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FROM ONE HAREDI MAN TO ANOTHER

April 1st, 2024

In his op-ed, titled “One Haredi man’s view on drafting yeshiva boys,” Dovid Kornreich claims to articulate a perspective that is deeply rooted in the ideological and religious convictions of the Haredi community, which he says holds a principled opposition to their conscription into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Kornreich’s argument pivots on the premise that Haredi non-Zionism dismisses the notion of any significance in Jewish territorial sovereignty over the Land of Israel, and therefore prioritizes the preservation of Jewish life above the nationalist ambitions of the Israeli state.

While Kornreich does acknowledge the benefits derived from the state by the Haredi community, he nonetheless critiques the moral and historical underpinnings of Zionism, suggesting it has imperiled Jews globally, and of course in Israel. And although he recognizes that there are existential threats facing Israel, he contends that the refusal of Haredi men to serve in the military is not based on a disregard for national security but in a steadfast adherence to religious ideals and ethical principles.

Kornreich also insists that Haredi reluctance to formally engage with the state’s institutions or to participate in any state-related activities is based on a deeply held view that to do so would be to endorse Zionist ideology and the premise of a Jewish national home in pre-Messianic times. Instead, says Kornreich, if Haredi Israelis are to be a part of Israeli society, they must be allowed to interact with the state strictly on their own terms, without compromising their fundamental beliefs.

I have never met Dovid Kornreich, nor had I ever heard of him before encountering his op-ed. But as one Haredi man to another – albeit as a Haredi who resides outside Israel – I feel compelled to express my profound disagreement with the views he has articulated. Rarely have I encountered arguments in favor of a point-of-view as deeply problematic and as misguided as the ones presented by Kornreich. If I were to be unkind, I would merely dismiss his article as a meaningless “word salad” – but that would underestimate the serious implications of his stance, and the many readers who might take it seriously.

Although, to be perfectly clear: Kornreich’s article is a “word salad” – nothing more, nothing less. The confusion and lack of constructive direction in his arguments is beyond obvious, while the high-handed conviction of their accuracy only makes it worse. His perspective, while claiming to represent a principled stand ingrained in Haredi ideology, is first-and-foremost remarkably self-serving. But what makes it far worse is that it is detached from the complex realities faced by Israel in particular, and the Jewish world as a whole.

Let’s begin with Kornreich’s assertion that “Haredim are not Zionists.” Really? Can one truly argue that disengagement from national symbols, such as not knowing the national anthem or participating in national observances, equates to a complete detachment from the identity of your country? If you vote, hold a passport, speak the language, engage in business, and eagerly avail yourself of the country’s amenities, does this not indicate a form of affiliation?

Like the proverbial ostrich burying its head in the sand as it attempts to convince itself that danger doesn’t exist, Kornreich’s claim that “Haredim are not Zionists” is a facile but ultimately transparent attempt to ignore the perhaps unpalatable requirement for societal participation and obligations that is no less true for Haredim than it is for every Israeli citizen. Bottom line: Haredim who live in Israel are as Zionist as any secular Tel Aviv Jew – because, like it or not, they are an integral part of the Zionist project that has produced a country and society made up of Jews of all stripes and colors.

Indeed, the Haredi community’s deep engagement with Israeli life suggests a form of Zionism rooted not in political ideology but in a shared commitment to the welfare and future of the Jewish people in their homeland. This engagement is evident in areas ranging from healthcare, where Haredi professionals play key roles, to education and social services, highlighting a broader definition of national contribution.

Then there is Kornreich’s argument that the Zionist movement and the establishment of the State of Israel have escalated the risk to Jewish lives and spurred the greatest source in anti-Jewish violence since WWII. This argument is equally one-dimensional – because it simply overlooks the broad spectrum of antisemitism’s long and painful history. It also fails to account for the persistent nature of Jew-hatred, which has continually adapted over centuries, always finding new pretexts for old prejudices.

The implication that Jews seeking to return to, and assert sovereignty over, their ancestral homeland constituted and continues to be the primary provocation for modern antisemitism, neglects the broader context of historical reality. Moreover, to suggest that this somehow excuses Haredim from serving in the military – because they were less enthusiastic or even opposed to Jewish nationalist aspirations before the creation of Israel – is jaw-dropping in its self-serving navel-gazing superficiality.

Jews – both Zionist and non-Zionist – did not merely return to their historical homeland after 1945, which they were fully entitled to do whether they were nationalists or not. They returned to their historical homeland after a serious attempt had been made to exterminate Jews forever, and they sought a safe refuge where they could freely practice their religion and affirm their identity without the shadow of subjugation or discrimination or genocidal intent that had darkened our history for thousands of years. And Haredim were as much a part of this mass migration as every other type of Jew. To now claim that Haredim have no part to play in or obligation towards the country that emerged out of this phenomenon is simply ridiculous.

Kornreich also claims that Zionist Israelis and non-Zionist Israelis are divided over the value of a Jewish state, and he suggests that the non-Zionist Haredi community living in Israel has a dismissive attitude towards the sacrifices that were made historically to establish the State of Israel, and also towards the sacrifices that are made now to maintain Israel’s sovereignty. But this claim is highly misleading, not least because it smacks of raw self-interest. Kornreich seems to be implying that because Haredim don’t value the existence of Israel or the military efforts to secure Israel’s security, they will certainly have no interest of serving in the army.

But the facts are quite different. Haredim, on the whole, are very satisfied with life in Israel, and are very eager for the Israel they know to remain as it is. Indeed, the Haredim have never had it so good. Their communities are flourishing in every respect: every aspect of their lives is supported by an array of services and professionals, religious life is rich and vibrant, Haredi numbers are growing exponentially, and Haredi institutions are thriving.

The biggest proof that life is good for Haredim in Israel is that none of them are leaving, even if they have foreign citizenship or can obtain it easily. Kornreich suggests that Haredim, due to their “galut” mindset, do not require statehood for self-worth or dignity. But this overlooks the facts on the ground – Haredim love Zionist Israel, and given the choice of living there or anywhere else, the vast majority of these Israeli “non-Zionists” readily choose Israel as their home.

The idea, therefore, that more than seventy-five years of statehood hasn’t shifted the Haredi disposition towards Jewish nationalism minimizes the deep connections many Haredim have with the country as it is today, including their own contributions to its society and cultural milieu. It also neglects the fact that the State of Israel represents more than just political sovereignty; it symbolizes a collective endeavor of Jewish revival and resilience that the Haredim are a part of as much as anyone else, even if they conveniently deny that when the topic of military conscription becomes an issue. In which case, for Kornreich to argue that Israel isn’t worth “any significant sacrifice” opportunistically fails to admit the robust presence and success of the Haredi community at the heart of the Zionist project.

Using tired anti-Zionist mantras to prop up an indefensible objection to military service may make Dovid Kornreich feel good, but it is nothing more than a hollow farce exploited to shore up an ideology that makes absolutely no sense. And while it is true that Haredim do not identify with Zionist nationalism in its political form, many if not most of them still deeply value the security, community, and religious freedoms the State of Israel provides, and see themselves as equal citizens of the state along with all their co-citizens.

Kornreich cites historical conflicts and moral dilemmas as a basis for Haredi non-participation in national defense by presenting a selective reading of history that overlooks the inherent responsibilities that come with being a part of a nation-state. Just as I am obliged to fulfill my civic duties as an American citizen, despite any discomfort I might feel regarding historical injustices against Native Americans, so too Israeli Haredim must engage in their civic responsibilities. Their objections to historical aspects of Zionism – whether with reference to the Zionist treatment of fellow Jews, or of Arabs – do not exempt them from the obligations that come with Israeli citizenship.

Moreover, Kornreich’s argument relies on a narrow interpretation of conscientious objection that seems to apply selectively when convenient. If Haredim, as he suggests, are entirely disengaged from the Zionist project, how does one reconcile this with their participation in and benefit from the state’s provisions—be it benefiting from social services and state provided medical services, visiting holy sites under the protection of the IDF, enjoying the security and civic amenities provided by the state, or indeed, the very act of residing within its borders without seeking alternatives.

To claim a principled stance against military service on the basis of historical grievances against Zionism, while simultaneously partaking in the benefits and protections the State of Israel affords, is to engage in a profound contradiction. True conscientious objection, in the strictest sense, would necessitate a total withdrawal from all aspects of society that are safeguarded or enhanced by the actions one morally opposes. Yet, the reality is quite different. Haredim, like any other group in Israel, are deeply intertwined with the state’s fabric—economically, socially, and religiously.

Kornreich’s stance does not fully confront the complexity of these relationships, nor does it account for the shared destiny that binds all Israeli citizens together, regardless of their ideological differences. The challenges faced by the State of Israel are collective challenges, and the defense of the nation is not merely a question of endorsing Zionism but of ensuring the safety and continuity of the Jewish people in their homeland. And if Haredim don’t believe that the Jewish people should live in their homeland under Jewish sovereignty, let them take a principled stand, depart for diaspora shores, and make their lives there.

Ultimately, the refusal to participate in Israel’s national defense, based on historical grievances and ideological differences, overlooks the potential for a more inclusive and multifaceted understanding of Jewish identity and the reality of Jews having sovereign control of Israel—one that transcends political disagreements and religious objections, and recognizes the mutual interdependence of all segments of Israeli society.

The conversation should not be about absolving oneself from shared responsibilities, but about finding ways to contribute to the collective well-being of the nation, in a manner that respects diverse convictions while upholding a commitment to the common good. Almost 76 years after the creation of the sovereign Jewish state, the discussion should no longer be about Zionism, but about the future of Jewish life in Israel with the participation and involvement of every segment of the Jewish population. Biting that bullet couldn’t be more critical, and the sooner it happens, the better.

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