Reality Check: A bête noire and a hero

Shas MK Haim Amsalem has become a persona non grata within his party, but for the non-haredi public he has simply expressed what many already believe.

November 29, 2010 06:56
4 minute read.
Jeff Barak

Jeff Barak 58. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Sometimes it’s best to hear it directly from the horse’s mouth.

“Israeli society agreed back in [David] Ben-Gurion’s time to the ‘Torah is his faith’ exemption from IDF service for 400 Torah scholars.

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They [secular Israelis] never thought or dreamed the numbers would reach today’s enormous quantity that’s gone beyond all proportions.

“They say we have become a burden on them? The truth is we have become a burden on ourselves. We’ve abandoned the field and let them disparage us, and call our students ignoramuses.

We’ve made them hate the Torah.”

Yair Lapid, the great white hope of the secular public, couldn’t have put it better.

Nor could Lapid have improved upon Shas MK Haim Amsalem’s attack on the modern haredi way of life which is committing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to live a life of poverty.

“Study in a kollel is not a goal, but merely a means of training the next generation of rabbis and scholars.

Whoever isn’t built for this, it’s a waste of his time. Earning a living for himself and his family is more important than anything else.”

Since making these remarks in an interview with Ma’ariv earlier this month, in which he also called on haredi schools to teach the core curriculum so as to enable their students to enter the labor market after IDF service, Amsalem has become the bête noire of Shas. At the same time, he has suddenly emerged as the hero of the non-haredi public, looking for some distraction from the troubling sexual harassment allegations surrounding one the country’s most senior police officials and the despicable character attacks on the woman brave enough to file charges.

But Amsalem’s revolt is no flash in the pan. It’s been simmering for quite some time, particularly since the party leadership’s failure to tackle the issue of haredi racism highlighted by the segregation of Sephardi students at a girls’ school in Immanuel. He further raised the hackles of the haredi establishment a year ago, when he proposed easing the requirements for conversion of soldiers in the IDF who have a Jewish father.

THE SHAS leadership’s totally disproportionate attack on Amsalem at the end of last week, calling “upon everyone for whom the Torah is dear to keep a bow shot’s distance from this man and from his strange and heretical opinions,” reveals just how painful a nerve the renegade MK has touched. At its heart, Amsalem’s criticism of the party centers on the fact that Shas has abandoned the traditional, tolerant path of Sephardi Judaism and blindly imitated the ways of the more extreme Lithuanian- Ashkenazi tradition.

Indeed, the article in Shas’s Yom Leyom which compared Amsalem to the biblical enemy Amalek, “who the Torah orders us to wipe out his memory,” and which referred to Amsalem by the loaded term “that man” (the talmudic way of referring to Jesus) is straight out of the Lithuanian yeshiva stylebook, as are the placards in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak accusing Amsalem of “desecrating heaven’s name.”

And the fact that the Knesset’s master of arms has ordered a bodyguard to accompany Amsalem at all times in response to the placards and newspaper articles shows they shouldn’t just be regarded as a literary curiosity but reflect a real and serious threat to someone prepared to challenge a Shas establishment that, while condemning its followers to a life of poverty, has grown fat and rich through its proximity to the levers of power.

AMSALEM’S CRITICISM of Shas is not just an internal party matter; the direction Shas takes influences the wider society. Three decades ago, before the establishment of Shas, 21 percent of haredi men did not work.

Since then, that number has jumped to a staggering 65 percent. Such a figure is economically unsustainable, not just for the haredi community, but for the country as a whole.

Neither can the country afford to continue kowtowing to the narrowest of narrow haredi perspectives on other matters affecting the nation’s social fabric. Just last week, the coalition shamefully voted down a private members’ bill in the Knesset that aimed to reduce the number of young women dodging the draft by claiming to be religious.

The bill was hardly an attack on the haredi way of life; it simply said that any young woman seeking a draft exemption on the grounds of religion would have to declare she had studied in an officially recognized Orthodox educational institution and provide written proof from that school or college. However, for reasons best known to itself, Shas pressured the coalition into opposing this measure.

While the nixing of this bill won’t have any great effect either which way – last year, the IDF only uncovered 570 young women who had falsely declared they followed a religious way of life to avoid the draft – it is symptomatic of Shas’s influence on the government.

And this influence, as Amsalem has so clearly and bravely stated, is bad for the country and disastrous for Shas’s own voters.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.

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