Some questions in search of answers

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As I write, it is two days before the Israeli elections. Prior to previous elections, my Har Nof neighborhood has always been festooned with election posters hanging from balconies. I have not seen a single one this time. Nor have I received the usual call from the “Gimmel” campaign headquarters asking me how I think my neighbors will vote, and whom should be reminded to go to the polls. The only campaign literature to reach my mailbox was that of right-wing National Union party. In short, the apathy among both chareidi voters and activists is almost total.

Virtually every election poll shows United Torah Judaism declining from 6 seats to 5, despite the tens of thousands of potential chareidi voters who have reached the voting age since the last elections. Though polls have consistently underestimated the number of seats for United Torah Judaism in the past, there are indications this year that the polls might be on target. (By the time this piece appears, we will know for sure.) Last week’s Mishpacha quoted United Torah Judaism activists as expressing the hope that the natural population growth will overcome the abstention or vote for other parties of “those who are disappointed.” That itself suggests that the concerns go beyond the dismal polls.

And even if UTJ manages to hold onto six seats, this should hardly be cause for celebration. The chareidi community in the past has always been characterized by much higher rates of voter turnout than the secular public. And it is a community that is rapidly growing. Mayors in the chareidi towns like Beitar and Kiryat Sefer have to provide fifty or more new classrooms a year, just to keep up with the exploding population. In those circumstances, one would expect UTJ to add a seat every electoral cycle, certainly every two.

The question that begs to be asked is: Why is the opposite happening? Certainly it cannot be that the situation of the chareidi public is so rosy that it has no need to concern itself with strong chareidi representation in the Knesset. Just the opposite. Rarely has the future held so many perils in store. Nor can it be that some other party is perceived as equally capable of representing the interests of the chareidi public or Torah institutions. No major party is making promises to the chareidi public, and both Kadima and Yisrael Beiteinu are making plenty of menacing sounds.

Elections are a feedback mechanism, just like the free market. Consumers express their dissatisfaction with a particular product by purchasing other brands or refraining from purchasing at all. And similarly with voters, they either vote for another party or stay at home. And then it is left to those who are trying to sell a particular brand, whether rice cakes or a political party, to figure out why there has been a drop-off in sales.

Producers attempt to create brand identification among consumers. Most chareidi voters, it would seem, feel little identification with United Torah Judaism. Voting Gimmel is something that they are expected to do every few years or so, but in between elections they have nothing to do with the political party. No one asks them for their opinions? No one takes polls of their major concerns? They do not participate in primaries to determine whom they think would best represent them in the Knesset or local municipalities.

Rotation agreements, which the late Rabbi Avraham Ravitz, once referred to as “naval sh’lo be’reshus haTorah,” convey the message that competence and expertise do not matter. How well a particular mayor or representative serves his constituents is irrelevant, and those constituents’ interests are of no concern. The party is the province of a few askanim, and the rest of the chareidi public is consigned to the role of voters. And no more.

It was not always thus with Agudath Israel. Agudath Israel was founded as a movement, not just a political party, and it still is in America. There Agudath Israel sponsors conventions and dinners, which draw hundreds of participants, runs conferences, supports legislative lobbying operations in many states with large Jewish populations, and provides many opportunities for baalebatim to get involved in Klal activities.

That was once the case in Israel too. The early Zeirei Agudath Israel, for instance, was a movement calling upon the energies of hundreds of activists. Those activists built youth villages, sponsored drop-in centers for religious soldiers, absorbed new immigrants. It was, in short, much more than a political party.

There is a second problem with coming to voters every two or three years and telling them that it is their duty as chareidim to vote for United Torah Judaism. And that is: They are receiving an opposite message much of the time — a message that “You are not really chareidim. Atem lo mi’shelanu.” If children from English-speaking homes, for instance, cannot get their children into Bais Yaakov seminaries in one Jerusalem neighborhood, or the children of Chevron graduates are considered too “modern” in some other city, can we really be surprised if they are not eager to do their duty.

In recent years, we have witnessed the creation in a number of localities of splinter parties of those who identify themselves as chareidim. And in most of these cases, the major impetus for the creation of the new party was a sense of being rejected or treated as second class members of the community.

But one concern stands out above all others in connection to the declining fortunes of United Torah Judaism. No principle is more central to chareidi education than that of fealty to gedolei Torah. Loyalty to the gedolim remains as strong as ever today. That means, however, that if calls issued in the name of the gedolim are no longer as effective as in the past, then it must be that there is a perception among many that major decisions concerning the elections – e.g., whether to run as one party or two, who should be on the list – were not made in the way that the chareidi public has been educated to expect – i.e., with the gedolim sitting together and various askanim present only to the extent that they were needed to provide relevant information.

Hopefully, that perception, to the extent it exists, is completely wrong, but the fact that it exists at all, threatens much more than the success or failure of UTJ in these elections.

Rabbi Uri Maklev said last week that the issues facing the chareidi public are of such import that we cannot afford to waste one Knesset in acts of revenge for past wrongs. About that he is surely right. But if there is nevertheless an appreciable decline in UTJ’s strength in the Knesset, we cannot afford to waste the clear message that it is time to figure out why and correct what must be corrected.

This article appeared in the Yated Ne’eman on Wednesday, 12 February, 2009

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19 Responses

  1. cvmay says:

    The American and Israeli cultures differ regarding the value/fulfillment/satisfaction that one receives from being part of the working force. The system of full time learning till age 60 is a minute percentage of American Charedim (if at all).
    Every employment door is open to Charedim from the sciences, medical field, engineering, teaching, social sciences, music/art, computers to education in a full range of schooling options. In America the army is not part of the equation, and the availability of a college degree can be pursued through various pathways.

  2. Ori says:

    cvmay, given a choice between learning Torah and doing a regular job, why do you think US Charedim will choose differently from Israeli Charedim?

  3. cvmay says:

    In America the hareidim by and large work for a living because they know they are not going to get funded the way they have been here.

    THAT’S THE REASON THAT YOU THINK CHAREIDIM WORK in America, because of lack of funding????? You are barking up the wrong tree….

  4. dovid says:

    “The Governor ofthe Bank ofIsrael was at MIT back then.”

    As a student, professor?

  5. MYCROFT says:

    “With a PM who studied economics at MIT that isn’t going to work”
    Netanyahu-who was known as Nitai back then- was a student at the Sloan School of Management-he was not a grad student of Economics. The two departments shared a couple of floors in the same building. To novel fans the structure is part of chase scene in Robin Cooks Coma. The Governor ofthe Bank ofIsrael was at MIT back then.

  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I want to look at the problem from a technical point of view and also as a matter of principle. If, as Dovid Landesman points out, the hareidi parties are primarily a vehicle for delivering budgets for hareidi institutions, then we are going to have a progressively more difficult time as the amount of money decreases. Once the attitude of government was pro social welfare, just print more money. With a PM who studied economics at MIT that isn’t going to work. Now a balanced budget and a strong currency are of major importance. There is a fiscally conservative attitude that economic prosperity will trickle down if the system is basically healthy. That only works if people are playing by the rules of the game of economics. In America the hareidim by and large work for a living because they know they are not going to get funded the way they have been here. As the Israeli economy gets more Americanized, the government will prefer to crack heads to shut people up rather than give them money.
    The answer is for the hareidi community to become more fiscally responsible and balance Torah with derech eretz. In addition to a decrease in government funding, there is a sea change in private donations from abroad. The younger generation of Jewish money is giving a larger proportion to non-Jewish causes, and the RZ-MO public is giving to their own. The hareidi public will have to provide a larger percentage of its funding.
    Politically the question is whether the current political system can endure. The election results seem to indicate that change will have to happen. If there is electoral reform, independent small parties will have to merge into larger groups. If the cutoff percentage for representation is raised drastically, there will have to be a united religious list. If some form of constituency representation is adopted, the hareidi public will simply have to participate in the general political process and affect the grass-roots election results in individual districts. Such a sea change will be difficult for the entire country, not just the hareidim.
    Those are all technical problems. Since this post is getting long I’ll save the issues of malchus and kiddush hashem for later.

  7. Ori says:

    Zadok: Why is UTJ responsible for a school that is not their own, or a community board they don’t control?

    Ori: Are they instrumental in getting funding for that school?

  8. Ehud ben Gera says:

    Perhaps some charedim view themselves foremost as Jews, and have decided that they cannot afford to waste a Knesset on smaller issues than those threatening all of Eretz Yisrael. Jonathan has written frequenty on the error of viewing charedim as a monolithic whole – I respect his willingness to ask the important questions raised here, but I’m surprised by his surprise.

  9. zadok says:

    There is a second problem with coming to voters every two or three years and telling them that it is their duty as chareidim to vote for United Torah Judaism. And that is: They are receiving an opposite message much of the time — a message that “You are not really chareidim. Atem lo mi’shelanu.” If children from English-speaking homes, for instance, cannot get their children into Bais Yaakov seminaries in one Jerusalem neighborhood, or the children of Chevron graduates are considered too “modern” in some other city, can we really be surprised if they are not eager to do their duty.

    Why is UTJ responsible for a school that is not their own, or a community board they don’t control?

  10. Bob Miller says:

    If a party based on top-down-only communication and on non-participation of the rank and file except as voters wants to expand, it first needs self-examination. The first question for its leaders to ponder is “do we really want to expand or are we really comfortable with the current situation?”

  11. tzippi says:

    Re 7 and to those who wonder where the chareidim were: to strengthen the question of where were they, what was the point of the broad-spectrum pesak to vote even if sitting shiva, and of pictures of gedolim voted, etc.? If all that failed to move people, what will work?

  12. Nachum says:

    Rabbi Rosenblum doesn’t seem to realize that he’s contradicting himself. At the beginning of his article, he says that people are disenchanted with UTJ because they don’t feel involved. “Of course,” I thought to myself when I read that, “That’s what Da’as Torah is all about!”

    And by the end of his article, he says that people are disenchanted because the gedolim didn’t dictate their wishes as clearly or independently as they could have? Does this not amount to a huge contradiction in his piece?

  13. dovid landesman says:

    As usual, Reb Yonasan’s remarks are to the point and honest. However, he avoids [and I know why] examining one of the elementary reasons why UTJ [in any of its myriad configurations through the years]has failed to achieve representation that is proportionate to its real potential. This potential was made abundantly clear back in the days of R. Shlomo Zalman’s levayah where the incredible multitude of aveilim led everyone to question where all these “blacks” were on election day.
    Simply put, the Agudah leadership does not see being a part of the political process as its mission or of having any influence on that process as being important. I’ve often wondered what would happen if, nisei nissim, UTJ became the largest party in Israel. It would be totally incapable of governing!
    Yes, the tzibbur of potential voters feels ignored and taken for granted by a group of askanim who control the party. However, let us not forget that these askanim owe their positions to the support of the rabbanim who still control the party. It is these rabbanim who agreed to depose successful mayors in Beitar and Bnei Brak as well as permit the candidacy of a man who everyone knew could not win in Yerushalayim at the expense of an incumbent who probably would have been victorious. It is disingenuous to place the UTJ’s historical lack of success on the plate of the chavrei knesset rather than on the plate of those who allow them to continue.
    Years ago, Rav Elya Meir Bloch zt”l explained that the reason why the Agudah was never able to attract the support of the majority of shomrei Shabbos Jews in Europe was because “we have to wait for the Mizrachi to be for something to discover that which we oppose.” In his words. you can’t build a Torah movement based on negativity.
    Sadly, and I would love to be shown that I am wrong, the rabbanim who control UTJ see it as no more than a vehicle to insure the continued flow of government funding to the yeshiva olam and therefore appoint the askanim who have a proven track record in this field.
    There will never be a primary in UTJ for having one would mean that the selection of candidates would depend on the populace rather than on the rabbanim. The Knesset list will always reflect the various factions for the simple reason that the rabbanim and rebbes see the UTJ as an ATM card for access to the Israeli treasury and no more. Again, halevai that I am wrong, but I feel that the present leadership does not see the Agudah as being a real part of the Israeli political process.
    Years ago, I was part of the group representing the neighborhoods of Northern Yerushalayim in fighting the Ramot Road and the proposed stadium in Shuafat. We held countless meetings with Teddy Kollek and the Jerusalem City Council and could never shake the feeling that we were being sold out by our alledged representatives. Eventually we discovered that we had been. I will never forget the comment that Kollek made to one of the Agudah leaders. As we sat together and argued, Kollek turned to him and said: “You know, I might give in if I didn’t know that I could buy your silence for fifty shekels!”
    I thank Hashem that I was not in Eretz Yisrael on Election Day for I honestly doubt that I would have had the ability to place a gimmel into the ballot box as per the psak of the gedolim. Saved that nisayon, I can still pretend to have emunas chachamim.
    Dovid Landesman

  14. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    The election has passed and it is time to draw some conclusions. The only way to have influence in the political process is to be active in a party. In the case of UTJ that is not really possible because they don’t let you. The askanim under the cover of being the mouthpieces of the gedolim tell you to shut up and vote gimel. Shas may be the better choice among the hareidi parties. As for other parties which listen to their rabbanim, consider NU (Ichud Leumi). The other possibility is to get some hareidi candidates running in the Likud and get a piece of the action there. You never can tell. Some BT kibbutznikim might start an “Avodat Hashem” faction in the Labor Party and be one of the instruments of redemption, which we know happens be-hesech ha-daat, when we are not looking. The political system is so stacked here that any hope of change can only be by thinking outside the box. If NU gets into the coalition and Ketzaleh is appointed a minister, he will apparently resign his Knesset seat and allow American oleh Uri Bank to enter.
    The bottom line is that the electoral system is the world’s worst and must be changed. They’ve been talking about it for 60 years and have done nothing.

  15. L Oberstein says:

    Here is a “nightmare scenario”. If all the Israeli Arabs voted and all he chareidim voted, you could have a Knesset with 15 Arabs and 15 Chareidim. Why doesn’t this happen? The lack of identification with the State.
    On a similar note, if Fatah would be more democratic, they would let the Young Guard take over and the old timers would step aside. Then there would be a much more effective Palestinian Authority and they could defeat Hamas. So what stands between a two state solution, a divided Jerusalem and a major withdrawal from Golan and West bank is the unwillingness of the “Old Guard” to step aside for more competent leadership.
    For many Israelis, the above possibilities are enough to give one indigestion. They would pray, if they prayed, that apathy reign so that none of the above occurs.

  16. Ori says:

    L.Oberstein: .My point is that the Israelis don’t see it the way we do, to them it is parnassa and kovod , and to us, it is idealism and the good of hte country.

    Ori: Americans are at least ashamed when they loot the tax payer. Israelis see it as part of normal life. I’m not accusing Charedim specifically – it seems to be part of normal Israeli life.

  17. L.Oberstein says:

    This analysis is on the mark but it comes from an outsiderm,an American.I have read that very few American Olim are in important positions in any of the political parties, even in municipalicities where they are a significant number. So, it is not a chareidi, but an Israeli cultural factor. I think they look at us as naive outsiders who are not really savvy. If many of the Americans are not citizens and can’t vote, that is also a factor.My point is that the Israelis don’t see it the way we do, to them it is parnassa and kovod , and to us, it is idealism and the good of hte country. They laugh at us.

  18. cvmay says:

    ‘The early Zeirei Agudath Israel’
    It was mainly “Poali Agudath” who were involved in the building that you stated.

    ‘No one asks them for their opinions? No one takes polls of their major concerns? They do not participate in primaries to determine whom they think would best represent them in the Knesset or local municipalities’

    That would be an innovative and creative system. Most Israeli parties do hold some type of primary selections and voting system. Brainstorming what are the core issues affecting families, individuals and communities is a helpful indicator to assess overall needs. Can be done through telephone calls, questioneers, pollsters — BUT THE QUESTION REMAINS, “IS THE CHAREIDI COMMUNITY READY AND WILLING TO GO THIS ROUTE?

  19. ilana says:

    There were remarkably few posters and banners for ANY party or candidate in any of the neighbourhoods of Yerushalayim I passed through. On election day, we went through Machane Yehuda, downtown, Baka, and Talpiot – none of them chareidi strongholds. Nothing (except a few leftover banners from the mayoral race…) A week earlier I was in Kiryat Yovel – again, nothing. So I’m not convinced this is a chareidi phenomenon. It’s still pretty disturbing, though.

    I did see Gimmel banners on a few buildings near the entrance to Har Nof. But elsewhere in the neighbourhood there were many more anti-gimmel posters and flyers, with a message NOT to vote for gimmel this time because of various complaints, especially what happened during the municipal elections.

    Why no mention of Shas in this post? They are also a chareidi party.