Although election fever currently dominates the national agenda, we should also recognize that today the state is at a turning point in its evolving relationship with the haredim – undoubtedly the most significant long-term challenge to Israeli society.
In 2012, the haredim accounted for one-sixth of the Jewish population. Currently they comprise 25 percent of school first-graders, the fastest-growing sector by far.
While frequently characterized as aliens, there is much in the haredi lifestyle to emulate. They shun hedonism and live modestly, focus on family values and they have an exemplary commitment to charity within their own ranks and maintain their high spiritual levels despite the materialism surrounding them.
Lamentably, Ashkenazi haredi rabbis determinedly created a cordon sanitaire to protect their followers from contamination by the outside world. Whereas successful waves of aliyah have been integrated, haredim move in the opposite direction by withdrawing further from the nation and educating their youngsters to spurn the state, displaying open contempt for Independence Day and Holocaust commemorations and even refusing to include prayers for the state or the wellbeing of the IDF in their synagogues.
Unfortunately Sephardi rabbis – despite bitterly resenting the condescending manner in which the Ashkenazim patronized them – nonetheless replicated them. They increasingly substituted their traditional tolerant Sephardi lifestyle with the stringent Ashkenazi haredi approach, even emulating their black hats and Polish attire. They formed the Shas party in 1984, which at its peak in 1999 had 17 Knesset seats and today 11.
Haredi rabbis sought to compete in their display of greater zealotry. In their state-subsidized school system, even minimal secular education was banned. Ironically, today, Maimonides with his worldly knowledge would not qualify to teach in their schools.
This approach ultimately led to the disastrous haredi rabbinical injunction urging their followers to devote themselves to fulltime learning Torah and eschew worldly pursuits such as earning a livelihood – a concept utterly unprecedented in Jewish religious life. This resulted in the impoverishment of the entire community with the majority unemployed and dependent on welfare throughout their lives. With the massive demographic expansion of this sector, if the tide is not soon reversed, the nation will suffer catastrophic economic repercussions.
The exemption from military service which Ben-Gurion originally granted to 400 yeshiva students has mushroomed to 50,000 and the haredi refusal to share the burden of defending the state enrages all sections of society.
For a lengthy period, the haredi one-dimensional political parties held the balance of power, enabling them to extort disproportionate funding for their coffers, massively expanding their educational networks which exclude any secular curriculum.
In recent years they have begun to impose their standards on the wider community. Despite their long-standing contempt for the Chief Rabbinate, they hijacked the institution, facilitating the appointment of puppets, some of whom were mediocre, incomparable in stature, piety or learning to former Zionist chief rabbis such as Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog and Rabbi Shlomo Goren. The primitive depths to which haredi chief rabbis descended was exemplified with such comments by former Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who remarked: “When yeshiva attendance is low, as on holiday evenings or prior to Shabbat, more IDF soldiers are injured and killed.”
The current Chief Rabbi David Lau was only elected after undertaking not to endorse any amendments to conversions or marriage procedures without the prior approval of the extremist haredi hierarchy, headed by Rabbi Avraham Sherman.
Despite the presence of some 300,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not considered halachic Jews and the urgent need for innovation and flexibility within the halachic framework to facilitate conversions, the haredi rabbinate has behaved inexcusably by placing every conceivable obstacle to deter potential converts. The total absence of compassion and the blind bureaucratic demands to prove Jewish ancestry back several generations, create havoc especially among children of Holocaust survivors and Russian Jews who frequently lack access to such documents.
The haredi rabbinate also introduced an unprecedented and draconic approach wherein conversions may be retroactively annulled. Rabbi Sherman even sought (unsuccessfully due to High Court intervention) to annul the conversions of thousands who had already been converted by state endorsed rabbis.
That such issues can be dealt with compassionately within the framework of Halachah was demonstrated by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s courageous innovative approach to the Ethiopian aliyah. Had leading Ashkenazi haredi rabbis at that time had their way, none of the Ethiopians would have been considered Jews.
Resentment against haredim intensified as evidence of corruption and malfeasance within the rabbinate mushroomed, climaxing with the indictment of former Chief Rabbi Metzger on charges of bribery, money laundering and obstruction of justice.
Yet amazingly, despite widespread loathing of corrupt and extremist rabbis, the past two decades has witnessed a dramatic increase in religious tradition and observance, especially among Israeli youth.
Polls indicate that 80 percent of Israeli Jews believe in God, 61 percent favor conducting public life in accordance with Jewish tradition, 85 percent believe it is important to celebrate Jewish festivals in a traditional manner, 90 percent celebrate the Passover Seder, 68 percent fast on Yom Kippur, 67 percent have family dinners, light candles and make kiddush on Shabbat. These polls reflect a dramatic swing of the pendulum against the militantly secular Israeli society of half a century ago. The trend had been buffered by a burgeoning number of nonobservant Israelis adopting a religious lifestyle (baalei teshuva).
No longer holding the balance of power after the last elections, the haredi parties were excluded from government. This has led to a review of some of the disproportionate funds siphoned to them and the introduction of policies designed to induce more of them into the work force.
The outgoing government initiated important legislation designed to ensure that haredim be obliged to share the burden of military or national service. However, at the insistence of Yesh Atid, the legislation included provisions criminalizing draft evasion – a populist measure only to be implemented in the future which merely provided ammunition for the haredi zealots to gain support and threaten to fill the jails with their followers. To proceed constructively in this area, this legislation should be refined and the government should rather concentrate on restricting the flow of funds to haredim refusing to serve or seek employment.
There are dramatic societal changes among the haredim. The implosion of Shas is not merely based on personality conflicts between Aryeh Deri and Eli Yishai but was inevitable after the death of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, whose charisma and standing was the foundation for the party’s unity and electoral success. Ethnic grievances aside, most Shas supporters are more traditional than haredi, passionately love the Jewish state and are not anti-Zionist. Those who have not been brainwashed by their rabbis would serve in the IDF.
Among the more moderate Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, who should be described as non-Zionist rather than anti-Zionist, the recent wars have made an impact and the shocking terrorist massacre at the Har Nof synagogue has jolted many into a realization that we are one people.
There is also the extraordinary impact of Habayit Hayehudi. Naftali Bennett has brilliantly projected religious Zionism to the forefront and transformed his party to include traditional and nationalist secular elements into its ranks. He has succeeded in breaking down the iron barrier that separated the observant from the nonobservant Jews and if this process continues, it could dramatically enhance the Jewish identity of the people.
We are today at a crossroads in which polarization between the haredim and other Israelis could be reversed. This would nationally enhance traditional Jewish values and create a greater level of tolerance toward streams outside the strictly Orthodox framework. After all, what is preferable: a Conservative or Reform Jew who does not observe Halachah but believes in God and seeks to include certain Jewish traditions and values or an atheist Hebrew-speaking Canaanite who has no knowledge or exposure to Jewish tradition or history?
The new government will determine the outcome. The haredim are likely to lose seats but will remain an important bloc, presumably still offering to sell themselves to the highest bidder. Both Netanyahu and Herzog will seek to accommodate them. If they join the next government without holding the balance of power, this would not be problematic. But efforts must be maintained toward altering the socio-economic structure of the haredi community and directing it toward becoming a productive sector of the economy.
The same applies to haredi control of the religious establishment. Haredim are free to adopt whatever standards they wish for themselves, but the Chief Rabbinate must cease imposing on the entire nation their stringent halachic approaches toward personal status issues of conversion, marriage, divorce, and burial. The recent legislation which decentralizes control of the rabbinate and authorizes the establishment of municipal conversion courts under the authority of local rabbis must be extended to provide additional scope for more moderate religious Zionist rabbis to service the people.
Whoever ultimately forms the next government would be doing a great disservice to the nation and sow the seeds of future disaster were they to once again allow themselves to be extorted by the haredi zealots. They should agree to enable haredim to live their lifestyle while constructively creating conditions that will encourage them to share the burdens as well as benefits of Israeli citizenship.
Isi Leibler may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post and Israel Hayom