United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni .
(photo credit: DEGEL HATORAH)
History was made this month when Degel Hatorah – the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox political party founded in 1988 – held its third-ever convention.
One would think such an historic gathering of party leaders and activists from across the country would have addressed the pressing issues within the haredi community.
Sadly, this didn’t happen.
What should the party faithful have discussed over three days of meetings and deliberations? Let’s start with the high number of ultra-Orthodox children who leave their families and the haredi world.
The statistics are staggering. According to government sources as of a few years ago, the proportion of haredi children leaving the fold was close to 8 percent. Today the figure is thought to be 10 percent.
One would think such a crisis would spur the haredi leadership to make this a major focus of their national convention. Should they not have considered evaluating their system? It sets every male child on a course to study Torah full-time, or pushes wives to support their husbands to enable them to study Torah full-time. But it is a way of life not suited for mainstream children, and which is most certainly driving them away from their homes in such high numbers.
Not a word was uttered about this pressing issue.
What else should the convention have addressed? Well, can the party really continue to ignore the poverty inside its own community? Families do not have food to put on their table, and are mired in dreadful living conditions. Perhaps they might have discussed the need for establishing institutions which combine high-level Torah study with some form of job training, to allow those young men the opportunity to find a job to support their families with dignity within a Torah and religious framework.
They might have discussed tackling the problem by providing their youth with math and English skills in a manner which does not interfere with their values and religious way of life, to avoid the menial and low-paying jobs that most ultra-Orthodox young men end up doing.
Again, this issue was not raised in any of the meetings or plenary sessions.
So what was discussed, and what was the outcome of this historic convention? One, that the Degel Hatorah party – partners in one large Knesset faction called United Torah Judaism, together with another haredi party, Agudat Yisrael – feels it is being ripped off. Agudah has four seats, while Degel has two, and this, to them, is unfair since they ran together for the Knesset and thus should have divided those six seats equally.
The second focus of the convention was the dangers of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism, especially Reform. A statement issued at the end of the convention said Degel Hatorah would only accept a separate location for non-Orthodox streams to pray at the Western Wall if there are separate entrances – one for the Orthodox, and one for all other Jews.
The language used by MK Moshe Gafni to express this policy was simply disgusting: “They can go wherever they want; they can do whatever they want; but not together with us. We will not allow them to be with us in any way. Not at the entrance to the Kotel, not at the exit.”
How sad that a group which claims to act in the name of religion doesn’t even adhere to the most basic of religious tenets – love others as you would have them love you – nor strives for another basic Jewish value: unity of the Jewish people.
But this was Degel Hatorah’s convention: No self-reflection. No “How can we serve our voters betters and improve their lives?” It was about more power and jobs for the inner circle, and the bashing of others.
But there is good news: if these parties don’t change, they will with time become irrelevant. The ultra-Orthodox community is growing in much higher numbers than the rest of the population, yet we don’t we see a parallel increase in its political power. In fact, the ultra-Orthodox have lost political power in recent years. It is clear that their voting base – especially the younger generation – isn’t buying in. They want opportunity. They want to be able to balance their religious studies and observance, together with supporting their families with dignity and being a part of Israeli society. The haredi parties’ lack of attention to their constituents’ needs, and their focus instead on selfish power struggles, will inevitably lead to their downfall.
As we celebrate the holiday of freedom from oppression, it is up to the rest of Israeli society to help the haredi community with its own “exodus,” to insure that those seeking livelihoods with dignity, who are looking for a way to be a part of broader Israel without sacrificing their lifestyle and religious beliefs, be encouraged to do so and provided with a choice of opportunities.The author served in the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party. He is currently the director of the Department of Zionist Operations for the World Zionist Organization. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the WZO.