The stormy relationship between Haredi Judaism and the Jewish State is at one of its crescendos these days. In recent weeks the Haredi attempt to foil construction of a new wing at Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon was blocked; the Supreme Court struck down the decades-old system of government subsidies for Haredi families; and of course today we've got the story of dozens of Haredi parents who are going to jail rather than allow their children to go to school with the "wrong" children, in one of the most dramatic clashes ever between the rabbis and the High Court of Justice (which is the Supreme Court under a different hat). As I write this hundreds of thousands of Haredis are setting out to demonstrate against the court.
Is there any way to make sense of any of this for people who haven't been following the story for 300 years? Probably not, but I'll try.
One place to start would be the middle of the 18th century, when a charismatic mystic known as the Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760) responded to the preceding century of chaos in Eastern European Jewry with a new set of teachings. His followers took the Talmudic title of Hassids, and created the part of Judaism known as Hassidism. One effect of his teaching was to energize simple Jews who had been marginalized in the existing structure of Jewish society built around specialized scholarship. Another, perhaps unintended, was to create the institution of Hassidic courts (hatzer, as in the royal court, not legal court), headed by revered dynasties of Rebbes. (Oy am I oversimplifying).
The existing establishment didn't take the new phenomenon lightly, and for the next few generations there was a civil war in Polish Jewry (meaning most of Eastern Europe). People didn't get killed, but the animosities were so great that the other side was regarded as worse than goyim, intermarriages were forbidden, and excommunications were thrown in all directions. The anti-Hassids were called the Misnagdim, a Yiddish word from the Hebrew mitnagdim which means adversaries. Their single most important leader was the Gaon of Vilna (1720-1797).
Then in the 19th century, new dangers appeared. The first and greatest was the Haskalah, the possibility that Jews might join Enlightened European society. The legal and physical walls of the ghetto were torn down, and at least to a degree the Jews were offered the option of being like everybody else. (To a limited degree, but that's another story).
For some Jews, this was a Very Bad Thing. The ghetto had been unpleasant, true, but now that it seemed to be gone, what would protect the Jews from indeed being just like everyone else, and in that case, how would they remember what they were supposed to be dong until the Messiah would one day redeem them and fix the world?
Some Jews responded by indeed leaving, and in the 20th century the Nazis tried to figure out who their descendants were. Others tried to create methods of simultaneously being Jewish and just like everybody else. Others, a bit later, invented Zionism, as a way of being just like everybody else in a place where the locals wouldn't prohibit them from doing so. The haredi method was to fend off modernity, to create a reality without it.
This is not easy to do. It requires eternal vigilance, monitoring every aspect of life and shutting any cracks in the social walls. The most obvious measure was to freeze fashion: at the moment the shutting off began, it just happened to be that Jewish men in Eastern Europe were wearing the garb of Polish gentlemen of a century earlier, with long black frocks and fancy black hats. Since all change is forbidden, that's what they're wearing still. The fact that this makes them look outlandish is an advantage, since it dramatically reduces the gray areas and makes policing easier. A black-garbed man can't stroll into the public library or the local university without everyone noticing. The extreme enmities of the previous generation were mostly set aside, and the Hassids and Misnagdim banded together to fend off modernity. Interestingly, the Hassidic institution of rabbinic leader with power of decision over the lives of the followers seems to have been adopted by all haredi.
It goes without saying that the Haredi, as they called themselves from the early 20th century (the word means fearful, as in fearful of God's word), were against Zionism, which was an ultra modern phenomenon. Even though there had been precursor-Haredi communities in the Land of Israel for centuries: as devout Jews, this was the homeland. After the Shoah, however, there were only two places which seemed welcoming: New York, and Israel. In the early 1950s there was a meeting between Ben Gurion, who had rejected the haredi world in his youth, and the Hazon Ish (1878-1953), the generally accepted leader of the Haredi world to the very limited extent there could be a single leader. As a result of their discussion, Ben Gurion made perhaps his most colossal miscalculation. The Hazon Ish, reeling from the the extent of destruction of Eastern European haredi Judaism, asked of Ben Gurion that Israeli law exempt the haredi yeshiva students from military service so their studies wouldn't be interrupted, and they not be exposed to the extreme influences of military life. Ben Gurion, probably sentimentally thinking he was granting a stay of execution to a dying breed, granted the request. How could he have known they would come back from the near-dead, rebuild their communities, and spend generations breaking all the laws of demography by having an average of 9 children per family, all while pretending not to be part of Israeli society, not serving in the military, and not educating their children to participate in a modern economy? How was he to know that their birthrate would give them the political clout to dictate these terms to whoever needed their support in a coalition, until- well, we don't know until when, do we. So far, in any case.
The American haredi communities took the same path, without Ben Gurion. The military wasn't an issue, but having the state support them with subsidies was never an option, so they work. Yet the differences aren't as great as all that. The uniforms are the same, the staving off of modernity, the insistence on not allowing in the modern world and especially its education. The haredi world has hundreds of sub-groupings and strains (literally), some more open to the world, others less, but they're all pretty distinct from the rest of the Jewish world, with the exception of Chabad-Lubavitch who are another story.
Enter the mizrachim, the Jews from the Arab world. The Arab world didn't have the Enlightenment on its own, as readers of newspapers can tell if they're open to reality. In some places it did have 19-century European colonial powers who imposed it from above, and in many of those cases the local Jews eagerly joined, since life under the Muslims hadn't been so great. This made for a very different dynamic, and (again, in a crass over-simplification) mizrachi Jews haven't felt the need to fight modernity. Once everyone came together in the state of Israel, the haredi ashkenazi had no interest in the mizrachim, and when some of the mizrachim eventually tried to join, attracted by the high committment to tradition, they were rebuffed. They didn't speak Yiddish, they weren't part of the narrow accepted world, they seemed outlandish; they also lacked the fervent rejection of modernity. They also served in the army, and then went to work. Yet some of them really did want to join the haredi world, and were willing to dress in black garb and live by the severe strictures.
In the early 1980s they set up their own party, Shass, and their own educational system which resembled the haredi one in many ways. For various reasons their electoral power is about double that of the ashkenzi haredi, which means that in many discussions the haredi were now eager to have them, so long as they remained separate.
How much of all this fits reality? Are the Haredi really staving off modernity? Do they truly resemble "traditional Judaism", or even only the 18 century version of it? Are they really indifferent or even against Zionism? Of course not. None of the above. They are as modern as anyone else, both in their embrace of technology (and modern medicine), but also in their confidence that Jews need to form the reality they live in, which is of course the fundamental insight of Zionism. They may not be Herzlian Zionists, but they are as much Israelis as anyone else, and participate in the Zionist project as active players, often from the center of the stage.
Nothing demonstrates this better than this week's events. The attempt to stop the construction of a hospital wing in a city with hardly any haredi (Ashkelon) is an expression of their sense of responsibility (by their values) for the entire society. The anger that the court has knocked down a national system of subsidies which helps only them will be met by a determined effort to manage the political system so as to make the problem go away. The insistence that the court has no right to interfere with the policies of their schools is part of a much broader discussion about how active the court should be.
Above all, however, their willingness to take to the streets in mass demonstrations to ensure their rabbinical authorities stay above the secular ones, is a demonstration of the extent to which they feel this Zionist state needs to be more Jewish as they understand the term. It would be inconceivable for them to thwart American law - because in America they're guests. This, on the other hand, is home. They own it.