“Will Two Walk Together Unless They Are Agreed?”

A life-affirming leadership should strive to expand the common ground between Israeli society’s different subgroups by employing the two central values of the state: Judaism and democracy. One the one hand, civics instruction should be provided to Haredi pupils, in the spirit of what Chazal had to say about the necessity of the fear of government. On the other hand, pupils in the state education system should be familiarized with Jewish tradition and culture.

Three societal divides have characterized Israel since its early days of statehood. These are the national divide, centered around the tension between Israel’s Jewish citizens and its Arab citizens, who constitute a national minority; the religious divide between the Jews themselves – Haredim, religious, and secular – on issues of religion and state; and the class (or socioeconomic) divide – between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, between veteran Israelis and immigrants, and between center and periphery.

These three divides extend between two powerful poles corresponding to the two components of the state’s identity: “Jewish” and “democratic.” Every possible interpretation of each of these components has a strong impact on each of the societal divides, but the struggle over the state’s values translates into concrete dilemmas surrounding those divides, e.g., the Occupation, Haredi military conscription, and the right to live with dignity. This is true of the political sphere as well: most of the parties in the Knesset build their platforms around these divides.

A bird’s-eye view of the State of Israel, as we mark the 75th jubilee of its independence – three generations of sovereign existence –an interesting finding is revealed: In each of the three generations, one of the three societal divides took center stage. In the first generation of Israeli statehood it was the class divide, in the second generation it was the national divide, and in the third generation it was the religious divide.

Let’s examine this.


The first generation of Israeli sovereignty – the 25 years from the founding of the state to the Yom Kippur War in the early 1970s – was characterized, again, by strong tensions surrounding the class divide. During these years, Israel absorbed aliyah from across the globe. The country’s leadership, which then consisted almost entirely of Jews of Western origin (immigrants from Europe and North America), did not provide equal opportunity to those hailing from the Muslim lands of the Middle East and North Africa, who were excluded from the decision-making echelons in politics, academia, and the military. Many of these immigrants were sent to live in remote ma’abarot (refugee and absorption camps) and absorption centers and were channeled into occupations of inferior status in the labor market. Alongside the struggles over religion, such as the well-known Shabbat conflicts, and the clash along national lines, which manifested in the military government that had authority over much of the Arab population until 1966, the central struggle that split Israeli citizens of this generation was waged over the disadvantaged status of various population groups, in particular immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa.

The second generation, that between the Yom Kippur War and the turn of the millennium, experienced governmental transitions and the end of the founding-generation’s hegemony. Menachem Begin rose to power in 1977 and, in the framework of his brit ha’dechuyim or “alliance of the rejected” (an alliance that is still in place), brought into his government the daughters and sons of the Mizrahi communities, the Religious, and the Haredim. This, along with low Arab voter turnout, deepened the right’s hold on power and promoted the entry of Mizrahi Jews and Jews from the periphery into decision-making positions in the political sphere and into other loci of power in Israeli public life. The segregation that became entrenched during these years, marked by the flow of secular, religious, and Haredi citizens into separate areas of residence, eased existing frictions and caused the public battles over issues of religion and state to subside.

The two final decades of the twentieth century were characterized by constant tension along national lines. In the 1980s the PLO achieved centrality and the violent uprising of the Arabs in Judea and Samaria (the Intifada) intensified, creating perpetual tension between Jews and Arabs in Israel. The 1990s, by contrast, were dominated by the Oslo Accords, which started as a harbinger of Israeli-Arab coexistence. The hopes shattered with the events of October 2000, which made the yawning chasm between Jews and Arabs within the boundaries of the state visible to all.

The third generation, spanning the period from the turn of the millennium to Israel’s 75th year of statehood, has been characterized by a gradual decline in the national divide’s prominence in Israeli discourse. Israel’s Arab population focuses its cooperation with the Israeli majority on the civilian sphere: integration into specific sectors of the labor market as well as attempts – unsuccessful thus far – to eradicate the crime that rages in the Arab community. These efforts reflect a deemphasis of Palestinian national aspirations. Time is on our side, says Israel’s Jewish majority, referring to the Israelization of the country’s Arab minority and to the slowdown in that minority’s demographic growth. Time is on our side, say the Arab Israelis, referring to the demographic growth of the Arab population in the occupied territories. Both are right.

The class divide that characterized the first generation, and which to a certain extent also applied to aliyah from the Former Soviet Union in the second generation, has steadily narrowed. It would be incorrect to say that this divide has disappeared, but it has clearly diminished in magnitude. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister during most of the third generation, frequently spoke of “eliminating the periphery.” What he meant by this was an effort to narrow class disparities, to invest in transportation projects that would connect the periphery to the center, and to support “Second Israel,” a highly important source of political power for the right-wing parties.

In the third-generation era we have seen the religious divide become a central issue in Israeli discourse.

This is the case in the political sphere: Ehud Barak’s election as prime minister in 1999 was accompanied by cries of “Just not Shas” by tens of thousands of his supporters in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square – cries that expressed Israeli public opinion. Four years later, in the elections to the 16th Knesset, the Shinui (“Change”) party under Yosef (Tommy) Lapid became the Knesset’s third-largest party with 15 seats and a platform centered around opposition to the Haredi parties. A decade later, in 2013, Yesh Atid under Yair Lapid became the Knesset’s second-largest party with 19 seats. Calling for reform on issues of religion and state, Yesh Atid kept the Haredim – Likud’s natural partners – out of the Likud-led coalition. Since 2019 it has been Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beiteinu party that have led the anti-Haredi faction in the Knesset and, for a time, in the Cabinet.

This is also the case in the judicial sphere: During the third generation, the Supreme Court used the constitutional revolution of the 1990s to lead far-reaching changes in Israeli society, especially with regard to the deferment of military service for yeshiva students. In 1998, the “transition year” between the second and the third generations, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled, for the first time, that the Minister of Defense is not authorized to further defer conscription of yeshiva students. The ruling had a snowball effect: to date, three laws have been enacted (two of them invalidated by the Supreme Court) and governments have been dissolved over this issue. In other cases, the Supreme Court curtailed the power of the state religious institutions (the rabbinical courts, the Chief Rabbinate), and on a series of religion-state issues (such as conversion, Shabbat, marriage and divorce) issued rulings that eroded the status quo that had subsisted since the early years of Israeli statehood.

The Religious Zionist sector, the bridgehead between religion and state in Israel, is torn between its commitment to the state institutions, which constitute “the beginning of redemption,” and its commitment to the values of religion and Halacha, which seek to “sanctify the new.” Although Religious Zionism plays a central and decisive role in this struggle, I will not address it here due to space constraints. Instead, we will turn our attention to the focal point of discord in the present generation – the struggle between Israel’s Haredi and secular populations.


As the third generation reaches its end, the picture is becoming clear. The religious-secular divide, and in particular the Haredi-secular divide, is widening. The segregation trend that emerged in Israel in the 1980s eased frictions between the two groups to a certain degree, but also diminished dialogue and mutual familiarity. In the absence of dialogue, alienation took hold, which evolved into hostility between the groups and the demonization of each in the other’s eyes. Secular, religious, and Haredi Jews do not have shared spheres of interaction – not in the education system, which is divided into streams and sub-streams, not in the army, and not in the neighborhoods where they live. Few encounter each other in the employment market. A dwindling of religious content in the general education system, and of civic content in the Haredi education system, have also contributed to the lack of commonality between the rival groups.

The Haredim – a numerical minority – compensate for the deficit by amassing political power greatly in excess of their electoral weight. The struggle over religion-and-state issues is intensifying and the two sides do not “see” each other: Secular Israelis are unaccepting of the fact the Haredim do not “share the burden” (i.e., they are not conscripted into the military) disapprove of Haredi non-sharing of the burden and they deplore the Haredi community’s demand that secularization of the public realm be curbed. The Haredim, for their part, oppose Western secularism and its erasure of all markers of religion from the public realm, and demand to be allowed to live their lives as they see fit. The struggle is thus a dual one – over the character of the Israeli public realm (with respect to issues such as public transportation on Shabbat, bringing chametz into public institutions during Passover, and the status of the rabbinical courts), and over the right of the Haredim to live their lives in accordance with their worldview (with respect to such issues as education, military conscription, gender separation, and kosher phones).

The Haredi sector is only a small segment of Israeli society, but it is steadily growing. In the foreseeable future the Haredim will constitute a quarter of Israel’s population. Can the religious rift be healed, or can the blaze at least be contained?

Both sides make weighty claims. The secular majority fears that the state, which was established in the image of its secular founders as a secular Jewish state, will change in character. At the same time, economists and security professionals who monitor global developments in the economic and defense spheres, as well as demographic trends in Israel, have trouble seeing how the state will be able to exist in the not-too-distant future without the Haredi population contributing substantively to Israeli life on the practical plane. In 2022 Elka Rothman, the daughter of Rabbi Amram Blau, leader of Neturei Karta, passed away at the age of 96. The funeral procession was attended by two thousand of her descendants, the vast majority of them Haredi citizens of Israel. In terms of Jewish revival, this was an extraordinary, unparalleled event. Jews who only eighty years earlier had suffered oppression, beatings, torture and humiliation, returned to Eretz Israel, revived a language, made the desert bloom, established Torah institutions, and became matriarchs and patriarchs of righteous generations. On the other hand, their progeny are multiplying at rates unequalled in the Western world. “Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? for they trouble me with their weeping, saying: Give us flesh, that we may eat,” says Moses in the wilderness (Numbers 11:13). “Whence should I have flesh?” wonder the economists in Israel’s Ministry of Finance.

On the other side of the divide, the Haredim see that Israel is becoming more secular. For example, the number of non-Jewish Israeli citizens of no religious affiliation grew during the third generation to around half a million, amounting to 5% of the population, a statistic of great public significance. Along with this numerical increase came mixed marriages with Jews. The status of Shabbat, the crown of Judaism, has been steadily eroding in the wake of several court rulings on the issue, and the same is true of the state religious institutions. The fear of secularism drives the Haredim to an insular existence within spatially segregated enclaves, as in Isaiah 26:20: “Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee; hide thyself for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast.” But the majority’s demand for Haredi integration as a minority within the secular majority frameworks – the army, the academic world, and the labor market – sparks deep fear among the Haredim that the religiosity of their youth could erode.

After 75 years of Israeli statehood, the Haredim fear secularism, while the secular fear ultra-Orthodoxy. In the absence of mutual familiarity and dialogue, the fear and anxiety reverberate within a growing vacuum. How may the cycle be broken? An important step toward quelling the confrontation would be for each group to come to understand the concerns of the other, and of that group’s historical role according to its worldview.  

The Haredi leadership needs to understand the magnitude of the challenge of Haredi existence. The saying “He who gives life also provides sustenance,” per Tractate Taanit 8b, may be relevant to the individual, but cannot serve as a strategy for the collective. The leaders of the Haredi public must consider the feasibility of perpetuating the current Haredi way of life with regard to workforce participation and its future impact on the Haredi individual, the Haredi community, and the country as a whole. It may that after three generations of sovereignty, with Torah study elevated to a level unprecedented in the modern era, the time has now come to prepare young Haredim for employment after their years in yeshiva and once they have settled into married life. The Haredi leadership needs to acknowledge the responsibility it bears not only for the people’s spiritual state, but also for its material state – at the individual and the collective levels, within the community and outside it. Quantity does indeed make quality in this sphere as well, and what is true for the few is not true for hundreds of thousands. This is the task of a leader: to balance ideology with practicality, the vision of a society of learners with the needs of the Haredi and the general Israeli public.

The general Israeli public and its leaders must acknowledge the historical role of those who study Torah. The Jewish people’s eternal existence depends on the observance of Torah and mitzvot. A cursory glance at North American Jewry makes this clear: Jews who are not religiously observant have trouble maintaining their families’ Judaism across generations. That is how it was in the past, and that is how it will be in the future. The existence of a sovereign state does make things easier, as the language, the symbols, the culture, and the presence of a Jewish majority all ensure Judaism’s presence in the Israeli public realm, even without religious observance. But who, the Haredim ask, can guarantee that this will continue to be the case? In their view, “Our nation is only a nation by virtue of its Torah,” and although they do not take part in the building of the land in the physical sense, they see themselves as shouldering the burden of building the nation. The status of a Torah scholar is therefore not the same as that of a star athlete, as the Torah is the basis for justifying our sovereign existence; it is the “title deed” that David Ben-Gurion presented to the Peel Commission in the 1930s and it is the thing that is capable of ensuring the future of the people and of the entire Jewish enterprise. Zionism must therefore acknowledge the significance and the crucial importance of Torah scholars and allow them the “living space” they need to pursue their studies. And the general Israeli public should therefore encourage Torah study, out of an awareness that it is the secret of Jewish existence.

A life-affirming leadership should strive to expand the common ground between Israeli society’s different subgroups by employing the two central values of the state: Judaism and democracy. One the one hand, civics instruction should be provided to Haredi pupils, in the spirit of what Chazal (Our Sages of blessed memory) had to say about the necessity of the fear of government. This is non-negotiable. On the other hand, pupils in the state education system should be familiarized with Jewish tradition and culture. This, too, is non-negotiable. These are the values of the State of Israel, and they must be transmitted to all of its children, religious and secular, mutatis mutandis.

Many questions indeed remain open at this point. What will happen with the burden of military service? What is the number of Torah scholars required by the Jewish people? How may we coexist in spite of our divergent, and sometimes opposing, outlooks? And there are many other questions. These are issues of crucial importance, and they need to be sorted out on a basis of partnership and awareness of the value of the other. The Haredim owe gratitude to the State of Israel – the world’s greatest sustainer of Torah and the community’s preserver from material extinction; secular Israelis owe gratitude to the religiously observant, who carry the burden of building the nation’s historical spirit. Both communities need to listen, to display tolerance and, in particular, to get to know each other.


As a child in the 1980s I used to visit my grandfather, Rabbi Eliezer Zicherman of blessed memory, in Holon. My grandfather was a prayer leader and I, a boy of nine, would stand next to him and learn the liturgy. One Shabbat evening before Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, my grandfather hung an Israeli flag in a street-facing window of his home, and I, a Haredi boy from Jerusalem, asked him why he was doing this. My grandfather looked at me and replied: “Young boy, I was saved by this state, and I owe it gratitude. You may do as you please.” Grandfather’s flag has been waving in my mind’s eye for over three decades now – an embodiment of gratitude, wisdom, Judaism and democracy.

Dr. Haim Zicherman is a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Ono Academic College, and associate editor of this essay collection.