Ongoing external threats have diverted us from confronting the burgeoning Haredi crisis which is rapidly developing into a national disaster.
Haredim are an important component of our society. They represent an attractive contrast to the excessive pursuit of wealth that has become the hallmark of our hedonistic secular society. Family ties and the loving manner in which they provide for the needy in their ranks are models many of us could emulate.
But like other segments of society, many Haredim have been corrupted by politics. Their inordinate success as one-dimensional political parties in leveraging state concessions for their members has intensified their natural inclination to isolate themselves.
This coincides with a dramatic natural growth due to their prolific birthrates (8.8 children per family) which in demographic terms assuredly benefits the country. However, whereas in the 1980s Haredim comprised only 4 percent of the population, today they represent 10%, or about 700,000. Barring a drastic change in their birthrate, in less than two decades Haredim could amount to 20% of Israel’s Jewish population.
Currently, 25% of all Jewish primary school-age children are enrolled in Haredi institutions – double the proportion of 10 years ago. If this trend is maintained, 20 years from now, 40% of Jewish children will attend haredi schools, many of which do not celebrate Independence Day, recognize the flag, permit the singing of “Hatikva” and discourage their students from serving in the IDF.
To make matters worse, in a highly irresponsible political trade-off, the Olmert government consummated a deal to fully fund Haredi schools with no obligation to incorporate any secular content. Aside from the obvious negative consequences, this arrangement virtually guarantees that many graduates will be doomed to a life of unemployment, grinding poverty and reliance on state welfare.
ALTHOUGH THE majority of Haredi families live below the poverty line and rank among the lowest socioeconomic strata of society, many of their rabbis urge them to learn full time, despite the traditional religious approach which extols the virtue of earning a livelihood. As a consequence, at least 70% of the males refuse to take up employment even though some of their wives join the workforce to supplement their welfare income.
We are now rapidly reaching the point in which able-bodied Haredim unwilling or unfit to join the workforce will comprise such a large proportion of society that the state welfare system will simply become unable to support them.
The other explosive issue is Haredi exemption from army service, which has no religious justification and continues generating enormous resentment. Prime minister David Ben-Gurion granted the appeal by the Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avraham Karelitz) to exempt 400 yeshiva students from army service. Regrettably, he failed to impose a cap on future exemptions. Today, more than 55,000 state-subsidized yeshiva students avoid the draft. With the escalating proportion of Haredim in the population, the resulting societal tensions will inevitably explode.
Another issue is the inclination of certain Haredi rabbis to more stringently interpret the applications of Jewish ritual observance. Most Israelis were indifferent to this so long as it did not affect their personal lives. Many were even bemused with Haredi proclamations that Shabbat elevators were prohibited, that Crocs were too comfortable to wear on fast days, or that Kohanim should seal themselves into body bags when flying over Jewish cemeteries.
Nor is there an intractable problem with unrepresentative fringe Haredi hooligans pelting stones or indulging in violent demonstrations. If the authorities would simply insist that the police vigorously enforce the law and the courts were to mete out a few jail sentences, such anti-social behavior from a minority of Haredi extremists would disappear.
IT WAS only when Haredim attempted to impose their lifestyle beyond their ranks that emotions began to run riot. Originally, the state religious framework remained under the aegis of moderate religious Zionist rabbis. With the surging power of Haredi political parties, opportunistic politicians consummated shoddy political deals with them enabling the appointment of anti-Zionist and frequently incompetent rabbis to key state institutions and courts. Even the Chief Rabbinate, the former bastion of religious Zionism, was hijacked by Haredim who appointed their puppets. Now they are exploiting these state instrumentalities to impose their standards on the nation.
Regrettably, attempts by enlightened religious Zionist groups like Beit Morasha, Tzohar and others to resolve these problems failed to contain the government-empowered Haredi groups. Thus, fanatics like Rabbi Abraham Sherman were able to impose the most stringent Halachic interpretations to deter potential converts. This was accompanied by scandalous accusations of fraudulent behavior directed against respected religious Zionist rabbis conducting conversions. It climaxed with the unprecedented retrospective annulment of conversions hitherto considered irreversible. Not surprisingly, in this xenophobic atmosphere, the number of conversions plummeted.
Further tensions emerged. The most severe was in relation to the implementation of the Shmita, the biblical injunction requiring land owned by Jews to lie fallow every seven years. The Haredi establishment attempted to overturn rabbinical edicts introduced 80 years ago to circumvent this obligation by the revered Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Had the High Court not intervened it would have resulted in a financial catastrophe for the farming community.
There is a desperate need to reverse Haredi control of state instrumentalities. More importantly, in view of the explosive impending economic and political implications of the growing Haredi population on the workforce and the IDF, Haredim must be integrated into the mainstream and obliged to work and serve in the army or participate in national service.
Some of the more astute leaders of the Haredi community now recognize this and are attempting to preempt a future crisis by acting now. For example, the scholarly Shas MK Haim Amsalam created a furor when he courageously provided Halachic grounds for rabbis to display leniency with non-Jewish IDF soldiers seeking to convert on the grounds that their military service in itself demonstrates a major commitment to the Jewish people.
Others recognize the necessity for a new work ethic, and encourage the training of young Haredim for gainful employment in such institutions as Machon Lev. The government must divert some of the funds pouring into the coffers of yeshivot to finance colleges and institutions seeking to enable Haredim to earn a livelihood.
It is also gratifying to observe that IDF national service Haredi units are attracting larger numbers, but as of now represent a mere 3.5% of the 55,000 eligible yeshiva students.
We face a shrinking window of opportunity to act in these areas, and the government must devise a bipartisan means of overcoming Haredi vetoes to introduce appropriate legislation to implement these objectives.
The challenge is to manage this matter expeditiously in a constructive and humane manner and minimize confrontation which could inflict great damage on the nation.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post