There is now a long-overdue recognition: the erosion of Jewish identity in the curriculum of the dominant secular school system is having disastrous repercussions. In their frenetic zeal to promote universalism, secular educators have diluted Jewish heritage to a minimum. Even the Bible, which once occupied a central place in secular Zionist education, has largely disappeared. Combined with growing hedonism and consumerism this has begun to undermine the faith of some youngsters in the sacred values of the nation.
This phenomenon manifests itself in the increasing brain drain of young Israelis emigrating to greener pastures. It is also reflected by a number of popular entertainers who shamelessly boast of having evaded the draft.
In spite of our minister of education who is besotted with post-modernism, many Israeli leaders are now conscious of the urgent need to restore Jewish and Zionist values in the school system.
But regrettably this problem among the secular is now being dwarfed by a more immediate crisis arising from the demographically exploding haredi sector, whose political leverage peaked simultaneously with a failed government willing to virtually sacrifice anything to retain power.
This was evidenced in the passage of recent legislation obligating municipalities to provide equal funding to haredi schools, including those affiliated with movements even more extreme than Shas and Aguda, who brazenly exclude obligatory secular core curriculum subjects. Nobody seems unduly concerned that the state is effectively financing the molding of citizens destined for a life of impoverishment and total dependence on welfare.
Paradoxically, the children of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Western countries are obliged and do take part in secular core curriculum studies prescribed by their governments.
The statistics relating to this problem signal an even more alarming phenomenon. Currently the high haredi birth rates (considered a boon for Israel) have created a situation in which children from haredi families today comprise 22% of all first Israeli first-graders. This is virtually double the proportion which prevailed 10 to 15 years ago. No society in which almost a quarter of its members are destined to become parasitical burdens and impoverish the majority can indefinitely sustain itself.
Never in the history of the Jewish people has such a bizarre situation prevailed. In the past, exceptionally gifted Torah scholars were funded by philanthropists to lead a life of learning. But even in the shtetl, where poverty was endemic, religious Jews accepted earning a livelihood as a prerequisite to their well-being and dignity.
There is an equally frightening parallel to this. In 1948, in what was subsequently proven to be one of his greatest blunders, David Ben-Gurion agreed with Rabbi Avraham Yeshaye Karelitz – known as the Chazon Ish – to exempt all yeshiva students from conscription.
At the time only 400 were involved. This year that number – which obviously includes many who could never be considered serious students – has mushroomed to well in excess of 50,000 and will continue to rise.
The Tal Law was introduced with the laudable objective of reducing haredi draft evasion and encouraging participation in the work force. It failed abysmally. Over a four-year period only about 500 yeshiva students were drafted and minimal numbers opted for legal employment. Yet the government once again buried its head in the sand and without weighing the consequences, extended the law for another five years.
But the worst has yet to come. Currently haredim account for 11 percent of draft exemptions. However, unless the system changes, when today’s haredi first-graders turn 18, they will comprise nearly a quarter of the entire draft.
Should that happen, aside from the additional physical burden on those drafted, the psychological implications for the nation will be devastating. Instead of representing a badge of honor, military service will be regarded as applicable only to hapless freiers or “lower-class people.”
What is now a marginal but growing phenomenon among secular elites, celebrity draft-dodging, could become infectious and lead to widespread efforts to evade the draft. That would surely be disastrous for the Zionist vision.
Who is responsible, and what can be done?
Setting aside a miserable political system which encourages politicians to prostitute themselves in order to retain office, the principal responsibility rests with haredi rabbis and heads of yeshivot. Many of them have yet to reconcile themselves with the obligations of living in a Jewish state.
There are no genuine halachic grounds to justify draft evasion. Far from promoting pacifism, Judaism is in fact explicit concerning the obligation to support a righteous war. Maimonides proclaims that even a groom at his wedding banquet is obliged to participate in defense of the nation.
But the primary reason that haredi rabbis so vehemently oppose the draft is a fear of exposing their followers to the outside world. They even have the gall to proclaim that the role of haredim is to “pray for the nation” – a none too subtle attempt to rationalize why non-observant Israelis and religious Zionists (who also pray) should fight and die for them. Their attitude is reminiscent of the ultra-Orthodox European rabbis before the Shoah who urged their followers not to leave Europe. Their attitude today could ultimately bring about an historical disaster of equal magnitude.
The negative attitude toward earning a livelihood is equally bizarre. Our sages from the time of the Mishna consistently upheld the virtues of labor and maintaining a family livelihood.
There is of course a substantial minority of haredim who do earn livelihoods and a number who also serve in the IDF. Some of them initiated efforts to create training centers and colleges for training haredim for employment in the computer and electronics industry. Regrettably, few rabbis encouraged their followers to take advantage of such opportunities.
Moderate religious Zionists, who in the past served as bridges to secular Israelis, should assume a leading role in this matter. Their children all serve in the IDF, are highly motivated and renowned for exemplary conduct and contribute – far out of proportion to their numbers – in combat units and as officers.
In leading the campaign, they can demonstrate that far from conflicting with Halacha, army service and contribution to the defense of the nation is a mitzva. They can relate to the haredi Nahal unit, which has performed admirably and provide reassurances that the IDF will ensure that religious observance is respected.
They will avoid the haredi-bashing of bigoted anti-religious parties, like the now-defunct Shinui, and be constructive, even highlighting the positive aspects of haredi life which secular Israelis could emulate.
Hopefully they will also gain the support of the hitherto silent haredim who are fully aware of the catastrophe that will inevitably impact on them and the entire nation unless these trends are reversed.
The writer chairs the Diaspora-Israel relations committee of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is a veteran international Jewish leader. [email protected]
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