Despite being a frequent critic of intrusive and contentious High Court judgments, I commend the recent ruling that the government terminate discriminatory funding to the only sector of society which rejects national service and the majority of whose adherents disdain gainful employment. If not for our dysfunctional political system enabling one-dimensional haredi political parties to extort funds exclusively on behalf of their constituents, such a situation could never have arisen.
And in the long term, the High Court ruling could avert the more explosive looming confrontation which will inevitably erupt as the burden on taxpayers financing the increasing number of unemployed haredim becomes economically untenable.
An insight into the escalating anti-haredi rage emerged in response to Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s warnings of catastrophic consequences if the state continued financing “aloof and ignorant people who are growing at an alarming rate and draining our social and economic strength.”
The despicable level to which haredi bashing had descended was exemplified when popular radio host Gabi Gazit described them as “leeches,” “worms” and “stinking tumors.”
But notwithstanding the bigotry, there is a desperate need for reform.
In the 1980s, haredim represented 4 percent of the population.
Today this has risen to 10% and if their birthrate is sustained, 20 years hence, 40% of children will attend schools in which the singing of “Hatikva” and recognizing the national flag is denied and army service discouraged.
This is an inevitable by-product of shabby deals consummated between successive governments and haredi political parties, climaxing with Ehud Olmert granting haredi private schools higher subsidies than their secular and national religious counterparts and capitulating to haredi demands by dispensing with any obligation to provide students with core curriculum requirements like mathematics and English – a situation which does not exist in any other country. It virtually guarantees that most graduates of such schools will not obtain employment and will subsist on welfare for the rest of their lives. It conforms to the attitude of those rabbis who, contrary to the traditions of our sages – as exemplified by Maimonides (who was renowned for both his worldly and religious knowledge) – insist that pious Jews are obligated to devote themselves to full-time learning throughout their lives and abstain from earning a livelihood.
ON A parallel level, as haredi numbers increase and constitute a higher proportion of the population, the number of draft evaders accelerates. The 400 yeshiva students prime minister David Ben-Gurion initially exempted from national service have now mushroomed to almost 60,000. Yet there is no halachic prohibition on army service.
In fact, defense of the homeland is deemed to be a mitzva.
Increased political leverage has also encouraged radical haredim to impose their stringent interpretations of Halacha upon the entire nation, creating enormous problems in relation to conversion, marriage and divorce. It also led to them hijacking religious courts and state institutions including the Chief Rabbinate, now regarded as a haredi instrumentality.
If the Netanyahu government succumbs to pressure and reinstates funding to haredim in kollelim, the nation would be enraged and this will only hasten the day when taxpayers revolt and refuse to carry the increasing burden of financing welfare payments for the escalating numbers of able-bodied Israelis refusing to work.
Haredim are frequently stereotyped by the actions of fringe radical elements, the violent stone-throwing delinquents who block streets and torch garbage containers.
While not reflecting the mainstream haredi world, they nevertheless are comprised largely of state-funded yeshiva “students” manipulated by radical rabble-rousers. If they lived in haredi enclaves in the US or Europe, they would not dare behave in this manner or accuse the authorities of behaving like Nazis or curse judges. The reality is that many haredim are ashamed to be bracketed with these hooligans who they consider are breaching cardinal halachic principals that require observance to the law of the land. Unfortunately they are usually fearful of publicly condemning such deviant behavior.
The government must ensure that haredi hooligans who indulge in violence are punished with the full severity of the law. But the law must be implemented intelligently.
The arrest of the Emmanuel parents for contempt of court for refusing to send their daughters to an integrated school was an example of the judiciary losing the plot. The parents were not racists but fanatics seeking to insulate their daughters from children who did not share their extreme lifestyle. Such attitudes certainly reflect deplorable religious bigotry but are not racist. Imprisoning the parents transformed them into martyrs. On the other hand, restricted extremist schools should receive no state aid whatsoever and if so, only on condition they educate their students with core subjects as in all advanced countries.
Many haredim recognize that earning a livelihood is fully consistent with their lifestyle. Other than the hardline Lithuanians, most would welcome providing their youngsters with the necessary prerequisites for earning an honest living and partaking in society. They are also aware that haredi schools in the Diaspora are not exempt from teaching a core curriculum to ensure that their graduates become gainfully employed, productive citizens.
They are quietly trying to change the system.
AT A parallel level, the IDF is now conscripting more haredim by rigorously implementing the Tal Law. Their goal is to enroll more than 50 percent of haredim by 2020. Likewise, the Nahal haredi units, while small, are growing and demonstrate that like religious Zionists, haredim can provide exemplary service to the IDF.
Many rank-and-file followers of Shas are patriotic Zionists who fulfill their civic obligations including military service. That Shas joined the World Zionist Organization with the blessing of its spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, suggests that the old conflict between Zionism and this major component of haredi society is being superseded.
The burden of responsibility now rests with the Netanyahu government. It must not capitulate to pressures from the haredi parties to reinstate the discriminatory subsidies. It should only appoint rabbis who recognize and respect the state and their national obligations to serve in state instrumentalities and rabbinical courts.
If reforms are to be effective, they must be implemented with sensitivity and over a reasonable time frame. The objective is not to interfere with the haredi way of life, but to encourage them to assume the obligation of citizenship (as they do in the Diaspora) and play a constructive role in society without imposing or coercing others to adhere to their stringent halachic lifestyle. To achieve this, we must also marginalize the bigots and haredibashers.
The reality is that if haredim begin working and serving in the army, they will soon become respected partners in society.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post