Media Matters: Blacking out Zionism?

Secular Israelis are rapidly becoming a minority.

By RICKY BEN-DAVID
May 7, 2010 15:47
Haredim

haredi311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

It’s been a bad year for haredim in the press. From the violent weekly clashes with police forces last summer over the opening of the Carta parking lot in Jerusalem on the Sabbath, to the (also violent) protests in the fall over the Intel plant’s activity on the day of rest, the various cases of severe child abuse, the segregated bus lines, the bodies stolen from morgues or hidden from authorities for fear of autopsies, the intransigence over conversion, the Barzilai Medical Center fiasco, the growing controversy over draft-dodging and the Tal Law, the flag-burning on Independence Day and the latest affair at a girls’ school in Emmanuel where students were separated across the Ashkenazi/Sephardi line at the Ashkenazi parents’ behest – it seems the haredim have not left the headlines for a moment.

And with attention comes criticism, which has heated up over the past few weeks – starting with a scathing attack from journalist and talk show host Gabi Gazit on Radio Lelo Hafsaka [Nonstop Radio] who, in a monologue that lasted for several uninterrupted minutes, called haredim “worms,” “leeches” and “parasites of the worst kind.”

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Gazit’s tirade came in response to clashes on Independence Day between police and members of the small anti-Zionist sect Netorei Karta, which involved the burning of Israeli flags, a scene not uncommon in Teheran, Beirut, Damascus and even Cairo, but new to Jerusalem.

Following that act closely was Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai who made headlines earlier this week when, at an education conference in the city, he said that the country was supporting an entire sector of “aloof and ignorant people who are growing at an alarming rate and draining our social and economic strength.”

He even took it up a notch by calling for a “rebellion to restore to Israeli democracy the right and ability to intervene and determine issues which are important to its survival, issues like education.”

Huldai was referring to the state of government-funded independent school systems where haredi children are not taught subjects such as English, math and science, which are part of the core curriculum in the state schools – and of every other Western country’s education system. These children’s education largely focuses on Talmud, Mishna and Bible studies, all on the state’s dime.

Both Huldai and Gazit came under attack from haredi politicians and journalists, who called them racists and hate-mongers and accused them of playing needlessly on people’s fears.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) further accused Huldai of trying to build up a national political career on this divisive issue – an assertion Nahum Barnea of Yediot Aharonot agrees with.

In a column on Monday, Barnea said that “the government in its current format cannot address this problem. And when the government is paralyzed there is a vacuum and this vacuum is filled by aspiring politicians like Ron Huldai.”

THE TEL Aviv mayor’s statements launched a flurry of debates, columns, news segments and features over the past week.

One of the more remarkable pieces that seemed to attempt to drive the point home on the education crisis was a Channel 10 item on Monday night featuring an interview with an unnamed eighth grade teacher in the haredi school system, whose voice was masked and face was blurred.

“Math? There is no need to go past fourth grade level because it is not needed,” he said. “Civics? What does that teach them? To pay their parking tickets?”

“You have to understand, the goal here is to get into a good yeshiva, not into hi-tech,” he went on. When the reporter asked him about teaching core subjects like English and science, the teacher dismissed her saying, “Secular studies teach people to sin.”

Yediot Aharonot columnist and host of Channel 2’s Ulpan Shishi Yair Lapid was wholly unimpressed with this trend. In his weekly column on Friday, Lapid wrote “a letter to my haredi friend,” in which he lamented the sad state of the country’s future: “Our children are heading for a world where they won’t be able to coexist.”

Lapid went on: “What am I asking of you after all? I want your children to study some more things. I give up on anything that you suspect of being tainted by our values (are they truly so terrible?), so let’s stay with the basics: Hebrew, English, math and computers. Merely the fundamental tool kit that enables one to become a productive citizen who supports himself one of these days.”

THE FACTS and figures of the growing problem were recently laid out in great detail in the Taub Center’s “State of the Nation Report – Society, Economy and Policy 2009,” compiled by Professor Dan Ben-David. It has been the basis of many opinion columns since it was released last month. According to the report, 50 years ago, 61 percent of students were enrolled in the state school system, while 15% of primary school pupils were either haredi or Arab. By 1980, haredi and Arab children made up 26% of school pupils – pupils who are of working age today and whose unemployment numbers are 65% for haredi adults, most of whom study full time and live on welfare, and 27% for Israeli Arabs. In 2040, the report warns, if these trends continue, only 14% of pupils will be in the non-religious state system, which would then spell ruin for the economy, not to mention the social and security implications of such trends, as most haredim and Arabs do not serve in the army.

The implications of Ben-David’s findings – that a growing sector in society will be unequipped to participate in the job market – are remarkable, as illustrated in an interview with editor-in chief David Horovitz last month (“Downhill, by the numbers,” April 9). As haredim and Arabs have higher birthrates, the burden on the rest of society is clearly significant; the tax burden will only increase if the status quo continues.

One of Ben-David’s key solutions is radical educational reform; a difficult endeavor to undertake given the massive divide between approaches to education in the haredi and non-haredi world.

On the Channel 1 TV show Press Conference Wednesday night hosted by Menashe Raz, haredi guests Rabbi Yisrael Eichler, a journalist and former MK (United Torah Judaism), and Dudi Zilbershlag, a journalist and publisher, were invited to respond to the public outcry against haredim.

“Our country is only moving forward, even with the growth in our sector. What does that tell you?” said Eichler.

Zilbershlag agreed, adding, “The haredim are the ones building this country.”

Neither wanted to bother with the findings of social studies, the Taub Center’s or any other, dismissing them carelessly with: “All these anti-haredi studies are funded by US Reform Jews who have declared war on Judaism.”

THE REPEATED public criticism of haredim and the panic over their growing numbers and influence is a perennial issue in this country. It resurfaces every few months and takes center stage when we set aside the Iranian threat or the Palestinians for a moment.

So is the current attention just another part of this cycle?

Mati Wagner, former religious affairs correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and current editorial page editor, says that might have something to do with it: “This is Remembrance/Independence Day time of year which tends to increase Zionist unity, while placing more scrutiny on haredim who do not buy in to the Zionist narrative. The Arab and haredi populations are both either indifferent or downright antipathetic to Zionism. They have the highest unemployment rates and they do not serve in the IDF. They are also the fasting growing segments of Israeli society. But while expectations are relatively low that Arabs will integrate into Israeli society, haredim are expected to get with the program”

At the same time, he adds, “The news media is more of a mirror of society and does not often initiate mudslinging campaigns against any particular segment of society.”

Shahar Ilan, former religious affairs correspondent for Haaretz and current vice president of research and information for Hiddush, thinks the bad press is a good thing: “What’s really important is that due to the violent demonstrations, the religious coercion and the extortion [on the haredim’s part] are gaining attention. For that, I am grateful for the extremist haredim. What has happened over the past year has helped the public realize that things are bound to get worse and that the essence of Zionism is at stake,” he told The Jerusalem Post.

SETTING ASIDE the alleged political aspirations, crass portrayals, spontaneous outbursts and blanket dismissals of legitimate concerns about the future, this is a real problem in society. The question is: Does the haredi sector recognize the issues?

Ilan believes so: “The haredi press is chalking it up to incitement, but I believe that deep down, they are aware of the problem.”

And Noah Efron, author of Real Jews: Secular versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, articulates something that must be on many people’s minds.

“There is a growing sense among haredim that the future belongs to them, that they are on their way toward becoming a majority in this culture. This sense of power allows some haredim to feel that compromise with secular Jews is unnecessary or, at the worst, that it is temporary. This fear is shared by no small number of secular Jews; it is, for many, their worst nightmare and they feel it materializing before their eyes.”

So will there be a “rebellion,” as Huldai suggested?

Barnea thinks not. “Israel is way passed the ‘revolutionary’ stage. There is great difficulty to breaking habits. That’s why it is hard to believe that the Taub report, or any other, will change anything. Besides, why worry about what will happen in 10 years when we can worry about the Iranian threat now?”

The change may come in the political arena, however. According to Ilan, a recent Hiddush study reveals that a third of Israelis would give serious thought to voting for a party devoid of any religious element. He adds the study found that 70% support reducing funds to yeshivot and child allowances so as to get haredi men out of the study hall and into the workforce.

It is not clear whether educational reform, stipend cutbacks, a new political party or a combination of these would reverse the current trend – one that could lead to the end of Zionism as we know it – but it is evident that the haredi-secular divide needs to be addressed seriously. For the sake of our collective future in this country.

The writer is the op-ed editor at The Jerusalem Post.


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