JERUSALEM: The latest polls show that in 20 years the Ultra-Orthodox minority will constitute at least 25 percent of the Jewish-Israeli population. What will the implications of this increase be on the Arab-Israeli conflict? Current leaders do not give this question much thought.
Presently, the louder voices emerging from Ultra-Orthodox society tend to be right-wing. However, it appears that the positions of the silent majority are not fully formed and, in fact, an in-depth look shows that amongst many there is a propensity for compromise.
Rabbi Eliezer Shach (1898-2001)-the renowned Ultra-Orthodox leader, former head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva in the city of Bnei Brak and former leader of the Agudat Yisrael party-did not shy away from voicing clear opinions in favor of returning occupied territories in exchange for real peace. Even in the euphoric period immediately following the 1967 war, he used every opportunity to condemn Israel’s “intoxication with power” and claimed that militaristic strength is temporary — ‘today yours, tomorrow your enemies’. He believed that only the spirit can be a foundation for a Jewish society. Throughout his life he spoke out against nationalism of any kind — including Jewish nationalism — and claimed that it can only lead to bloodshed. He supported the peace treaty with Egypt and Jordan. And although he did not support the Oslo agreements, this was only because he regarded the Rabin government as being anti-religious.
Following Rabbi Shach’s reign, undercurrent rightist forces within Ultra-Orthodox society began to surface. Many joined the right-wing parties and made themselves heard at big rallies. They felt that the Right’s approach to the Land of Israel resonated with their beliefs. The Ultra Orthodox leadership did not approve and to a large extent does not encourage these activities to this day. The principles which have guided the leadership focus only on the domain of the spirit and tradition and many of the Ultra-Orthodox spiritual leaders will be prepared to lend a hand to a political solution with the Palestinians so long as the Jewish tradition and a full Halakhic (following of Jewish law) way of life is upheld. The value of human life is of supreme importance for the rabbis. An example is the Halakhic ruling by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the famous Halakhic lawmaker and spiritual leader of the Shas party, according to which land should be returned in order to minimize the chance of war and the loss of human life.
Although this ruling is several decades old, and the Shas party has swung sharply to the right in recent years, this change has been largely political and tactical, not essential. Moreover, this ruling has never been revoked. When faced with the choice of whether to concede land or face continual warfare, I believe that what will prevail amongst Shas supporters is Halakhic law, not national sentiments.
Close to 40 percent of the population in settlements are Ultra-Orthodox. But it is important to consider the profile of the typical Ultra-Orthodox settler: He/She is not motivated by a national ideology of any kind but by economic necessity. The Israeli government along with the Ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset founded the Ultra-Orthodox cities beyond the Green Line only as a cheap housing option for a population comprised mostly of people who engage in study and are not gainfully employed. Moreover, the continuation of the Ultra Orthodox cultural and religious way of life trumps national affiliations. In contrast to other settlers, the Ultra-Orthodox would be open to considering a political solution so long as it included an adequate response to their economic and religious-cultural needs. It is clear that any political agreement that would be brought to a vote following American intervention or pressure would win the support of the Ultra-Orthodox parties.
The Ultra-Orthodox community in Israel is in the process of breaking down traditional and social walls. Some elements within the community are integrating into state institutions such as politics, the academia, the economy and culture. This involvement will mean an increase of influence from a sector that is traditionally less nationalist and Zionist than the current sectors in power. Thus, there is reason for optimism in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict: The old centers of political power, tired of the faltering peace process, will give way to new leaders who have a strong pragmatic approach and that will reenergize efforts to end the conflict. There is a good chance that these new leaders will approach this conflict from other angles, such as sensitivity to religious issues and a readiness to make concessions in exchange for a guarantee that their traditions will be safeguarded.
Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Tikochinski is a fellow at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews), www.commongroundnews.org.