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Between Israel and the Haredim: Responsibility and Integration

 31 May 2010

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Lately news in Israel very much centers around what is happening in the Haredi world. Israelis are furious and completely fed up with the behavior of the ultra-orthodox. A process of anger going on for decades may finally be coming to a head. First of all the media image of Haredi society is beyond negative, conjuring up images of rock throwing, tire burning and violent demonstrations against Shabbat traffic and firms working on Shabbat. A month ago Israel's Channel 10 reported there were approximately 100,000 yeshiva students costing the government almost a billion shekels in subsidies per annum. More than half were of army age, either enlisted or reserves – and enjoyed deferments. Just recently Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Hulda'i attacked the Haredim for parasitism and contributing little if nothing to society and was heralded as expressing the opinion of what most were thinking. Zevulun Orlev of the Jewish Home Party (formerly National Religious) disagreed with the mayor's tone and choice of words but admitted that his accusations of Haredi ungratefulness and lack of reciprocity were right on the mark. Orlev called on the Haredim to make amends.

Other issues rising to the fore in the not so distant past include the extremism of the Eda Haredit board awarding kashrut certificates. Their prices are very high, however food companies have complained of inferred threats (apparently boycotts, demonstrations and possibly violence) should they cancel contracts and take another overseer. The extreme Haredi areas of Bet Shemesh are witness to physical attacks against others, in particular modern orthodox women for not being dressed modestly enough. The stories of domestic abuse of children by their parents and especially their mothers have shaken all in three separate instances: The "Taliban mother", the mother who starved her child, and the case of the self styled rabbi, Elior Chen who physically abused children among the followers in his sect. Actions taken against the suspects by the authorities are met with rioting. In Jerusalem there is the battle for segregation between the sexes on the bus lines and most recently in the town of Emmanuel the girls' school forced segregation between Ashkenazi and Sephardi and Mizrachi students. Ashkenazi parents do not want their daughters studying with inferior students and refuse to integrate despite a court order. Over the years in general one has heard of Ashkenazi spiritual superiority as an undertone. The final straw was the attempt by Deputy Health Minister Ya'akov Litzmann to force the government to spend another 135 million shekels on a reinforced extension of the Barzilai Hospital emergency room in Ashkelon because of an ancient cemetery found on the grounds of the original site and supposedly forbade any construction. A whole new wing would need to be built. Popular sentiment, the medical profession and even politicians finally rebelled, especially once the majority of rabbis declared that reburial of the bones was permissible regardless whether they were Jewish or not (and it so happens they are pagan). Litzmann and his United Torah Judaism (UTJ) faction remained in the coalition despite threats to leave should the government not buckle under. This of course did not stop certain ultra-extremists from clashing with police at the site and rioting in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim Quarter.

Most Haredim are a-Zionist, officially neither supporting nor rejecting the existence of the State of Israel. There is a minority of pro-Zionists who blend a national religious understanding with that of the ultra-orthodox, and then there are the anti-Zionists who are represented mostly by the (Ashkenazi) Neturei Karta and Toldot Aharon factions. Together their membership is estimated at several thousands but overall they are a small minority even if an extremely vocal one who miss no opportunity to demonstrate, riot, throw rocks, scream "Cossacks" and "Nazis" at the police and meet and work with Israel's most vile adversaries such as the late Yasir Arafat, the Hamas leadership and Iran's Ahmadeinjad while always remembering to demand the destruction of the State of Israel as a "racist" enemy. Such behavior has forced many away from Judaism, both Israelis and Jews worldwide. This extreme "in your face" group is not representative of the Haredi community, yet in the popular imagination dominates how most Israelis see the ultra-orthodox.

The mainstream is not exempt from criticism on several levels. Much begins with politics. During the 1948 War PM David Ben Gurion handed out a minimal 400 draft exemptions for yeshiva students. However the students studied day and night and could not leave the yeshiva building without the exemption documentation for fear of arrest by the military police for draft evasion. The rabbinical leadership reportedly locked up the exemptions in a safe to ensure studiousness thereby keeping their promise to the prime minister of doing their spiritual best for the war effort. In those days there were 630,000 Jews in Israel, today there are some 5.6 million - translating into eight times that amount or in keeping with the same proportions there should be 3,200 exempted yeshiva students today. Exempted student numbers are somewhere around 60,000 or twenty times that figure.

There are several reasons for this phenomenum. We can begin with coalition dealings especially from 1977, the year the Likud removed Labor from power. PM Menachem Begin saw the haredi community as a natural ally whereby Labor had relegated them to the opposition for the greater part of their 29 years in power. When Labor did cut a deal it was with great remorse but seen as a political necessity. The Shas political party was formed in 1984 to project ethnic pride among Sephardi/Mizrachi voters and as a backlash against the Ashkenazi leadership. Today they have 11 Knesset seats as opposed to 6 for the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism (UTJ). Haredi coalition negotiations especially with the Likud (but also with Labor) included demands for draft exemptions, yeshiva financing, child allowances, housing subsides and the chair of the Knesset finance committee, a position almost as powerful as the finance ministry. The government shelled out the money to solidify their coalition and to obtain support for "much more important matters" of defense and foreign policy. Political favors came with the deals and the Haredi factions took over much of the rabbinical authority in the Israeli state system replacing the national religious pro-Zionist officialdom with their own.

Their greatest position of power is not even monetary but rather those who ascertaining one's personal status. A couple wanting to marry must prove they are Jewish, especially if one is a convert. All conversions must be orthodox, but lately even if done through officially recognized state institutions, the local rabbinical officials have denied Jewish status to orthodox converts, apparently not only on a whim, but as a rejection of the Jewish State which employs them. There are court cases pending as a result. Many Israelis see all Haredim as responsible for this extremism but mistakenly blame Judaism for such misfortunes. Unfortunately neither appears to be conversant with the spirit of the Book of Ruth which we just read on Shavuot. Let us recall that Ruth was a Moabite who married Boaz and adopted the Children of Israel as her own people. She was King David's great grandmother. Not a bad example of what type of contribution can be made by dedicated converts to Judaism.

But the winds of change are not only in the air but the result of material need. Sever Plotzker, Yediot Ahronot's economic correspondent recently spent time in the Haredi stronghold of Bnai Brak and reports (May 18, 2010) that the rabbinical leadership understands fully the need for job training and participation in the Israeli economy. Over the past few years there is said to be a "change of heart" and "soul searching" among many in the Haredi world. It now seems to be arriving at fruition among the more Zionist elements and even a-Zionists in the community. Money is short and the government is no longer capable of subsidizing the Haredi community at such sweeping levels.

Plotzker points out the "quiet revolution" going on among the estimated 600,000 – 800,000 Haredim or 8-10% of Israel's population. Only 35% of Haredi men between the ages of 35 – 55 work as compared to 85% of the general population. Among women in the 25 – 64 age group 55% work, quite similar to the general population average while raising eight children as opposed to the non-Haredi average of 2.5. The quality of job and corresponding salaries are generally not high although recently Haredi women are taking on white collar professional jobs and are the main bread winners at home. There is quiet encouragement among the rabbis for the non-scholarly men to follow in their footsteps realizing not everyone is destined to be a full time yeshiva or kolel (married) student. Twenty years of religious studies devoid of secular understandings and skills only leads one to minimum wage. On the average some 50,000 men have been lost to the work force. Even should one emerge from his studies when in his mid- thirties he is not truly employable. With 60% of the Bnei Brak population under the poverty line (and it may be worse in Jerusalem) there is now a demand for secular knowledge for those of high school age. This was done for the girls twenty years ago and has proven itself successful in female career development. The men will now follow, but how fast and how far is unknown.

What is clear is the enormity and severity of the issue. Government funds cannot keep rolling in as they did previously and non-Haredi resentment is rising, taking on increasingly sharp political overtones. Solidifying itself as an undeclared policy by the politicians in the Haredi sector and particularly among the Ashkenazis was the "politics of poverty" whereby the political party was responsible for the community material well being and guaranteed as much through yeshiva stipends, cheap housing and child allowances. The larger the Haredi yeshiva population, the greater their dependency on the party – all of which led to a dedicated voting public held not only by religious commitment but by economic purse strings. Once people start making their own livings, certain priorities may shift. Both Shas and UTJ will need to shift their political positions, in particular as concerns economics, otherwise they may lose voter support. The Haredi population can no longer be on the dole. Netanyahu's government is consolidating a plan to invest tens of millions of shekels into job training for the Haredi sector, monies which could have been saved had these skills been taught at the high school level. But better late than never.

A second battle is the one over army service. Haredim are fond of declaring they are in the "Army of God". The rest of Israel is not buying the line even should secular politicians exclaim (usually during coalition building) they are convinced of such extra terrestrial aid in the event of a war. Declarations of spiritual superiority with Godly intervention in times of crisis are at sometimes heard publicly but even more so privately (this writer has heard these claims many times over) as a justification for not serving in the military. Haredim are not superior to non-Haredim and their percentage of soldiers in the army and on the battlefield should be in direct proportion of their overall numbers in the population. Although not an issue of finance or education, this is one of equality and service to the Jewish People. Exemptions for a few thousand of the greatest scholars can be made in the name of Jewish knowledge, but everyone else must serve.

In the final analysis the Haredi population is beginning to integrate into Israeli society and take responsibility for overall Jewish continuity. But this is only the beginning. Saddled with a terrible reputation there is much work to do. Let it be suggested that not all change must be quiet, slow moving and behind the scenes. The next time the Neturei Karta riot or act against the State of Israel, demanding its extermination, the Haredi silent majority led by its great rabbinical authorities would be well advised to call out tens of thousands of demonstrators in support of the Jewish State and in condemnation of the extremists.

It would do wonders for the Haredi reputation and certainly bring all Jews closer together. In the meantime there are encouraging signs but no one is holding their breath in expectation of a manifest expression of solidarity.