A fortnight ago, an important milestone was reached in Charedi engagement with global Jewry in the form of the latest Am Echad mission to Israel. Am Echad was founded after Rabbi Moshe Sherer of Agudath Israel launched a campaign in the 1990s to build a broad coalition from all streams of Orthodoxy to to fight changes to the religious status quo in Israel. More recently, it has been revived as an organization with a bold agenda of ‘upholding Jewish interests in Israel and around the world’. Its 2022 Mission to Israel met with the full who’s who of the Israeli political elite in a bid to ensure that the voice of diaspora Charedim receives its due weight in the profound debates about what the ‘Jewish’ part of the Jewish state really entails.
For many years, there has been widespread acceptance of a narrative depicting a widening gap between an increasingly religious and nationalist Israel, and an increasingly liberal and secular diaspora Jewry. The implicit argument of this narrative has usually been that Israeli governments need to make compromises with diaspora Jewry – broadly speaking, meaning greater inclusion of heterodox Jewish movements or territorial concessions to the Palestinians – in order to preserve their financial, rhetorical, and institutional support. Even those on the Israeli Right have typically accepted the frame, settling for trying to ameliorate the problem with a combination of schmoozing and PR. The long-overdue injection of the Charedi diaspora perspective into the discussion has the potential to completely overturn this paradigm .
While secular and traditional Israel enjoys continued demographic growth, non-orthodox diaspora Jewry is in decline driven by the combination of sky-high intermarriage rates and rock-bottom birthrates. On current trends, we will live to see an inverted version of global Jewry, in which the diaspora is more traditional in its religious affiliation and less sympathetic towards Palestinian national aspirations. However, as I pointed out in my recent essay for Mosaic, we do not need to wait for demographic potential to become reality, because influence is not a mere function of numbers, but of numbers multiplied by commitment. In practice, a thousand Jews who would, if asked, tell you they would like to see gender-egalitarian services at the Western Wall do not count for as much as a hundred Jews for whom davening at the kosel on their annual trip to Israel is the highlight of their year. The reason why the Charedi diaspora influence is only beginning to make itself felt is because of the handicaps that Charedim have imposed upon themselves in making their voice heard within the global Jewish conversation.
This is the true significance of the Am Echad mission. While heterodox movements have been significantly defined by their relationship to Israel and Zionism, the Charedi mainstream decades ago settled for taking the ‘non-zionist’ position, defined, in essence, as not having an opinion. The shtadlanus model of engagement with the wider Jewish world eschewed even an interest in the big questions of national policy, preferring narrow deals, ideally concluded without fanfare behind closed doors, on specifically Charedi concerns. The public interjection of diaspora Charedim, proudly claiming the right to articulate an agenda for the Jewish people as a whole, however, is a new development, which has the potential to transform the global Jewish conversation.
The Am Echad mission builds on the 2020 earthquake in global Zionist politics, spearheaded by Rabbi Pesach Lerner who launched the Eretz haKodesh slate to give Charedi voters someone to support in elections to the World Zionist Congress. Eretz haKodesh came from nowhere to finish third in the elections, shifting the entire balance of power within the WZO by giving for the first time in its history a majority to the coalition of Right-Wing factions. The full impact of the Charedi intrusion into Zionist politics is still to be determined, and it remains to be seen how the Zionist establishment will respond in the next WZO elections. What Eretz haKodesh showed more than anything else, though, is the massive latent Charedi power waiting to be leveraged by enterprising leaders with an eye for opportunities.
There is much more to be said about the Am Echad phenomenon and what it portends, but I will here content myself with two observations. The first is that those who believe that increased Charedi participation within wider Jewish forums for debate will lead to warmer relations are almost certainly going to be disappointed. The old-guard of askanim have been essentially correct in their instinct that cordial relations are best cultivated by being as vague as possible about Charedi beliefs and keeping public debate to an absolute minimum. The open articulation of a belief-system wildly at odds within anything considered mainstream in the liberal West will be the nail in the coffin for residual affection that remains towards Charedim based on sentimental memories of Fiddler on the Roof. This is an unavoidable price worth paying for upsetting the existing balance of power in order to shape the wider Jewish future, and, moreover, I believe that, in due course, a new equilibrium will be reached whereby the different interest groups realise that they have more to lose than gain by tearing strips off each other. In the meantime, however, we should prepare ourselves for an upswing in adversarial relations and hostility as Charedim move in from the shadows to where decisions are made.
My second point is that it is hard not to notice that in all the pictures of the Am Echad delegation, there is not a single long rekel or pair of curly peyos to be seen. Estimates of the proportion of American Charedi Jewry that is Chassidic vary, but 50% is a reasonable estimate. With the exception of Sol Werdiger representing Ger, Chassidim were left out of the party entirely. In the United Kingdom, Chasidim are the majority of Charedim, but the only two UK representatives were Rabbi Jonathan Guttentag of Eretz haKodesh and Avi Lazarus, CEO of the Federation, two very fine people and personal friends of mine, but they would be the first to admit that they do not represent the Chassidic-dominated Stamford Hill.
The reason for the absence of Stamford Hill representation is no mystery, namely the veto that Satmar wields over both Rabbinic and lay community organizations, the product of their wealth, numbers, and the historic alliance they formed with the Hirschian anti-Zionists who played a crucial role in establishing the UK Charedi community. In America, Satmar’s power is less formalized in wider Charedi institutions but still sufficient to intimidate other Chassidic groups into not participating. The mainstream Chassidic rank and file, for whom a non-ideological Eretz Yisroel patriotism is part of their identity, still have, as yet, no institutional representation.
Satmar, of course, have every right to stick to their shitah, which forms a crucial part of their communal identity. One way or another, however, a way will have to be found for Chassidim to participate in the new wave of global Charedi advocacy. From the perspective of Am Echad and Eretz haKodesh, we have the invaluable gift of numbers, if nothing else, to contribute to the struggle. Perhaps more importantly, however, we Chassidim will be missing out if we choose to sit out this next chapter in the Charedi story. If there’s one thing that characterizes the unlikely success story of Chassidim in the modern world, it’s that where there’s a communal will there’s a hashkafik way. This shouldn’t be an exception.