Losing the Secular Public

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No Torah Jew finds it difficult to justify Israeli government expenditures on Torah education. For us, it is clear that without the citadels of Torah that all the efforts of the IDF to protect us from the dangers all around will be for naught.

But obviously few secular Israelis share that view. From their perspective, the most notable aspect of Torah education – at least that of males – is that it leaves many of its recipients lacking basic numeracy and unable to enter the workforce at anything above menial jobs, which will, in any event, prove insufficient to feed their large families. At most, some will acknowledge that the intellectual acuity attained in Talmud study makes it possible for many chareidi men to acquire later some of the missing skills and knowledge.

In Yoder vs. Wisconsin, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Free Exercise Clause of the United States constitution prevented Wisconsin from enforcing its mandatory school attendance laws against religious groups who opposed education for those over 14. In reaching that conclusion, the Court noted that the religious groups in question are, in general, law-abiding citizens almost never found on the welfare roles. Few secular Israelis look at the chareidi community in the same way.

Should we be concerned about the view of the secular public? Or is it enough for us to rely on the power of the chareidi parties in the governing coalition to preserve some level of government funding of chareidi educational institutions?

Perhaps. But there is no guarantee that the major parties will not unite one day for the express purpose of changing Israel’s electoral system to greatly reduce the power of the chareidi parties. We have already seen, in recent years, government coalitions in which the chareidi influence was minimal. In addition, the Supreme Court, not the Knesset, might take upon itself the question of state funding of chareidi education.

AT THE VERY LEAST, then, a case can be made for the development of arguments designed to persuade secular Israelis if not of the value of a Torah education, at least of the justice of funding the chareidi educational system. The most likely form for such an argument goes under the rubric of “multiculturalism” – the idea that states should respect the various subcultures that make up the citizenry. (A number of Western democracies do fund religious education albeit not without strict curricular requirements.)

Multiculturalism has the advantage that it holds sway over much of the Left elites. That is why so many feminists are willing to look the other way to abuses of women in Muslim societies around the world.

At the same time, some of the negative consequences of multiculturalism have begun to be noticed. Many blame multiculturalism for fostering the emergence of cultural minorities in the West who are deeply hostile to their host country, while enjoying many benefits from those host countries. A Moslem takeover of a number of Western European countries no longer seems a far-fetched nightmare scenario. Every Western European country today has a significant and fast-growing Moslem minority that does not feel any allegiance to the laws of its host country, insists on the enforcement of its cultural norms, even in the face of the governing law, in areas where Muslims constitute a majority, and which contains cells of those violently opposed to the civil authorities and prepared to resort to terror against them.

If Torah Jews are perceived by secular Israelis the way that Western Europeans perceive their Moslem enclaves, then any argument based on the multicultural ideal is bound to fail. Unfortunately, such comparisons are becoming more and more frequent, in large part triggered by the recent rioting in Meah Shearim and attempts to aggressively enforce chareidi cultural norms in mixed neighborhoods.

Ma’ariv’s Ben-Dror Yemini entitles a recent oped, “The Taliban is Here.” His piece is, inter alia, an attack on the multiculturalism, which in his view has allowed the most extreme elements in Moslem societies, whether in the Gaza Strip or Western Europe, to impose their will on those societies. And the same, he writes, is taking place today among the chareidim. He does not claim that the majority of chareidim support the rioting, only that the violent minority of chareidim will dictate to the majority and from there to the larger society. He concludes with a call on Israel’s political leaders to act quickly to curtail chareidi autonomy, including our educational system.

I have known Yemini for more than a decade, and worked closely with him for many years on the issue of the Israeli Supreme Court. As op-ed editor at Maariv, he brought me to the oped page, in large part to provide a chareidi voice. Chareidim has never been a particular subject of his, and in all the time we worked together, I never detected the slightest hint of animus towards chareidim. But clearly the recent rioting and news reports of the aggression of certain groups in Ramat Beit Shemesh have traumatized him.

In a similar vein, the Jerusalem Post’s Evelyn Gordon recently urged Mayor Nir Barkat to employ collective punishment against Meah Shearim, until the damage is paid for and the riots stop. She employed exactly the same justification used for cutting off electricity to Gaza: If the majority opposes the terrorists, then they must be forced to act to stop them; and if they support them, we have no reason to continue facilitating their attacks on us.

Gordon is herself Orthodox, and has a number of close chareidi friends. As a columnist, she is the voice of calm, patiently building her case block-by-block. That she is now drawing parallels between chareidim and Gaza terrorists is an ominous indication of just how much damage the recent riots have caused to our image.

I cite Gordon and Yemini not in agreement — the rioters constitute a tiny fraction of chareidi society — but as sociological data of how damaging the riots have been to our image with the secular public.

In the midst of the Viet Cong’s 1968 Tet Offensive, CBS’s respected anchorman Walter Cronkite, uncharacteristically interjected into his nightly broadcast his opinion that “victory” in Vietnam was impossible. President Lyndon Johnson, watching in the White House, commented, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the nation.”

If we’ve lost Yemini and Gordon, we’ve gone a long way towards losing any chance of convincing secular Israelis of the justice of our position.

Mishpacha Magazine, 19 August 2009

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13 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    If you can read Hebrew, you can read another column by Yemini. I think it gives a better explanation of his problem with Charedim.

    The demographics show Israel is going to be majority Charedi/Arab in the next generation or the one after that. Yemini is afraid such an Israel would either not be viable, or become a poor 3rd world country.

  2. dr. bill says:

    lu yehi, it was just a fringe group. my opinions are not based on the actions of lunatics in Beit Shemesh or leidegayer protesting parking lots. OTOH those who signed statements about the mother and endorsed the accusations against the hospital are hardly part of the fringe.

  3. Ori says:

    Bob Miller: Financial pressure on this type of decision-making is overrated. I’m looking for something else.

    Ori: I assume these communities have their own Halachic authorities. You need to convince these authorities, or the ones they listen to, that this is serious and they have to deal with it.

    I don’t think this can be done remotely. The only way it could be done is by hurting some kind of critical interest. This will not happen unless either the leaders are afraid of losing the secular public, or they are suffering the consequences of losing it.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding the comment by Ori — August 25, 2009 @ 11:56 am:

    Financial pressure on this type of decision-making is overrated. I’m looking for something else.

  5. Ori says:

    Bob Miller: On the other hand, if outsiders such as we in America can have some positive influence on these leaders, what is that and how can we make it happen? We’re well past the time when merely identifying or detailing a problem in an article is enough.

    Ori: Are these communities self-financing? If not, how much of their money comes from donations from the US? Unfortunately, the leaders are probably pretty well insulated. It would be their followers who will suffer from the lack of donations. But when they see their followers going without, and thinking if they should follow somebody else instead, the leaders will likely rethink their position.

    It’s sad that the mostly innocent followers will suffer. But it would even sadder if the secular Israelis decided enough is enough and started fighting against Charedi autonomy. They wouldn’t make distinctions between different Charedi groups.

  6. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    While I’m sure the senior Ironheart has many incisive things to say, this particular one does not make the grade. One of the few areas, outside of Torah scholarshp, in which chareidim have uncontestably distinguished themselves is in chesed activities directed to the entire Israeli population. Almost every major volunteer or medical organization in Israel was founded by chareidim.

  7. mycroft says:

    Probably the worst thing that ever happened to Yahadus is religious parties-similar disasters have happened to others when they get political power. In the UK it is not the Anglican Church which is growing and respected. In Latin America it is not the Catholic Church that is respected. In Israel since 1948 the number of Mizrachi and Agudah members of Knesset have remained relatively stable.

  8. Garnel Ironheart says:

    As my father always says, if the Chareidi public would spend half the energy they put into convincing others of their religious superiority into gemilus chesed towards the secular population, they would not have to worry about negative PR anymore.

  9. Bob Miller says:

    Are those who lead any communities that encourage—or intentionally fail to control—their youthful rioters responsive to any outside advice whatsoever? If not, any dissatisfaction we express about these riots will have little or no impact.

    On the other hand, if outsiders such as we in America can have some positive influence on these leaders, what is that and how can we make it happen? We’re well past the time when merely identifying or detailing a problem in an article is enough.

  10. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    R. Yonasan, if the last sentence of your article is true, then what are the options for the chareidi public? I think one possible move would be for the gedolim to come to an arrangement with the government to have “sherut leumi mishpachti” for the chareidi community. Single chareidim of both sexes would have deferments from national service and would then serve as families by living for 3-5 years in a development area doing a certain number of hours of community service a week. It could be social work, kiruv work, tutoring kids for bar mitzvah, working with problem kids. The general community has to see that chareidi society is committed to doing something for Klal Yisrael in a way that is understandable to them. Those who do Nachal Chareidi or Sherut Leumi can continue to do them, but there has to be an option for guys to be able to stay in kollel and for girls to go straight from their parental home to marriage and still be on record as doing something for the greater society. If every person in the chareidi camp who does something good for the general society is considered a man-bites-dog story, we lose. The chareidi camp has to change its PR image without sacrificing ideals.

  11. David says:

    “In Yoder vs. Wisconsin, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Free Exercise Clause of the United States constitution prevented Wisconsin from enforcing its mandatory school attendance laws against religious groups who opposed education for those over 14. In reaching that conclusion, the Court noted that the religious groups in question are, in general, law-abiding citizens almost never found on the welfare roles. Few secular Israelis look at the chareidi community in the same way.”

    Of course secular Israelis won’t see the charedim the same way. The charedim aren’t asking to be excused from schooling past the age of 14, but rather that the tax payers support their privately-run institutions, many (most?) of which do not teach allegiance to the state, and most of which do not prepare the students for a career. This is a terrible comparison.

  12. Ori says:

    In reaching that conclusion, the Court noted that the religious groups in question are, in general, law-abiding citizens almost never found on the welfare roles. Few secular Israelis look at the chareidi community in the same way.

    Are Israeli Charedim almost never found on the welfare rolls? Freedom implies an ability to deal with the consequences of your choices. Being on welfare means you cannot or will not deal with the economic consequences of your choices.

    He does not claim that the majority of chareidim support the rioting, only that the violent minority of chareidim will dictate to the majority and from there to the larger society. He concludes with a call on Israel’s political leaders to act quickly to curtail chareidi autonomy, including our educational system.

    If you’re going to be autonomous, you need to police your own people. Otherwise, somebody will have to police them for you and you won’t like it.

  13. joel rich says:

    If we’ve lost Yemini and Gordon, we’ve gone a long way towards losing any chance of convincing secular Israelis of the justice of our position.
    ==================================
    Please expand on this a bit – is it that the position is just and it’s the pr tactics that need rethinking, or does the position itself need rethinking?
    KT