Society


Unpublished, Sept 2004



Despite the relative political success of Herzlian Zionism, Israeli society straddles a welter of fault-lines peculiar to its condition: Secular vs. Religious, Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi, Left vs. Right, Sabra vs. Immigrant, Jew vs. Arab and lately, Zionist vs. Post-Zionist. Centrifugal and potentially destructive as these may be, a certain ebb-and-flow dynamic continues to obtain, mitigating and intensifying from one conflict to the other. Still, the rift that cuts to the heart of Israel’s social fabric, indeed, its very assumptions of identity remains religion. While a cursory understanding of the issue suggests a dichotomy, religiosity in Israel properly manifests along a multipoint continuum not given to ready classification. This study attempts to analyse the case of the ultra-Orthodox/Haredi vis-à-vis the secular majority, situating it within the broader Orthodox context. Given the universalisation of democracy and its concomitants, a major issue facing Israel, certainly, any state with a religious slant that also purports to be democracy-pursuant is harmonising democracy with religion. To approach such issues with any measure of perspective, some historical background is in order.


The Haredi-Secular Schism: A Historical Perspective

Zionism was essentially a secular political movement aimed not so much at asserting a revived Judaeo-Hebraic culture as creating a state (in both senses) of normalisation for Jews. For Herzl, the putative though by no means exclusive architect of Zionism, das Judenstaat[1] represented the consummation of Jewish self-transcendence, Emancipation and assimilation – ‘a nation like all other nations’ – by way of recreating Europe in Palestine. What mattered in reconstructing a neo-Judaic meta-narrative was the redemption of Jewish honour vis-à-vis the atavistically anti-Semitic Goy. Although he drew upon Biblical sources to legitimise the Zionist venture, he advocated European, especially Prussian modes of thought and behaviour, and considered Jewish cultural renaissance no different from ghettoisation redux.[2] Having witnessed the forces that put into motion such events as the French Revolution and moreover, disturbed by the “overly-cerebral Talmudism” of Eastern European Jewry, Herzl articulated the need to keep ‘rabbis in their synagogues and soldiers in their barracks’.[3]

The problem with this approach was that, until the Haskalah in the late Eighteenth Century, Judaism as practised in the Diaspora for centuries necessarily assumed a religious character where “[doctrine] and ritual provided the cultural basis for the continuity of a clearly defined social group”.[4] As Kopelowitz suggests, “it was impossible to speak of a ‘secular Jew’”.[5] In so doing, Zionism inadvertently, if well-intentionally provoked a collective identity crisis with far-reaching consequences. In response to the growing corporatisation of post-traditional Zionism and what they deemed a threat to the very essence of Jewishness, traditionalists formed on the one hand the anti-Zionist (Haredi) Agudat Yisrael (AY), and on the other, the religious but pro-Zionist Mizrachi.[6] For the Haredim, the Shoah marked a turning point toward their grudging recognition of popular Zionist logic, long after internal divisions provoked the secession of groups like Neturei Karta and Po’alei AY.

With the establishment of the State of Israel, Ben-Gurion proclaimed “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”.[7] A secular Jew himself, Ben-Gurion envisioned a society where “questions of religion and faith [would] be respected as individual matters absolutely free of coercion or obligation”.[8] Notwithstanding the rhetoric, political expediency and pragmatism soon became the touchstone of policy-making. More concerned with preserving national unity, Ben-Gurion had written a letter to AY’s Rabbi Levin in 1947 laying out the framework for the ‘Status Quo Agreement’. In exchange for their support the government promised to ensure certain conditions for the continual practice of the Jewish faith in the new state, effectively sealing religious influence within the hegemonic discourse.[9] Though it was Mizrachi/Mafdal and not AY as such that formed a historical alliance with Mapai/Labour, this sort of consociational democracy prevailed until Likud’s electoral victory in 1977. Inherent in such politics of accommodation was the need to avoid engaging in decisions that could trigger the much-feared Kulturkampf.[10] That Zionism’s legitimacy was premised on traditional Judaism – the “ethno-national principle of Jewish historical continuity and Jewish claim to Eretz Yisrael” – serves to explain religion’s privileged status in the fledgling state.[11] Indeed, Judaism today still very much informs Israel’s narrower socio-cultural context. Conversely, as Nisan contends, “there is really no state of Israel without the sturdy foundation of Zionist pioneering praxis”.[12]

A systemic anomaly resultant from such circumstances carries a paradox: if Israel does not have a state religion (Judaism’s status being strictly de facto), neither is its state separate from religion. Of Israel’s five million ethnic Jews, a quarter define themselves as religious, ultra-Orthodoxy constituting 6 to 10 percent of this figure. At the other end, some 40 percent remain secular, leaving a significant swing segment in the middle.[13] In a 1985 poll conducted on whether the government should align public life in accordance with religious practice, 27 percent replied ‘definitely’, 26 percent ‘definitely not’ and 46 percent both ‘probably’ and ‘probably not’.[14] If most Israelis identify themselves with Judaism, they do it “for reasons of cultural identity rather than from a felt need to observe religious commandments”.[15] An attendant paradox of even greater practical consequence is “the (secular) majority who needs to be protected from the tyranny of the (Orthodox) minority”.[16] Having established the historical context, we now examine its key ideological and legal-constitutional discontents.


Ideology and Providence

Although at odds with the secular establishment, both Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy as mentioned divide along different points on a spectrum. In assessing ideological nuances, this study adopts the theoretical framework proposed by Shafir and Peled.[17] The first, ‘pragmatic accommodationism’ characterised the original Mizrachi under the tutelage of Rabbi Reines which, despite recognising no divine imprimatur in the Zionist project participated in governance and state-building on pragmatic principle, to live and let live as it were. According to the authors, the bulk of modern Orthodoxy fits into this category.[18] The second, ‘principled accommodationism’ views the Zionist enterprise as unwittingly fulfilling the first steps toward the ‘advent of redemption’ – what Sofer calls its “chariot of fire” – thus partially sanctifying it.[19] Religious Zionists generally cleave to this outlook as propounded by Rabbi Kook. Since 1967, however, a radical faction has gravitated toward his son Zvi. Y. Kook’s territorial maximalism. The third, ‘pragmatic rejectionism’ typifies AY’s Haredim. Denying the state spiritual legitimacy, they refrain from patently opposing it only insofar as the Zionist government (which controls the resources) continues to serve their sectoral material interests. ‘Principled rejectionism’, the last, is the sole preserve of the most extreme elements among the Haredim (Neturei Karta, Eda Haredit etc) who categorically demonise Israel’s pre-Messianic existence. An emerging fifth paradigm, that of the ultra-Orthodox Shas anomaly accepts Zionism yet seeks to redefine it in ethno-religious terms. Using this approach, the ‘Biblicality’ of modern Israel thus becomes the issue whence such germane concerns as settlements and territorial integrity derive.

A problem with this typology is the increasing convergence of religious Zionism (who have adopted ultra-Orthodox behavioural patterns) and ultra-Orthodoxy (who have become, ironically, nationalist). The implications for the Haredim are thus one of convergence vis-à-vis issues previously thought to be associated with religious Zionism.

The heady success of the 1967 War marked a turning point in secular-religious relations. That Israel had conquered overwhelming odds, particularly the key Arab regimes in Cairo and Damascus convinced religious Jews that Israel’s destiny had finally taken a divine, even Messianic turn reminiscent of the Kingdom years. In line with re-emergent national myths – ‘the few against the many’, ‘a people that dwells apart’ etc – spontaneous waves of ‘Greater Israel’ settlements took place, often contrary to official policy, across the Green Line. In a sense, so argues Horowitz, this movement gradually “granted legitimacy to the involvement of rabbis…in political processes such as the formation of government coalitions”.[20] Theoretically, any attempt at settling the Occupied/Administered Territories precludes the option of withdrawal lest redemption tarries. Further, given their singular disregard for secular non-Messianic peace, settlers (led by Gush Emunim) have become central in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, undermining Israeli democracy and strengthening the correlation between religiosity and foreign policy hawkishness. Still, that said, Haredim tend to split hairs at a more localised level than the unrelenting ‘Halachisation’ of Israel’s political reality.


Constitutional and Legal Issues

Since its inception, the Israeli government has repeatedly postponed drafting a constitution for reasons of national cohesion, the inability of the society then in flux to make such a decision and as Ben-Gurion himself claimed, the unfinished business of the ‘ingathering of the exiles’.[21] While symptomatic of the fear of a secular-religious Kulturkampf, the absence of a written constitution has contributed to greater socio-political instability the aggregate of which has already shaken Israel’s very ontological foundations. This is most telling in the emasculated role of the judiciary as the traditional bastion of civil rights and the rule of law. Until Aharon Barak’s tenure as Supreme Court (Bagatz) president, the judiciary virtually deferred to the legislative supremacy of the Knesset and in some cases to the religious establishment. However, Barak’s 1995 ‘constitutional revolution’ recast the judiciary as a key political player, further consolidating its legal authority by recognising the eleven Basic Laws as the basis for an inchoate Israeli constitution. A strong legal institution based on “mishpat ivri” – a palimpsest of British and Ottoman law, US Supreme Court decisions and Jewish traditional practice – threatens the prospects of a total conversion to a Halachic state.[22] The backlash came on Valentine’s Day 1999, when a 250,000-strong Shas-led demonstration in Jerusalem protested the Supreme Court’s growing interventionism in matters of religion – the unresolved tension between both sides having clearly reached new heights.

Since ultra-Orthodoxy is but a subset within the larger Orthodox frame of reference, a synopsis is necessary concerning the prevailing set of circumstances. The immense authority invested into the Rabbinical Courts reflects a continuation of the Ottoman millet system of autonomous jurisdiction over matters of personal status within individual religious communities, the most obvious of which concern marriage and divorce. Civil marriage does not exist in Israel, and indeed, given the universal requirement for Orthodox-approved weddings, neither do Reform nor Conservative. This has had the twin effect of forcing secular weddings abroad and alienating non-Orthodox believers.[23] Orthodox (and Haredi) Jews moreover tend to harbour greater hostility toward their non-Orthodox co-religionists than the avowedly secular.[24]

Even more pressing is the legal debate surrounding ‘Who is a Jew’. Ben-Gurion believed, perhaps too naively, that a Jew was anyone who “in purity of heart” thought himself Jewish.[25] Accordingly, he regarded the willingness to serve in the military a better qualification than genealogy. For the religious, Halacha determined Jewishness. In the 1970 amendment to the Law of Return (and by association the Population Registry Law), a Jew was a “person born of a Jewish mother or converted to Judaism who is not a member of another religion”.[26] The omission of the clause “according to Halacha” has provoked considerable ire on the part of the Orthodoxy who believe the flux of incoming non-Orthodox Jews undermines Torah. Worse, the bulk of Jews immigrant from the Soviet heartland after 1989 were not only secular but brought with them non-Jewish relatives, obliterating any future option of operationalising this clause.

While a plethora of legal issues accompany the Orthodox bandwagon, a few enjoy direct provenance from the ultra-Orthodox. A prime peculiarity of the ultra-Orthodox stated here though perhaps more relevant to the preceding section (III) is social (and linguistic) separatism. If Mizrachi agitated for a Halachic state in the late 1940s, AY demanded no less the right to ecological segregationism – and got it. In some ways they have become even more peripheral than Israeli Arabs. Firstly, despite uninterrupted state funding for their welfare and educational system, ultra-Orthodox Jews do not serve in the military. Though entitled only to deferment and not exemption, theological students tend to enrol full-time in yeshivot/kollelim till past the military-exempt age of 41, courtesy of AY’s successful intercession.[27] The irony of it becomes apparent when one realises that state subsidy for these seminaries increase with enrolment. Likewise, Haredi women often opt out of military service. Understandably, secular and even national religious Jews (for whom the military caters special programmes, Hesder Yeshivot) chaff at this lack of equality, even despite the Tal Commission recommendations.[28] While the secular Jew bears arms, the ultra-Orthodox Jew whose Torah is his profession – “Torato Umnuto” – believes he contributes as much if not more through his supplications to G-d.[29] Secondly, because most yeshivaniks do not work, this constitutes in economic terms a near-constant shortfall of 12.2 percent from the labour market (aged 25-54, male) at an estimated NIS3.5 billion in lost production.[30]

To be sure, Haredi extremism is popularly epitomised in the oft-cited example of stone-hurling on Shabbat – whose observance unfortunately spills over into issues concerning the operation of public transportation (including El Al flights), services and entertainment, among others – in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim. Yet the problem intensifies when one considers the disproportionate influence the Haredim exercise in domestic affairs; coalition politics has, since the 1980s, entrenched the position of religious parties as critical power brokers, even, to a lesser degree, within National Unity (Likud-Labour) governments. However, because current voting behaviour cuts across religious, ethnic and socioeconomic lines, this political aspect will have to be constrained to a separate analysis.[31]



The nature of the problems facing Israel in the Twenty-first Century are logical consequences of a palpable identity crisis still in the process of unfolding. Yet, more than simply another element in the confrontational dialectic undercutting the Israeli polity, the resolution of the religious-secular schism is a necessary prerequisite to the resolution of other cognate tensions. As many analysts have observed, an attenuation in Israel’s external conflicts amplifies its internal contradictions, starting with religion.

Given this basis, the taxonomy of conflict resolution with Israel as a Jewish state at one end and Israel as a democratic state (for all citizens) at the other may not be the most adequate. The decline in Zionist ideology has only led to the rise, as in much of the world, of a postmodern individualism even more eager to disabuse itself of imposed truth. A less harmful approach may be to cater to the reality of multiple religious attitudes, namely in equally multifaceted ways. This essay concludes here, short of a solution, but it would have at least sketched a rough impression of what may arguably be Israel’s toughest predicament.



[1] Here, Kornberg subscribes to the more nuanced ‘State of the Jews’ reading as opposed to simply a ‘Jewish State’; Jacques Kornberg. Theodor Herzl: From Assimilation to Zionism. US: Indiana University Press, 1993, p. 178.

[2] Ibid. p. 179.

[3] Ibid, p. 168.

[4] Ezra Kopelowitz. ‘Religious Politics and Israel’s Ethnic Democracy.’ Israel Studies 6.3 (2001): p. 171.

[5] Ibid. loc. cit.

[6] While I recognise the ideological variety within the Mizrachi (‘Merkaz Ruhani’)/Mafdal/NRP label, I nevertheless use the general term ‘religious Zionists’ for the purposes of this essay.

[7] Israel. Ministry of Foreign Affiars. Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, 14 May 1948. <;.

[8] Zvi Zameret. ‘Judaism in Israel: Ben-Gurion’s Private Beliefs and Public Policy.’ Israel Studies 4.2 (1999): p. 79.

[9] At that time, these conditions included the institutionalisation of Shabbat, observance of Kashrut, Rabbinic authority in matters of personal status and independence of the religious education system(s).

[10] Asher Cohen. ‘Changes in the Orthodox Camp and their Influence on the Deepening Religious-Secular Schism at the Outset of the Twenty-first Century’ in Alan Dowty, ed. Critical Issues in Israeli Society. US: Praeger, 2004, p. 71.

[11] Gershon Shafir & Yoav Peled. ‘The Wages of Legitimation: Zionist and Non-Zionist Orthodox Jews’ in their Being Israeli: The Dynamics of Multiple Citizenship. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 137.

[12] Mordechai Nisan. Toward a New Israel: The Jewish State and the Arab Question. New York: AMS Press, 1992, p. 234.

[13] Cited in Gregory S. Mahler. Politics and Government in Israel: The Maturation of a Modern State. US: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2004, p. 71; These figures gleaned from the eighties still remain relevant and largely current, although researchers have tended to vary on the figures for secular Jews depending on research parameters.

[14] Ibid, p. 70.

[15] Martin Edelman. ‘A Portion of Animosity: The Politics of the Disestablishment of Religion in Israel.’ Israel Studies 5.1 (2000): p. 210.

[16] Martin Edelman. ‘“Protecting the Majority”: Religious Freedom for the Non-Orthodox Jews in Israel’ in Frederick A. Lazin & Gregory S. Mahler, eds. Israel in the Nineties: Development and Conflict. US: University Press of Florida, 1996, p. 29.

[17] Given space constraints only a brief description has been afforded here. For a full treatment of the subject, see Gershon Shafir & Yoav Peled. ‘The Wages of Legitimation: Zionist and Non-Zionist Orthodox Jews.’ pp. 138-140.

[18] In a sense, this submission to authority is contiguous with the Talmudic concept of דינא דמלכותא דינא – ‘the law of the land is law’, given shrift by Rabbi Ovadia Haddayah in 1958; for more, see Derek Penslar. ‘Normalization and Its Discontents: Israel as a Diaspora Jewish Community’ in Alan Dowty, ed. Critical Issues in Israeli Society. US: Praeger, 2004, pp. 232-33.

[19] Sasson Sofer. Zionism and the Foundations of Israeli Diplomacy. Trans. Dorothea Shefet-Vanson. UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 301.

[20] Dan Horowitz & Moshe Lissak. Trouble in Utopia: The Overburdened Polity of Israel. US: State University of New York Press, 1989, p. 59.

[21] Gideon Doron & Rebecca Kook. ‘Sources of Stability and Instability in the Israeli Polity’ in Alan Dowty, ed. Critical Issues in Israeli Society. US: Praeger, 2004, p. 15; Interestingly though lacking direct relevance here, Shafir and Peled (citing Yonathan Shapiro) also suggest Ben-Gurion’s reluctance in constraining the government’s freedom of action on writ, his desire to limit Palestinian citizenship rights and to un-limit the 1949 armistice lines as final borders; see Gershon Shafir & Yoav Peled. ‘The Wages of Legitimation: Zionist and Non-Zionist Orthodox Jews.’ p. 147.

[22] Martin Edelman. ‘A Portion of Animosity: The Politics of the Disestablishment of Religion in Israel.’ p. 217.

[23] An equally if not more frustrating issue is Halacha’s conferring on husbands virtual control over divorce, leaving many an aguna without the get thus bereaved of both husband and social independence.

[24] Asher Cohen. ‘Changes in the Orthodox Camp and their Influence on the Deepening Religious-Secular Schism at the Outset of the Twenty-first Century.’ pp. 77-8.

[25] Zvi Zameret. ‘Judaism in Israel: Ben-Gurion’s Private Beliefs and Public Policy.’ p. 74.

[26] Section 4B of the amended Law of Return (1950).

[27] Kollelim differ from yeshivot in that the former is catered specially for married students.

[28] Retired religious Zionist Justice Zvi Tal proposed a programme in which Haredi men could choose to leave the yeshiva in return for merely a few months of military service or a year of public service, thus relieving them of having to school till the exemption age and enabling them to integrate into the labour market to improve their own socioeconomic circumstances.

[29] Yagil Levi. Tsava Echad Le’Israel: Militarism Chomrani Be’Israel. Tel-Aviv: Yediot Acharonot, 2003, p. 247 (Hebrew).

[30] Gershon Shafir & Yoav Peled. ‘The Wages of Legitimation: Zionist and Non-Zionist Orthodox Jews.’ p. 144.

[31] Here, I refer to the growing influence of the Shas party, an anomaly given its atypical character: Although Haredi by heritage and party leadership, Shas’ voting constituencies cut across ideological, religious (intensity), ethnic as well as other variables, prompting Yuchtman-Yaar and Hermann’s investigation of balloting results to substantiate its Haredi orientation. Further, as regards foreign policy, Shas’ principle ideologue Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s pikuach nefesh – the sanctity of Jewish lives over uncertain territory – places Shas in stark opposition to other Haredi parties. Because the scope of this analysis deals with ultra-Orthodoxy as has been traditionally understood, I have refrained from including Shas therein.


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