Jerusalem may­oral race opens first cracks in haredi ‘black wall’

The Jerusalem Post - - COMMENT & FEATURES - • By TOMER PER­SICO

Anew mayor takes his seat in Jerusalem this week, and the split in the once-im­pen­e­tra­ble “black wall” of haredi (ul­tra-Or­tho­dox) unity in the holy city sug­gests he will have to nav­i­gate care­fully among com­pet­ing fac­tions.

As the votes came in on elec­tion night last month, it seemed that young, sec­u­lar ac­tivist Ofer Berkovitch might achieve the nearly im­pos­si­ble and be­come Jerusalem’s next mayor, only to suc­cumb by the end to Moshe Lion. Lion, a re­li­giously ob­ser­vant ac­coun­tant who moved to Jerusalem from the Tel Aviv sub­urb of Gi­vatayim be­fore his pre­vi­ous bid for mayor five years ago, is seen by many as lit­tle more than a pup­pet in the hands of na­tional politi­cians.

The fact that there was ten­sion at all was a sur­prise. In a city in which the Arab pop­u­la­tion does not vote, in which 35% of Jewish vot­ers are ul­tra-Or­tho­dox, and in which only 20% are sec­u­lar, Berkovitch’s loss by a mere 3,765 votes out of more than 200,000 cast, was clear tes­ta­ment to the split within the city’s haredi camp.

The split it­self tes­ti­fies to broader de­vel­op­ments. Sig­nif­i­cant trans­for­ma­tions are un­fold­ing in ul­tra-Or­tho­dox society and iden­tity. Not that there was ever unity among haredim. The “Lithua­nian,” has­sidic, and Sephardi streams are the con­tem­po­rary heirs to the pi­ously anti-mod­ern forms of Ju­daism that crys­tal­ized in the 19th cen­tury. They have had more than their share of in­fight­ing in re­cent years. The cur­rent cri­sis, how­ever, presents an un­prece­dented re­al­ity on two counts.

The first is the cav­ernous vac­uum of lead­er­ship. Over the last five years, the Sephardi and Lithua­nian com­mu­ni­ties both lost their re­spec­tive “greats.” Death is as cer­tain as taxes, but what’s ex­traor­di­nary about these depar­tures is that the lead­ers were not re­placed. There were at­tempts in both cases to de­clare new great rab­bis, but they failed to mo­bi­lize pub­lic sup­port and re­mained tit­u­lar fig­ures.

The sec­ond point aug­ments the first. Ul­tra-Or­tho­dox Jews in Is­rael are be­com­ing more open to the coun­try’s gen­eral cul­ture than ever. Em­brac­ing such val­ues as au­ton­omy, equal­ity, eco­nomic bet­ter­ment, na­tion­al­ism, and fem­i­nism, they are let­ting go of their tra­di­tional, anti-mod­ern po­si­tions. As re­sis­tance to moder­nity plays such a sub­stan­tial role in haredi iden­tity, this means that their iden­tity is chang­ing dra­mat­i­cally.

HAREDIM ARE be­com­ing more Is­raeli. Be­com­ing more Is­raeli, how­ever, means be­com­ing less ul­tra-Or­tho­dox. As a fun­da­men­tal­ist, holis­tic iden­tity, the haredi self can­not al­low it­self to be di­vided be­tween com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives of value and mean­ing. In­deed, com­part­men­tal­iz­ing our pro­fes­sional, eth­nic and re­li­gious el­e­ments is a prin­ci­pal char­ac­ter­is­tic of a mod­ern sec­u­lar per­sona.

Most haredim are hang­ing on to their tra­di­tional iden­tity, but a grow­ing num­ber aren’t, and this split is along gen­er­a­tional lines. The fur­ther this pro­ceeds, the greater ef­fect it will have on Is­raeli society and pol­i­tics. The rea­sons the ul­tra-Or­tho­dox wield po­lit­i­cal power be­yond their 10% of the pop­u­la­tion is that have acted in uni­son, and cut across po­lit­i­cal fault lines, nei­ther iden­ti­fy­ing with the Left nor the Right, and thus have been able to en­ter into coali­tions with both.

The elec­tion in Jerusalem was only the most sig­nif­i­cant sign that the long-term co­or­di­na­tion among haredim has shat­tered. With the ul­tra-Or­tho­dox be­com­ing more in­volved in gen­eral cul­ture, they are also be­com­ing more iden­ti­fied with spe­cific parts of it. If they iden­tify clearly as right wing, which is gen­er­ally the case, the chances they would co­op­er­ate in coali­tion with the left wing is di­min­ished.

Such de­vel­op­ments will have sig­nif­i­cant con­se­quences. The Is­raeli right wing will have greater po­lit­i­cal power, but the ul­tra-Or­tho­dox them­selves will have less. This will go fur­ther in un­rav­el­ing the bor­ders be­tween their com­mu­ni­ties and the gen­eral pub­lic built with gov­ern­ment funds and le­gal priv­i­leges. That in turn will ac­cel­er­ate the process. We will wit­ness in­creas­ing sec­u­lar­iza­tion within haredi com­mu­ni­ties. They will be­come more demo­cratic and egal­i­tar­ian, but there will also be at­tempts to color the Is­raeli pub­lic sphere as more tra­di­tional.

The ul­tra-Or­tho­dox iden­tity cri­sis her­alds a fun­da­men­tal change in Is­raeli society and pol­i­tics. Dur­ing the mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions in Jerusalem, it came close to a sur­pris­ing tilt of the scales. Lion may be the first to feel the im­pact of the haredi split. But the role that split will play in Is­rael’s next gen­eral elec­tions could prove con­se­quen­tial.

The writer is Koret vis­it­ing as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at UC Berke­ley In­sti­tute for Jewish Law and Is­rael Stud­ies, and the Shalom Hart­man In­sti­tute Bay Area scholar in res­i­dence.

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