A Secular-Haredi Debate on Israel’s Cultural War
By Heshy Grossman and Dan Perry
[Editor’s Note: The dialogue that follows is refreshing, given that too many folks these days are given to talking past each other, rather than to each other. The two disputants have drawn personally closer to each other in the exchange, rather than further apart – this despite neither of them yielding any ground on the issues. It is reminiscent of the famous exchange between Rabbis Yaakov Yosef Reinman and Ammiel Hirsch two decades ago. Like theirs, this one will likely generate much discussion.]
Is an understanding possible between the Haredi and secular parts of Israel? Will the Haredim inevitably prevail by virtue of their phenomenal birthrate – or do the secular have the advantage via accounting for the vast majority of the country’s GDP? Will there be war – or geographical partition? Are there invisible processes at work?
These are the questions that will determine the future of Israel a few decades from now. What follows is a synopsis of an ongoing discussion between the two of us – journalist and secular humanist Dan Perry and Rabbi Heshy Grossman, a long-time Yeshiva educator and a proud and articulate Haredi. It is a rather unusual dialectic in that both men like and respect each other on a personal level and have grown to be friends – yet are on opposite sides of what is shaping up as a genuine cultural war in Israel.
Heshy: Dan, you write: “If religion were understood to be about what one does in their own home, and there was no effort to impose, then fine.” But we don’t view religion that way, and certainly not the Jewish People. Without getting into the underlying existential theology, we see the Jewish People as one unified entity that embodies a Divine mission. We understand our nation as a unit, traveling at sea in one ship, and one who drills a hole underneath his own cabin cannot pretend to be harming only himself.
We do agree that it is important for Haredim to contribute to the general welfare of the community, but we see material prosperity and security as a means for a fulfilling life, not as the ultimate goal. The decision to keep young men in Yeshiva rather than the military is one example of where the priorities of the two communities come into conflict. We certainly value and respect the military, but we believe that its purpose is to protect the Jewish People so we can freely lead Jewish lives, and our Jewish life is predicated upon the Torah and Yeshivos, which, we firmly believe, also protects our people.
Since our worldviews are so divergent, we are talking past each other, with each side trying to overcome the other. A decisive determination as to whose values are correct is not forthcoming, so the best solution would be an accommodation, and this is why we prefer the status quo arrangement that allows our two communities to co-exist.
Dan: The Haredi community now constitutes a fifth of the Jews in Israel and has seven children per family, which is reckless and without equal in the modern world. The community seems happy to be mendicant, depending on child allowances and a network of tax breaks and shadow subsidies. It widely refuses to teach high schoolers math, science and English, and insists that vast numbers of male adults spend their lives in religious study receiving salaries from the taxpayer.
This is nothing short of a catastrophe for any notion of Israel as a modern state. If the Haredim become a majority and continue this behavior the economy will collapse. But even if they mildly alter their behavior, a Haredi-majority Israel, with religion dominating public life, will quickly lead to a flight of the others, yielding a backward failed state run into the ground by religious fanatics. The current government, which depends on Haredi parties, is doubling down on all this. It is national suicide. Down this path lies a Jewish version of Iran.
Moreover, the Haredim are now one of several main forces behind the attack on the rule of law in Israel. The current government is attempting to undermine the independence of the courts and to install elected authoritarianism, and one of the main reasons for this is to enable the continued special dispensations for the Haredim, including and especially rampant sector-wide exemptions from the military and even national service. The courts might well strike much of this down as violating the principle of equality – hence the war on the courts, which are indeed indifferent to the world of God. Down this path lies a Jewish version of Turkey – or, God forbid, Russia.
Heshy: Nearly all the objections that you raise are worries about what the future will bring. Though it is nice for people to plan national strategy, it would be more prudent to admit that not too many predictions for the Jewish future have come to fruition recently (your parents’ generation was sure that Orthodoxy was dead) and a little more circumspection would be appropriate. Haredim – who are equally concerned for the future – don’t share the same doomsday vision.
The disdain for G-d and religious values is why it is so difficult for Haredim to cooperate and integrate into secular Israeli society. Not only do you delegitimize religious Jews who differ with your secular views with mocking derision – ‘fanatics’ – but you distort the facts. Can a $400 monthly stipend for a Yeshiva scholar with a family be called a ‘salary’?! Really, Dan, would you work for $400 a month?
You say Haredim have too many children. Sorry, but there is no room in a civilized and free society for that type of intrusion into our family life. And then you wonder why Haredim distrust attempts by the secular leadership to act ‘for our benefit’!?
Dan: I am simply outlining the facts. It’s not too difficult to see the trends and foolish to not warn against what’s coming. And indeed, I do not like the landscape. Haredi men in the Diaspora for the most part have occupations and don’t rely on government stipends and handouts. Wouldn’t it be better for Israeli Haredi community to do the same?
Heshy: By and large, Haredi men in Europe and the USA ultimately pursue occupations. The situation in Israel is very different. Haredim in Israel still live in a siege mentality, and believe that many secular leaders want to weaken religious Judaism (and your attitude reveals why). Still, I know many Haredi families who would like to provide good training and advanced education for their children.
Dan: Yet it rarely happens. You do understand that working Israelis subsidizing a non-sustainable Haredi lifestyle breeds resentment and even hatred among fellow Jews and is financially not sustainable with the exploding Haredi population growth, yes?
Heshy: We are aware of the resentment, and also of the public relations campaign engineered to stoke those flames. We believe that the budget issue is not being presented accurately to the public. I think that an open assessment would reveal that the Haredim actually do not receive an undue portion of the budget. Let’s have an honest look at how much money is spent per student at secular schools, and compare as well the amounts spent for Haredi students with other expenditures – at universities, and for the general population – that have no clear economic benefit. Does the funding for the museums, libraries, Chinese art history, philosophy, Greek and English literature, sports activities, music, theater, opera, festivals, Israeli public TV and so on receive as much scrutiny as funds granted for the education of our children? The double standard leads us to believe that the secular concern is not budgetary excess, but rather, a desire to hit Haredim in our pockets, and to squeeze our school system.
Dan: It’s a red herring. The 2022 Finance Ministry study showed the Haredim as contributing least to the economy – as a measure of taxes versus production – of any group including the Israeli Arabs. And the vast majority of support to universities contributes to Israel’s spectacular tech sector that accounts for almost a fifth of the economy, half the exports and most of the growth, and as such underpins the engine that enables secular Israel to support the Haredim for the moment. For you to question it on account of some imaginary large subsidy to Greek studies is not only absurd but rather self-defeating. And it is clear, because of the reckless birthrate, that none of this is sustainable. You are intelligent, so I am sure you understand that one needs a core curriculum including math. Theater actors do not threaten to overwhelm the rest of the population numerically and impose thespianism everywhere in the public domain. In short, how does Haredi leadership justify the increasing cost as the Haredi population grows?
Heshy: Well, let’s just look and see what has happened in communities where the Haredi population has grown enormously in recent years, and let’s see how the increasing costs have been met. In the Yeshiva orbit, the best example is Lakewood, NJ, where I attended as a student in 1979-81. At the time, there were 450 students, including Kollel, and that was the biggest and best Yeshiva in the United States. Today there are over 17,000 and Lakewood is now one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States. Each year, there is something like an additional 20 classes that are needed in the burgeoning Yeshiva school system. How has this expansion been covered? Simple – Lakewood has become one of the wealthiest communities among the Jewish people, with numerous individuals earning over 10 million dollars yearly.
A well-known Orthodox philanthropist, a billionaire supporter of Yeshivos throughout the world, recently spoke at the dedication of a new Yeshiva building in Lakewood. He was cited thus: “There has never been a time in recent history where there has been so much Torah study in the world…. There has also never been a time where there has been so much Orthodox Jewish money in the world.” I think his message is clear – if we do our best to further Torah study and observance, the necessary funds will be found.
I think the solution in Israel will evolve naturally. For varied reasons, not everyone is suited for a long-term Yeshiva life. The percentages and numbers of Haredim who are working is bound to increase dramatically, just as it has increased in communities throughout the world. The solution will come when the secular leadership recognizes that Haredi society views the Yeshivos as the beating heart of the Jewish People, so just leave them alone.
Dan: I would be very happy to leave the Yeshivos alone in the sense of not funding them. I could see the state funding some small elite of religious scholars – as was the original idea under Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister – but the unchecked expansion cannot work and cannot continue. It cannot be acceptable that a large and growing proportion of Israeli children are denied a core curriculum of math, science and English. The process that you predict as some magical solution to prevent the clearly impending disaster is literally being blocked by this very thing, because the community’s young people are not employable in a modern economy. Where circumspection is certainly needed is among the Haredi leadership that resists change and is driving everyone – the entire Jewish ship you described earlier – off a cliff. And doing it with pathetic excuses about a “siege mentality,” taking no responsibility.
Heshy: If you’re implying that you do not respect the Haredim’s beliefs or lifestyle and determine it unworthy of community support to the same extent as your own secular culture, that does not align with the rights in a democracy for the freedom of each group to live as they choose. I see the recent secular protests as a struggle to maintain power at all costs. In the current dispute, rather than chanting ‘democracy,’ the Supreme Court and the justice system should wonder how it is that they have lost the cooperation and respect of half the country, and a reckoning is needed to understand why this happened. Were they perceived as honest protectors of human rights, and not the patronizing monitors and purveyors of leftist values (like abolishing gender segregation at public events for Haredim), they would have the respect of all. Who decides which “rights” are right, and which are unjustified? Essentially, you want to shed our uniqueness as Jews in order to become one of the family of nations.
Dan: Every poll shows two-thirds of Israelis – leaving the Haredim and the far right basically – oppose the “reforms” to destroy judicial review. And no one wants to shed our uniqueness. We just don’t want our uniqueness to attach wholly and exclusively to religious fanaticism. And your triumphalism about the numbers – again, in essence the birthrate – is wrong and will backfire.
Moreover, some things are just unacceptable, like misogyny. Having women sit apart or at the back of the bus? Having there be clear gender roles where women cannot be members of parliament for religious parties? How can you expect modern Israel – any modern persons – to accept this?
Heshy: You’re looking at it the wrong way. We put women on a higher pedestal, removed from the vulgarity of politics. And we value the family structure and all it brings. Many of our women work, and many are well-known scholars and speakers, and by and large our people are very happy with the role assignation that you call “misogynist.”
Dan: I don’t buy it. Next, we’ll hear that the Taliban put women above the vulgarity of education. Ask the women on a polygraph test if they’re delighted about the roles you have assigned them. Do you understand how much anger it causes among other Israelis when it turns out than in some areas of the country stores are erasing the images of women on products, because it is considered somehow unchaste in a barbarian way?
Heshy: It is a false narrative, as I have tried to explain.
Dan: What is false? Haredim don’t want to cover up the faces of women on supermarket shelves?
Heshy: The false narrative is this: You take extreme examples and highlight them as definitive characteristics of the entire group of two million people. Then, you paint the likely scenario that will result if the group expressing those characteristics will become dominant. This prediction for the future now becomes fact, and voila, your protagonist is now a threat to society.
Watch, I can do the same thing, with the same righteous indignation challenging you to find a falsehood: “The secular community has a very high percentage of infidelity and promiscuity. This results in broken families with a very high cost to societal well-being. The secular system has a very high frequency of school violence, physical intimidation of teachers and staff, a high dropout rate, and extensive drug use. All these are harmful for society.’
You take facts that apply to a few people, use that to define an entire sector of the population, and then extrapolate the results upon an uncertain future with a grim prognosis.
Dan: There is widespread support for this erasure of women from the public domain which is why it’s happening all over. Sadly, it is very far from an outlier, and the insistence on such backwardness is making it very difficult to live together. I am surprised you do not admit your own discomfort with this lunacy.
Heshy: This is actually much ado about nothing. If it is the portrayal of woman in the public sphere that concerns you, I think the secular trend to display women’s images in compromising positions in order to sell cottage cheese and automobiles is much more demeaning.
If it is the future that concerns you, I ask you this: What will be the nature of the coming generations of religion-less secularists? In the long term, this issue far transcends the matter of judicial reform. If you neglect even minimal Torah norms you will, in a generation or two, be in the dustbin of history, while the ones you so dislike will be in charge. Yes, the Haredim and other religious groups are far from perfect, but the question is which group – the religious or the secular – has a better chance of saving the People of Israel from extinction.
Dan: My good man: Currently it is those who serve in the military – overwhelmingly secular and non-religious “traditional” – who perform that task.
Heshy: Physically, we must have armed forces, and we have great respect for those young men who give up much in order to serve. But they will have fought in vain if in two generations there is no Jewish people to speak of, and a State of Israel that is merely a Hebrew-speaking facsimile of Spain or Greece. For us to continue as a viable Jewish People and Jewish state, we must have other young men who give up much to maintain the spiritual quality of the Jews.
Dan: You understand that prominent Haredi and religious figures in Israel have kicked up a furor in equating death in combat to the sacrifices of a religious life – and a subsidized one at that. Yes?
Heshy: Yes, and I think that it is wrong and misguided to make that equation. But the long- term contribution to the future of Am Yisroel is also in a subtle way in the hands of the serious Torah scholar. My heart aches when I think of the thousands of youngsters who in the prime of life gave their all for this land. But they fought for the continuation and perpetuation of our people and of the State of Israel – and that depends even more on the spiritual qualities we invest in them, qualities which for Jews are found in the Torah and its branches. Unless secularist Jews introduce some authentic Jewish spirituality into their lives, they will fall like lemmings over the cliff, which would be a tragedy for all of us.
Dan: My daughters are Jews. They were raised with a significant degree of Jewish tradition. We find joy and some perhaps irrational pride in that. But whereas pride is in my view justified in celebrating the contributions of the Jews to wider society, this attaches not only to the Torah directly but to the wider value of learning. Perhaps, by the way, the Talmud. This is why we have Einstein, and Seinfeld, and Simon and Garfunkel, and the spectacular overrepresentation among scientists and Nobel prizewinners.
Yet my people, Heshy, are not just the Jews. My people are the good people from all nations. I understand universalism is abhorrent to you – but parochialism is pitiable to me. We are all human beings, at the end of the day. Is it not a Jewish saying: In the place where there is not human – be a human? It does not say “be a Jew.” I shudder to think that in a future Israel, where the demographics are – God forbid – on your side, there will be a Jewish theocracy. It would be the most vulgar and dispiriting outcome for the magnificent Jewish story.
Heshy: You say that the Haredim want to impose a theocracy. This is a false claim with no basis. The fact is that we very much do NOT want to impose a theocracy, have always asserted such, and have good reason why that is our approach.
Dan: You may assess that there is no desire for imposition. But I think we can agree that a country that is 90% Haredi will be a theocracy. In any case religion would stifle secular life. Concern about that outcome is not crazy.
But it is also not the end of the story. Let me be very clear: if the Haredim seem set to be a majority, and they do not change their ways, the outcome will not be simple secular acquiescence. There could be a civil war to partition the country. It is not wild to imagine the mostly secular coastline breaking off and advising the others to do as they like, but without our taxes and without our cannon fodder.
And, yes, there could also be a secular flight which will leave the Haredim in charge – at which point they may very well be made mincemeat of by the Palestinians. Be careful what you wish for.
Given these disaster scenarios, tell me something, Heshy: Might Haredi youth rebel? That could fix the problem, honestly.
Heshy: I know this theory that Haredi youth will rebel en masse as soon as they go to the beach and see an undressed girl, read popular Israeli literature and surf the internet. Those who promulgate it cannot imagine that there is anything of value to which Yeshiva boys cling, and they all must be suffering. Having never spent any time studying Judaism, these secular pundits cannot imagine the level of dedication and inspiration permeating the study halls of our prime Yeshivos, where thousands of young men study with enthusiasm for hours uninterruptedly and hang on their teacher’s every word.
My daughter in Jerusalem has five children under the age of 10. Thank G-d, even without an abundance of material goods, they are all content, satisfied with life, intelligent and growing. When there are happy and fulfilled families, the doomsday vision hoped for by some secular people is nowhere in sight.
The stumbling block here are those secular extremists who will do anything in their power, including violence, in order to prevent Israel from becoming a religious environment. They are not interested in having Haredim integrated in society, because they abhor the religious influence that will accompany that.
Dan: I would counter that the stumbling bloc is your disdain for Jews who aren’t obsessed with religion, as if we are somehow lesser or ignorant in some critical and fundamental way, like a person who never heard of oxygen. It is, frankly, absurd, especially considering the degree of quite critical ignorance you impose on your youth because of your rejection of basic studies. But I don’t deny your point. I indeed cannot tolerate the country becoming dominated by religion, and that view is representative of the secular people of Israel. You’re also right that integrating Haredim into the workforce more widely – which I certainly desire as part of the national salvation – carries with it the complex question of what to do with all the likely demands that their religiousness be respected in ways that offend the secular.
Which brings us to the Shabbat situation. I cannot have my weekend ruined by an obsession with shutting down commerce and public transport on Saturday, essentially. From the secular perspective, this is a casus belli. And it belies your claim of not trying to impose theocracy. On the issue of Shabbat, there is a massive imposition happening, and people are about ready to explode.
Heshy: Our two sectors have a dispute regarding what takes place in the public sphere. The secular community offers an unbalanced compromise: “You are free to observe your religion privately, we are free to behave as we wish privately, and the public square is all ours”. Though we understand that an accommodation is necessary, we cannot accept that equation.
Regarding the Sabbath, it cannot be that a Jewish state would trample upon this basic element of our nation. Currently, official bodies of the state are legally obliged to observe the Sabbath, while individuals can privately do as they wish. Allowing unlimited commercial activity would destroy this fragile arrangement. Pressures upon business owners from non-religious competitors would force them to remain open on the Sabbath, and that would lead to decreased employment opportunities for religious people who would be unemployable if they refuse to work on the Sabbath.
Dan: That would be their choice. If I decide to never work on Tuesdays, or indeed weekends, that would be my choice. And I would bear the consequences.
We will have to agree to disagree, Heshy. I am of course discomfited by advising anyone to have fewer children. But a limitless number of children is madness. You could perhaps have 20 – and more by serial wives – and is that good? Israel is quite literally the only place in the world where a particular sect that is at odds with the rest of society and is in effect – please forgive me – fanatically religious is threatening to overwhelm the others with a fecundity of this level.
Heshy: The two communities have a divergent set of priorities. Like everyone, Haredi people and families make choices in life based upon their values and preferences, and decide to do what is best for themselves. This goes back to the differing views of life that I mention above. We view family life as the purpose of marriage and the foundation of civilization, hence the promulgation of family life that has taken hold in religious Jewish communities. Birth control is not absolutely prohibited, but its use depends upon the individual circumstances. Nothing more and nothing less (and certainly you know that Jewish law today prohibits men from taking more than one wife).
DAN: Whereas you may claim that this is somehow a rational choice, it is not unreasonable for me to posit that secular society should cease enabling its own undoing. There are clear things that should be done: an end to child subsidies, a tight rein on yeshiva salaries to a few genuine sages, a culling of the bloated religious bureaucracy which provides pretend-jobs at mostly secular expense, and an end to the special dispensations, and on and on. Haredim who think they can get these things elsewhere would be welcome to try – but I can see no reason for why they should continue in Israel, especially when the result is a national catastrophe.
Look, Heshy, there is no way to make this pretty. As you say, we are in a cultural war. And whereas I love you as a friend and a Jew and a person, the lifestyle you are trying to make dominant is not one that I can live with and has no equivalent in the developed world.
What I can tell you – and I hope you listen carefully – is that to keep pushing that part of Israel that is responsible for 90% will lead to big trouble and a massive backlash. If I were in your shoes, trying to both preserve the world of Torah as well as the secular state that funds it, I would take warnings like mine very seriously.
My hope is that although right now you are pushing pretty hard, you will stop in time, because we are brothers and we should thrive and prosper together. We should focus on addressing each other’s concerns.
Heshy: I agree, as long as you agree that preserving the uniqueness of the people of Israel is important.
Dan: I agree on that, my friend. I agree.
Dan Perry is a former Cairo-based Middle East Editor and London-based Europe/Africa Editor of the Associated Press. He served as the chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem and is managing partner of the New York-based communications firm Thunder11. Follow him at https://danperry.substack.com.
Rabbi Heshy Grossman is a long-time Yeshiva educator who has taught in both Israel and the USA. He was the founder and Menahel of Yeshivas Ohr Yosef in New Milford, New Jersey, and currently serves as an administrator at a prominent Yeshiva Gedola in Jerusalem.