The Failure of Chareidi Advocacy

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Given the irrational nature of much of the hatred directed at the chareidi community, it would be tempting to say that we bear no part of the responsibility for the state of frayed relations with the rest of Israeli society. Everyone will grant that public relations acumen is not the chareidi community’s most outstanding quality, but we prefer to believe that it would make no difference if we were better at presenting ourselves to the broader society.

While it is certainly true that the animus is far deeper than a public relations failure, and would not be cured by the best public relations apparatus in the world, anymore than would Israel’s low international image, it is too easy to say that we, as a community, could do nothing to improve the current situation.

Of the many public relations failures of the community none looms larger than the widespread perception that chareidim are indifferent to the fate of their fellow Jews and feel no connection to them. That is precisely how most secular Israelis view the refusal of chareidi community to consider any form of military or national service for yeshiva bochurim.

The dominant perception of the chareidi community is not only wrong, but demonstrably so. And we should be much more active in demonstrating that fact. Chareidim founded many of Israel’s largest volunteer organizations, which serve the entire population: Yad Sarah, the country’s biggest volunteer organization; Ezer M’Tzion, which maintains, inter alia, the largest Jewish blood registry in the world; Ezra L’Marpeh, a world class medical referral service, directed by Rabbi Avraham Elimelech Firer; Zaka; Chesed v’Zimra, founded by the grandson of Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, shlita, which brings a little bit of music and joy to those confined to mental instititutions; and a host of organizations serving childhood cancer patients and their families.

As the late Jerusalem Post columnist Sam Orbaum once wrote, “the charity, social consciousness, good deeds, communal welfare, and human kindness [of the chareidim] may be unparalleled among the communities of this country.” He was not just referring to intra-communal chesed. Orbaum’ paean was triggered by a group of yeshiva students who hurried to donate blood when they learned of his need and a chareidi health fund clerk who rushed vials of Orbaum’s blood after hours to a downtown laboratory to expedite the receipt of vital test results.

Nor is the chareidi involvement confined to chesed activities. Tens of millions of dollars are spent annually on efforts to enrich the Jewish knowledge of Israelis who would describe themselves as secular or traditional. The SHUVU school system serving children from Russian-speaking homes is one example; the Hidabrut television programming is another. There are dozens of organizations reaching out to different segments of the Israeli population: those in pre-army mechinot, university students, young girls and boys likely to find themselves victimized in some way. If there were no feelings of a common bond, there would be no reason to reach out.

SO FAR WE HAVE BEEN DISCUSSING “sins” of omission – the failure to sufficiently publicize information that would create a more favorable image. But there are other instances where we are sending the wrong message. A recent staple of Israeli journalism has been to send crews to Bnei Brak to interview residents on the Tal Law. They have invariably returned with full reels of chareidim expressing their contempt for the army.

That is wrong tactically, and more fundamentally, it is a failure of hakaros hatov. As Rav Hutner points out, few failures in middos are more self-destructive than a failure of hakaros hatov. Perhaps the habit of speaking as if the IDF has nothing to do with Israel’s security and chareidi Torah learning would alone suffice derives from a fear that glorifying the IDF will make army service more tempting for yeshiva students.

But if we want the secular population to respect our Torah learning, we must also learn to honor the tremendous mesiras nefesh (sacrifice)of so many young, and not so young Israelis, in defense of the six million Jews living in Israel, and that of parents who send their children into the IDF, only to spend the next three years experiencing a moment of apprehension every time the phone rings.

In truth, it is asking more from the secular population to respect the contribution of our Torah learning to the defense of the state than it is asking us to appreciate the sacrifices made by soldiers on our behalf. The Divine protection that results from limud HaTorah cannot be empirically demonstrated to those who as yet lack belief.

But we know from the Torah itself that an army is also a necessary component of national defense. At the beginning of parashas Mattos, we read three times “a thousand from each Tribe.” The Midrash explains the threefold repetition as referring to three different groups of one thousand from each Tribe – one thousand to fight in the battles, one thousand to form the rearguard and guard the supplies, and one thousand to pray. Each group was an indispensable part of a successful Jewish army.

A third aspect of a strategy to change our public image would be to more forcefully separate ourselves from those who resort to violence, and to make clear to the Israeli public why we reject their actions on Torah grounds. The zealots l’mineihem do us a double damage. As Rav Shach said many years ago, any time one elevates any aspect of the Torah above all others, he will inevitably distort the Torah. And we see where the anti-Zionism of the Sikrikim leads them to. They have lost all concern with the image of Torah in the world. And their apparent obliviousness to the impact of their actions reflects a non-Torah belief that they alone can bring Mashiach and Mashiach will come to them alone. They have lost the connection to Klal Yisrael described above, which characterizes much of the chareidi community.

Second, the zealots add to the terror with which the general Israeli society views the growing chareidi population. For they convey the message that there can be no shared public space: Wherever we are the majority, we will seek to impose our norms at every opportunity. If we do not want the general population to view us with fear, and as a consequence act to limit the growth of the chareidi population, we must make clear our rejection of violence and our awareness that there are rules of mutual accommodation, without which a diverse population cannot exist without constant strife.

As we look forward to an uncertain future, our focus must, of course, be on making ourselves worthy of Hashem’s continued sustenance to the citadels of Torah – through our limud HaTorah, tefillos, and ma’asim tovim. But, at the same time, we should not lose sight of the practical steps that constitute our hishtadlus.

This article first appeared in Yated Ne’eman.

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11 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    Dr. E used the phrase “skilled to put forth rational ideas”. This reminds me of how communications from some Chareidi spokesmen to their own constituencies are put in the most emotionally raw terms possible, even when there is more than enough to sustain their arguments through reason. Do they believe we’re too childlike to accept any other, non-brute-force, approach? Are they afraid we’ll draw different conclusions from the data?

  2. Dr. E says:

    One significant challenge to Chareidi advocacy and image management is the Dati Leumi community. From the vantage point of the average secular Israeli, they see Religious Zionists as possessing the same foreign religious ideals in addition to studying archaic texts. But, as the readership of CC certainly knows, the texts studied by the DL community include the same Bava Basra and Ketzos that are learned in Ponovizh. Yet at that same time, the secular Israeli knows that the Dati Leumi/Hesder community serves in the IDF and is willing to put their lives on the line and send their sons into battle. They even notice a high percentage of DL Officers in the IDF. They also are aware that the DL community contributes to the economic and academic infrastructure of Israel. People I know in the DL camp view the IDF as a responsibility to Klal Yisrael, rather than an entitlement towards an exemption from contributing in kind. Therefore, (even if you discount inflated Chareidi Yeshiva rosters and those with time on their hands to attend the protest of the week) for the Chareidi community to continue to perpetuate that they have the monopoly on Torah study as the basis for a collective automatic exemption is just not cutting it anymore. Not just vis a vis secular Israelis, but with Yeshiva educated people in America as well.

    That being said, of course, there are many grass roots Chessed organizations to be proud of. But the Chareidi organizational infrastructure is poorly defined and organized. As such, it is difficult to attribute these organizations to Chareidi ideology or to its leadership.

    Finally, the failure of Chareidi advocacy is largely a function of fewer and fewer ambassadors who can articulate in writing and through social media these positive stories. Besides Jonathan Rosenbloom and Avi Shafran who communicate for the most part with an Anglo Chareidi environment, with probably limited impact in Israel, who else is out there? This is a result of two generations of not cultivating those who are linguistically trained and skilled to put forth rational ideas, whether we agree with them or not. Given that potential advocates must be vetted and are censored by Askanim, there are no longer many advocates with much credibility.

  3. L. Oberstein says:

    I agree with everything you write in this particular column. The mentality of circling the wagons and looking upon the State as the enemy is ingrained in much of chareidi culture. How is it humanly possible that ultra orthodox youth could deface Yad Vashem with Nazi graffiti, even claiming that the boys are mentally ill. We have to do a deep cheshbon hanefesh and find a way to live and let live in Israel and accept responsibility to for the State. If the orthodox numbers indicate we will take over, we have to change the way we think. I wonder if real Israelis, not Western immigrants, think you make sense or that you are just a naive American. I say this because I showed a similar column by rabbiu Berel Wein to your former Rosh Hayeshiva, now in Baltimore, and his comment was that American rabbis have no understanding of how Israel really works.

  4. CJ Srullowitz says:

    Though it is true that the contributions of the Chareidim to the Jewish nation of Israel are underreported and underappreciated, Jonathan Rosenblum offers up a deft sleight-of-hand by suggesting that the problem of the Chareidim is one of public relations.

    Contempt for the army is not simply “a failure of hakaros hatov.” A failure of hakaras hatov occurs when one does not significantly appreciate the benefit he is receiving. It is bad enough to minimize the importance of an army and its soldiers; disdaining that mission is something far worse.

    The average secular Israeli may underestimate the average Chareidi’s love for Jews and the Jewish people, but does not underestimate his love – or lack of such – for the medinah. Coupled with an insistence on financial support from public funds, the Chareidi stance is understandably distasteful to the Chiloni. Frum Jews may have a different view, but the other side’s – leshitosom – is perfectly rational.

  5. Crazy Kanoiy says:

    We have the same problem here in America. The Agudah claims to represent the Chareidi viewpoint, yet it has no Website or Online presence. An Agudah website could have policy and position papers on it. It could print the editorials and views of the Chareid world. It could serve as a source for the Media or politicians seeking the Chareidi view on any given issue. Instead there is no website so the best we can hope for is that the media will accurately quote a responsible Chareidi spokesperson and not edit out the essence of his comments.

  6. Jerusalem says:

    Moreover, according to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel, 48% of primary school pupils in 2008 were chareidi or Arabs. In 30 years (2040), 78% of Israel’s primary school students will be chareidi or Arabs.

    About one out of three Jewish babies, in 2012, was born into the chareidi community.

    Chareidim are no longer a small and fairly insignificant minority. They have to get rid of the victim complex of the persecuted minority. It is holding them back. Chareidim already number 800,000 (10%) and rising rapidly. In a generation, 33% of Jews (in Israel) will be chareidi…and 25% of Israeli citizens will be chareidi (including Arabs). These are not projections. The children are already born. Take a look in the maternity wards and classrooms, you’ll quickly see that Israel’s future is chareidi, Arab (and Bedouin) with some national-religious mixed in, and an ever-diminishing chiloni (secular) presence.

    When chareidim are 20%…30%…and eventually a majority…how can Israel survive? If the chareidim don’t get their act together, Israel will collapse from within…and the Arabs and Muslims will march in and annihilate all the Jews. No one will save the Jews. Not Europe. Not America. Not the UN.

    Chareidim have this victim complex of the persecuted minority. They have to get rid of it. It is holding them back. They are incapable of handling any criticism, even when it comes from within their camp. They think everyone is out to get them. The chilonim want to destroy them. They’re in a war (to preserve…) Circle the wagons…

    I just found an amazing statistic: In 1979, just 20.9% of chareidi men did not work, compared to 65% today.

  7. DF says:

    There is what to criticize in this article. The biggest error is the concession that army service is important, but that it is “equal” to learning. JR cites the Torah in Mattos. But what indeed does the Torah say there? It says (31:27) that the spoils were divided and shared among the soldiers, and then among the people. That means the soldiers, who only numbered 12,000, got a much bigger share than the rest of the people, as one would expect. Likewise, the verses tell us they were taxed only one out of 500, while the people were taxed one out of 50. So – even if one accepts the anachronistic midrash at face value that the people were engaged in prayer, and that this is equivalent to kollel – the sivision between the soldiers and the learners were hardly equal. Because, as all but the most narrow-minded knows intuitively, they are not nearly the same

    But it would be churlish to focus on this. In the current state of things, if one can get charedi leadership to publicly give hakaras hatov to the soldiers, in ANY degree, we could say dayenu, call it a day, and go home.

  8. YS says:

    Unfortunately, this is the extent of the introspection that we can expect from a Charedi moderate. The problem is either PR or it’s just irrational hatred, sort of like plain old anti-semitism. It has very little to do with the plain fact that Charedim feel that they don’t need to risk their lives for the State the way the rest of us do or pay for the street lights and paved roads like the rest of us do.

    In comparing Israel’s low international standing to the way Charedim are perceived by non-Charedi Israelis, Rabbi Rosenblum sinks to a new nadir. Israel is a victim of anti-semitism and the political and cultural immaturity of the hundreds of millions of Arabs by whom it is surrounded. Charedim are victims of their decision to treat the State of Israel as Czarist Russia.

    Rabbi Rosenblum greatly exaggerates the extent to which Charedim care about the rest of the citizens of Israel. In a general ‘Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze LaZe’ way, this might be true. In practice and on a day-to-day basis, most Charedim care little for what happens to whomever they don’t view as part of the Shearit HaPleita.

    As to the purported Charedi contributions to Israeli society listed by Rabbi Rosenblum, the vast majority of those are either geared towards helping mainly Charedim or were at least conceived as such and happen to help other groups because of the fundraising benefits involved or because there’s no real way to limit them to Chareidim.

  9. BR says:

    I am sorry. I grew up in the Chareidi community and continue to live in it (in the US) although I went to college and work in Corporate America. There are people within the community that respond with chesed and caring for INDIVIDUALS that are outside of the Chareidi community. However, the Chareidi community does NOT care about the non Chareidi COMMUNITY.

    Chareidim can go to the MO community and publicly raise money for Chareidi institutions, but an MO would not be able to publicly raise money in a Chareidi community.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    Chareidim indeed do enormous chesed for all Jews. To many Israelis though, the party officials are the public face of our communities. If they’ve lost or never gained a reputation for civic-mindedness, that would account for much of the bad PR. Are the chareidi parties, or the religious parties in general, capable of running the Israeli government properly if they ever got the chance? Are these parties capable of working together productively, even among themselves, much less with non-religious parties? Do they have the needed domestic and foreign policy grasp and skills, except in the very limited area of routing government aid to the party faithful or segments thereof?

    If violence by people dressed as chareidim is going on that the official chareidi leadership can’t snuff out, does that mean that some leaders:

    1. Sympathize with or facilitate the violent actions they claim to oppose?

    2. Aren’t adept at leading communities that harbor the violent? (some effective ostracism for violence would go a long way)

    3. Oppose the State so much that they won’t cooperate enough with police and other security officials?

    Leadership vs. followership is kind of like chicken vs. egg. In many communities, the process of creating responsible, effective leadership and cooperation has to somehow be jump-started.

  11. joel rich says:

    The dominant perception of the chareidi community is not only wrong, but demonstrably so. And we should be much more active in demonstrating that fact. Chareidim founded many of Israel’s largest volunteer organizations,
    ———————————————
    Perhaps the nonchareidi community is well aware of the Talmud’s position “Gadol hametzuveh voseh” (greater is the one who is commanded and does than one who volunteers and does)
    KT