What Do They Really Think About Us?
There are few more ungainly or unattractive positions than that of someone patting his own back. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to offer a call-out to HaMercaz L’Mechkar V’Tikshoret Yehudit (The Center for Jewish Research and Communication), for commissioning a study by Dr. Mina Tzemach of the attitudes of secular Israelis to chareidim and to the Hebrew Mishpacha for devoting an entire supplement to the study in its Pesach issue. The Center seeks, inter alia, to provide chareidi decisionmakers and spokespersons with the necessary factual information about our own community and its relations to the broader Israeli society, just as Dr. Yitzchak Schecter, featured in last week’s English Mishpacha has devoted himself to collecting reliable data about the mental health profile of chareidi Jewry.
The Tzemach survey, as Rabbi Moshe Grylak noted in his far-ranging introductory essay, upended one of the most entrenched myths of the chareidi community – the belief that most secular Jews harbor an irremediable animus towards every chareidi they meet and would be happy to see the chareidi community disappear entirely. Over three-quarters of the “traditional but not observant” and “secular” Jews polled said that they have at least one chareidi acquaintance, and of those 85% have a favorable impression of that person. (Of course, in many of those cases the acquaintance may be a relative – 60% of the traditional and 38% of the secular respondents identified a chareidi relative.)
A full 93% opined that ongoing dialogue between secular Jews is important for the preservation of Israeli society. Remarkably given the vast media attention focused on tensions between chareidim and national religious and secular Jews in Beit Shemesh, 62% said that they would not object to living in mixed neighborhoods together with chareidim and 52% felt that such mixed neighborhoods would foster greater understanding. Over four-fifths said they would hire chareidim as employees.
In response to a somewhat ambiguous question as to whether it is important for the Israeli school system to transmit knowledge of “mesoret Yisrael,” 89% answered affirmatively, and just over half said that the Israeli educational system is not doing enough in this regard. Nearly 70% said that the IDF must provide all the conditions necessary so that chareidi soldiers can preserve their way of life while serving.
I doubt that the tenor of these findings will be a shock to those of us within the chareidi community who have extensive contact with non-religious Israeli Jews – e.g., those in kiruv. More frequently we encounter the mirror image of chareidi attitudes towards secular Israelis – a certain degree of suspicion arising from unfamiliarity, but nothing like ingrained hatred.
Nor have we found among our secular brethren a widespread desire to be relieved once and all from the bonds of Jewish identity. In numerous polls, Israeli Jews have given precedence to their identity as Jews over their identity as Israelis. The 1992 Guttman Institute study, “Beliefs, Observances and Social Interaction Among Israeli Jews,” found that “secular” Israeli Jews are far more likely to observe various religious rituals – fasting on Yom Kippur, not eating chametz on Pesach, lighting Shabbos candles, not eating milk and meat together – than their Reform and Conservative cousins in America. A certain amount of ritual observance – albeit often without scrupulous attention to the halachic details – is part of the civil religion of Israel.
That is not to deny that there are significant and influential pockets of anti-religious and anti-chareidi hatred in Israel. The aforementioned Guttmann study found that those with academic degrees were twice as likely as the average Israeli to describe themselves as completely non-observant. Within the media and government legal system there are entrenched pockets of hostility to chareidim.
But prevalent attitudes in the secular elites do not reflect the general population, and pretending that they do has long served as something of a cop-out on the part of many chareidim. By telling ourselves over and over again that they hate us no matter we do, that their hatred is an immutable expression of the hatred of amei ha’aretz for talmidei chachamim (Are secular Jews of today indistinguishable from the amei ha’aretz of Rabbi Akiva’s day?), we manage to be both a little too easy on ourselves and self-flattering at the same time.
For if their hatred is immutable, we are spared from ever having to ask ourselves in what ways do we contribute to secular perceptions of the chareidi community or considering what messages we are sending them. We are freed from having to consider how we might change the situation employing the secret bequeathed to us by the wisest of men, “K’mayim hapanim lapanim kach lev adam la’adam – As water reflects a face back to a face so one’s heart is reflected back to him by another (Mishlei 27:19).
But in truth, we do not have the luxury of saying, “Who cares what they [the secular] think of us?” As Rav Elyashiv frequently said, “That the Name of Heaven should become beloved through Your actions,” should be our paramount educational message. The command to love Hashem means making Him beloved through the beauty of our actions.
As Rabbi Grylak points out, the chareidi media has been fully complicit in perpetuating the myth of immutable hatred. Thus, for instance, our politicians quickly learn that press coverage depends on using their positions to “answer them back.” The quiet behind the scenes work that they do developing understandings with secular counterparts gains no plaudits. Former Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz confided to me during his first term in the Knesset that he had developed a close working relationship with Rabbi Moshe Gafni. But I would never have known of their friendship or of Rabbi Gafni’s leading work on environmental issues from the chareidi media. Ditto the regular hours that Rabbi Yaacov Litzman set up for receiving the general public in cities around Israel.
THAT LEADS US TO THE SECOND REVELATION OF THE SURVEY: chareidi hasbara has been a total failure. Of the 85% of the secular Jews who paid any attention to the atzeres hatefillah, not one apparently grasped that it was a response to the criminalization of Torah learning. The eternal verities of chareidi discourse find little resonance in the secular community: 73% deny that there is any discrimination against chareidim in Israel. Only 21% think that Finance Minister Lapid has it in for the chareidim, and even among those 21%, only 1% attribute his actions to anti-religious animus.
Chareidim receive remarkably little credit even for those attributes in which they excel according to any objective analysis. Asked to identify the positive qualities of the chareidi community, only 6% pointed to the chesed activities of the community, whether those serving the internal community or those serving the entire public – e.g., Ezer M’Tzion, Yad Sarah, Ezra L’Marpeh. Over a quarter could not think of a single positive attribute of the community. Perhaps most remarkably, only 27% feel that the chareidi community helps to preserve the Jewish character of the state, though, as Avishai Chen pointed out in his excellent summary of the findings, that may be partly a function of the ambiguous wording of the question which referred to “national values . . . that enjoy a societal consensus and have been transmitted from generation to generation” and might have been thought to refer to specifically Israeli customs and values.
Not all the blame for the failure can be laid on the chareidi media. Prior to the atzeres hatefillah, for instance, Yated Ne’eman harped on the criminalization provisions in the new draft law daily, and yet the message was not picked up by the general press. But to a significant extent, the chareidi community has never tried to explain its positions to the larger public. As Dr. Chaim Zicherman argues, there has been a generalized feeling that public relations efforts were pointless because they had no political utility: United Torah Judaism could never hope to attract non-chareidi voters.
Instead the chareidi community relied on political power flowing from UTJ’s role as the lynchpin in any government coalition. Today, however, UTJ is in the opposition, and chareidi political power is at a nadir. Having never made any efforts at persuasion, our powers in that regard have atrophied. Our current sojourn in the political wilderness is at last forcing us to articulate our positions in a coherent fashion capable of being grasped by those outside our camp.
FORTUNATELY, THE SURVEY is not only descriptive, but prescriptive. It points the way forward. The secular public, it turns out, don’t hate us, but neither do they know us. They are, however, open to greater contact, even eager for it.
The results of structured contact, especially those that involve an aspect of Torah learning, have been uniformly positive in breaking down stereotypes. I have written several times of the thousands of study partnerships established by the Kesher Yehudi organization and of the deep bonds created between the study partners. Kesher Yehudi has expanded its work over the last two years to include monthly yamei iyun for those enrolled the year-long pre-induction academies in which the Jewish identity of many of Israel’s future leaders is being shaped. In coming weeks, Mishpacha will be covering a wide variety of initiatives based on the simple idea that actually meeting chareidi Jews is the best antidote to the widespread misconceptions about us and what it means to live a Torah life.
The very fact that chareidim are actively seeking out contact serves to break down one of the greatest barriers that many secular Jews have to learning more about Torah: the feeling that Torah Jews do not care about them. Yehudah Polishuk, the managing director of the Center for Jewish Research and Communication, relates a powerful story of an effort to establish regular learning sessions between avreichim and academics in one of Israel’s leading academic institutions. The initial meeting between fifteen academics and a like number of avreichim was tension-filled, until he blurted out something to the effect, “Despite the chasm between us, we are not willing to give up on you.”
“If we are truly important to you, and if you really care about us, then we will find what to argue about,” the academics responded. With that the learning program was launched.
FIVE HUNDRED RESPONSES may be enough to predict with reasonable accuracy a bipolar choice between two political candidates. It is insufficient to produce a definitive picture of complex congeries of attitudes. Attitudinal studies inevitably produce results so riddled with internal contradictions – e.g., 90% think it is important to preserve the “Jewish identity of the State, but 48% would not object to their child marrying a non-Jew – that they cry out darshani.
The maiden effort of the new Center, however, is an important beginning, both pointing the way for further, more in-depth research, but also calling into question some of our most comforting myths.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha.