By: Aryeh Schonbrun  | 

Down and Out in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv: A Socio-Economic Critique of Israeli Society from the Perspective of an Oleh Hadash

A little over two months ago, I fulfilled a longstanding desire of mine to return to my ancient homeland and to the Jewish nation that dwells in Zion. After much deliberation, and to the surprise of some of my friends, I set out on a journey that, easy as it was (it took just around eleven hours), took much contemplation and commitment. I did so fully acknowledging the gravity of such a decision and in anticipation of the immense challenges that lay in store for me in my new, old homeland.

To be fair, my return to Israel has been like a dream. I have longed to see again the majesty of her beauty and for the companionship of my people. Far too long I breathed the air of the diaspora, living as an individual, and I have felt the pain of estrangement from my true home. God has blessed me and my generation with the opportunity to travel to the holiest of places with relative ease and comfort. I have reconnected with teachers and friends from years past, family I have not seen for some time, and with the land itself, the geography, demography and beauty.

However, Israel today is not the Israel of my dreams. I awake from my pleasant reverie to the stark realities of the present. Israel constantly feels the restraints of the diaspora, imposed upon us by the tyrannical powers of anti-Semitism, terror, and cold politics. In addition to the strictly external factors, Israel wallows in her own mess of domestic politics and societal ills. The impact of such civil discord, of the baseless hate and fear that pervades our lives, cannot escape the eye of even the most lenient critic, and strikes me as quite dangerous. Whereas in America one can simply live in their preferred bubble, accustomed to their own religious, economic and political leanings, either unaware of or unconcerned by the state of the country at large, the act of becoming Israeli signifies the willingness of oneself to enter into a society rife with disparity, debate, and cultural dissent.

Israel, by nature, confers a sense of commonality and collectivity on a level unlike that experienced by the population of any other developed country. The army, as inefficient as it may be, provides a cultural middle ground for vast swaths of society to get together, bond in trust, and form a common Israeli identity. Nevertheless, you can still feel the segmentation of society. Many Israelis don't socialize with people outside their comfort zone, disagree greatly on political and religious matters, and, to put it nicely, fear each other. A Tel Aviv irreligious Jew might fear the implications of state-mandated Sabbath observance (most stores and public transport do not operate on Saturdays) and the rabbinic monopoly on the marriage registry, while a member of the ultra-Orthodox Hareidi circles might fear for his, or his children's, religious lifestyle, aware of the risks associated with state-mandated army service and secular education. These very real concerns contribute to a highly volatile political atmosphere, and work to reinforce the barriers that prevent us from unifying.

As a relative newcomer, I cannot profess an understanding of all of Israeli society. I have had the opportunity, through family, friends, and personal experience to get a taste of many different strata and segments of Israel, but I do not think that I can speak for them all. Naturally, owing to my Modern-Orthodox upbringing, I have had more to do with the Religious-Zionist community. Though an incredibly complex section of society, the general parallels between the Modern Orthodox and the Religious-Zionist speak for themselves. We do not fear (sometimes foolishly so) exposure to outside society as much as, let's say, the Hareidim, nor do we assimilate as do the less religious and reformed parts of Judaism. The Religious-Zionists, as well as the Modern Orthodox, attempt to tow the line, communicating with the external world, while not sacrificing the critical components of religious life. This worldview, as we all know, does not always succeed, and on account of the vast societal pressures as described, it demands a high level of maintenance and attention.

“I would like to see a more realistic and natural outgrowth of the wonderful stores of Torah knowledge that the community possesses reach the realms of politics and culture.”

Accordingly, it becomes increasingly important that those who lead the community bear responsibility not only for the community itself, but for the country as a whole. While the Hareidim do, in fact, complain about how the society behaves, most of their complaints do not reach the ears of those outside their communities. On the other hand, when Religious-Zionist leaders make statements that do not coincide with the government's societal agenda, it takes a fire-and-brimstone response by those in command to manage the situation. I witnessed this a week after arriving here. The army has tried for years to foist a leftist agenda upon the Israeli population, and so far has reaped rewards. Qaraqal, a mixed infantry division, has earned public support, and women are encouraged to seek promotions and officer training. However, recently the army has decided to push the envelope and introduced mixed tank battalions, among other adjustments. Naturally, the religious parties involved, i.e. Religious-Zionists, could not contain their disdain for such a move. A certain Rabbi Yigal Levinstein spoke out against it and subsequently found himself the subject of ridicule of a very concerned political elite. He, as a leader of one of the key military academies of the Religious-Zionists, provoked a response from the top since he represents to them the education of many soon-to-be soldiers, officers, etc (soldiers hailing from Religious-ZIonist communities comprise a large percentage of all officers). While I do not intend to focus on the actual case, the whole story illustrates the significance of a relatively small segment of the population.

Additionally, the community provides for the spiritual upkeep of the state. The Hareidim, surely, do their part in stymying the progression of the irreligious left, but, as a student of the Religious-Zionist yeshivot, I can attest to the relative importance, again, of the thousands of Religious-Zionist youth who spend years learning torah, teaching, and spreading religious life throughout the country. The Religious-Zionists, with their feet straddling the two worlds, have the potential to make the biggest impact. They speak the language of both the educated elites and the ultra-religious, and profess their love of Zionist ideals and their loyalty to the principles of Torah. As I noted above, this comes at a cost, but, without the mediating factors of the Religious-Zionist community, I seriously doubt that the Israeli society would long withstand the onslaught of disunity. This gives the community large significance within Israeli society and therefore charges its leaders with highly significant leadership roles.

Which makes it all the more disappointing when our leaders, politicians, rabbis, and army personnel, who represent our communities in the outside world, among Israelis and gentiles alike, fail to demonstrate to our compatriots how a just society should act. I do not wish to say that these gifted individuals lack in altruistic drive to improve our situation. I don't judge them personally. They serve their communities diligently and surely take part in the holy task of maintaining the Jewish people's connection to their ancestral tradition. However, considering their relative influence and power, I expect, and demand more.

To be more concise, I would like to see a more realistic and natural outgrowth of the wonderful stores of Torah knowledge that the community possesses reach the realms of politics and culture. When I encounter rabbis, talmidei chachamim, and leaders who claim strict adherence to the Torah, dedication to the welfare of society, and who embody the holiness of the Torah's teachings, I discover to my dismay their failure to translate such characteristics into a workable, practical ideology.

I refer to the apparent lack of a coherent ideological opposition to the expanding neo-liberal capitalist malevolence that manifests itself as part of American culture, and slowly but surely has made inroads into this holy land. This form of capitalism does not, in and of itself, pose a new threat, but rather has expanded over the years and now appears to have won over even the very best and  most righteous minds of our generation. The effects of it can be felt in many aspects of Israeli society and even within the Torah world of many yeshivot. While many aspects of society continue to operate based upon socialist ideals, e.g. the government still provides for universal healthcare, increasing income inequality and high levels of poverty have led to more social tension, and the egotistical elements of an acquisitive, consumerist culture such as America's threatens to slowly transform Israeli culture from a Jewish state committed to the perpetuation of the Jewish people into a consumerist haven, devoid of significance, both secular and post-Zionist.

But this kind of apathetic capitalism also rejects basic tenets of our religious belief. Camaraderie, as commanded by the Torah, necessarily dictates a willingness to share one's own wealth and possessions, to aid those in need, and to cover the costs of the less-fortunate members of society. In his introduction to his book of halakhic responsa "Gevurot Eliyahu," Rabbi Eliyahu Henkin z"l, one of the great American Rabbis of the 20th century, takes on the subject and determines that while Soviet style dictatorships cannot supply us with the answer for our troubles - they efface the humanity of their subjects and, as we have witnessed, have killed many millions of innocents- the adoption of a purely acquisitive capitalistic mindset, in which the poorest and the least fortunate suffer at the hands of those with plenty, what he terms a society of "Men of Sodom," cannot suffice.

We find ourselves in the midst of the traditional period of mourning for the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, of which the Talmud recounts perished during this period since they "did not act respectfully one to another." (Yevamot, 62) We can learn from the deaths of those students that even as they learned and accumulated enormous amounts of Torah knowledge, they did not act appropriately and their Torah did not protect them. I cautiously urge those who express their wonderment at the world of Torah and rejoice in the miracle that is the current yeshiva world to reconsider the societal implications of what I have observed as tacit approval of  immoral economics. If our leaders, influential as they are, don’t stand up for what is right, who will?