Analysis from Israel
This really happened, in 1948. But today, the rabbis hold greater sway. And therein lies the problem

Unsurprisingly, last week’s column upset many haredim. Before responding to some of their comments, I want to tell a story, from Rabbi Shlomo Goren’s autobiography:

During the War of Independence, Goren, the IDF’s first chief rabbi, was summoned one Friday morning by the army’s commander in Jerusalem. Army intelligence had just learned that Jordanian tanks would invade central Jerusalem at 11 A.M. on Saturday. Jerusalem had no weaponry that could stop a tank column, the commander said, so the only chance was to dig trenches to bar their path. But since Jordan was shelling the area constantly by day, they could only be dug after sundown, thereby violating Shabbat. Moreover, his soldiers were all fighting at the front and couldn’t be spared, so the only men available were haredi yeshiva students who hadn’t enlisted. Could Goren recruit them?

Jewish law mandates violating Shabbat to save lives, and both Goren and then-Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog agreed this situation qualified. But they feared the students wouldn’t accept their rulings. Herzog therefore sent Goren to the rabbi of Neturei Karta – who flatly forbade violating Shabbat, especially since “it won’t help anyway: The city will fall.”

So Goren decided to appeal directly to the students. He went from yeshiva to yeshiva, explained the situation and requested volunteers – and at each, including the Neturei Karta yeshivas, every hand in the room went up. That night, over 1,000 haredi yeshiva students dug trenches in Jerusalem. Saturday morning, the first three Jordanian tanks hit those trenches and overturned. The rest turned tail and fled.

Without these haredim, Israel would probably have lost all of Jerusalem in 1948 rather than only part. Yet had it depended on their rabbis, the city would have fallen: It survived because ordinary haredim were less religiously extreme (and perhaps more Zionist) than their leaders.

Today, most haredim are still more moderate, and more Zionist, than their leaders. Yet this story probably couldn’t happen today, because it depended on the students not knowing their rabbi disapproved: Unable to traverse the besieged city to consult him, they had to decide for themselves. Today, they would simply telephone. And once told “no,” they wouldn’t disobey. To haredim, their rabbis’ rulings are daas Torah (the Torah’s opinion), and therefore can’t be questioned – regardless of how often they’ve proven wrong.

With one exception, this fact relates directly to readers’ complaints about my comparison of Palestinian and haredi leaders’ tactics. The exception is an important difference I shouldn’t have neglected to mention: No haredi considers murder an acceptable tactic.

It’s equally true that haredim don’t share the Palestinians’ goals: Most genuinely care about Israel and their fellow Israelis, and many actively contribute to both through wonderful haredi organizations like Yad Sarah or Zichron Menachem. But leaving aside a technical quibble (my article discussed tactics, not goals), the real problem with this contention is that you’d never guess it from listening to haredi leaders. And since unlike other Israelis, who frequently and vocally disagree with their leaders, haredim never publicly disagree with theirs, that majority of Israelis who don’t know any haredim personally very reasonably assume their leaders speak for them. 

For examples, consider Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman’s statement that no haredi should ever serve in the army, because “The very act of living in the army framework causes terrible spiritual danger,” or Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s statement that haredim should emigrate rather than enlist. Everyone knows Israel wouldn’t survive for a second without its army. So if the spiritual danger of army service is really so great that emigration is preferable, the obvious implication is that these rabbis abominate either Israel or their fellow Jews: Either Israel ought to disappear, since its continued existence necessitates putting Jews in “terrible spiritual danger,” or non-haredim aren’t real Jews, so this spiritual danger doesn’t apply.  Yet ordinary haredim never publicly challenge such statements. Do they not know, or care, how non-haredim interpret them?

Moving onto another reader complaint: Since Shteinman explicitly forbade violence at the May 17 demonstration I cited, how can I say haredi rabbis tacitly condone such violence? Bluntly, for the same reason I say Mahmoud Abbas condones violence despite his oft-repeated claim to oppose it: Too much evidence contradicts this claim.

Granted, haredi rabbis never glorify violence, whereas Abbas, his Fatah party and the Palestinian Authority-controlled media do so nonstop. But neither do they condemn it with even a fraction of the passion and frequency with which they condemn, say, army service or Reform Jews. Last Thursday’s demonstration against the draft, at which haredim throwing rocks and bottles wounded 10 policemen, is a good example: Of four Ashkenazi haredi papers, all “guided” by different rabbis, one directly condemned the violence, one indirectly condemned it, and two simply ignored it. Yet every haredi paper repeatedly and vociferously denounces army service.

This relative investment of rabbinic time and passion sends a clear signal as to which issues the rabbis really care about and which they don’t. And haredi thugs hear it: If they really thought their rabbis considered stone-throwing worse than army service or women reading Torah, most (even if not all) would stop. But because ordinary haredim never publicly challenge their rabbis, most Israelis reasonably conclude that they, too, share this order of priorities.

Finally, I’d like my haredi readers to consider one thing: I’m an Orthodox Jew who knows many wonderful haredim. I have dear haredi friends; last November, I danced at their youngest daughter’s wedding. Consequently, I’m far more “pro-haredi” than most Israelis, who aren’t Orthodox, never met a haredi and certainly don’t have haredi friends. Thus if I’ve so totally lost patience with your rabbis, how do you think other Israelis feel? And is blaming the admittedly sometimes hostile secular media really an adequate solution?

I truly believe most haredim are more like those yeshiva students who saved Jerusalem in 1948 than the rabbi who would have let the city fall. But most Israelis don’t. And they never will until either haredi rabbis change their behavior, or ordinary haredim become willing to publicly admit their rabbis are fallible human beings, who are sometimes just plain wrong.

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Why Israel Needs a Better Political Class

Note: This piece is a response to an essay by Haviv Rettig Gur, which can be found here

Israel’s current political crisis exemplifies the maxim that hard cases make bad law. This case is desperate. Six months after the coronavirus erupted and nine months after the fiscal year began, Israel still lacks both a functioning contact-tracing system and an approved 2020 budget, mainly because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is more worried about politics than the domestic problems that Israel now confronts. The government’s failure to perform these basic tasks obviously invites the conclusion that civil servants’ far-reaching powers must not only be preserved, but perhaps even increased.

This would be the wrong conclusion. Bureaucrats, especially when they have great power, are vulnerable to the same ills as elected politicians. But unlike politicians, they are completely unaccountable to the public.

That doesn’t mean Haviv Rettig Gur is wrong to deem them indispensable. They provide institutional memory, flesh out elected officials’ policies, and supply information the politicians may not know and options they may not have considered. Yet the current crisis shows in several ways why they neither can nor should substitute for elected politicians.

First, bureaucrats are no less prone to poor judgment than politicians. As evidence, consider Siegal Sadetzki, part of the Netanyahu-led triumvirate that ran Israel’s initial response to the coronavirus. It’s unsurprising that Gur never mentioned Sadetzki even as he lauded the triumvirate’s third member, former Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov; she and her fellow Health Ministry staffers are a major reason why Israel still lacks a functional test-and-trace system.

Sadetzki, an epidemiologist, was the ministry’s director of public-health services and the only member of the triumvirate with professional expertise in epidemics (Bar Siman-Tov is an economist). As such, her input was crucial. Yet she adamantly opposed expanding virus testing, even publicly asserting that “Too much testing will increase complacence.” She opposed letting organizations outside the public-health system do lab work for coronavirus tests, even though the system was overwhelmed. She opposed sewage monitoring to track the spread of the virus. And on, and on.

Moreover, even after acknowledging that test-and-trace was necessary, ministry bureaucrats insisted for months that their ministry do the tracing despite its glaringly inadequate manpower. Only in August was the job finally given to the army, which does have the requisite personnel. And the system still isn’t fully operational.

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