The Book of Ruth deals, among other things, with belonging, loyalty and standing by those who take you into their hearts and families. Quite to the contrary, daily reality in present-day Israel is overwhelmingly characterized by schisms, affronts and quarrels, which currently hold a large portion of Israeli society hostage.
One of the worst schisms in Israeli society is the one between the secular and the ultra-Orthodox public. It is a longtime and well-known rift, based upon two main aspects. The first is the fact that many within ultra-Orthodox society choose Bible studies over employment and contribution to the general economy, while they receive government stipends for studying.
The second is that the majority of ultra-Orthodox men don’t enlist in the IDF, and instead choose Bible studies over military service.
Given the proportions of this rift, it is vital to examine it closely and find creative remedies for this malady.
The schism in Israeli society with secular and religious Jews
It is thus key to first examine whether the ultra-Orthodox public in Israel is homogeneous. Do the various ultra-Orthodox sectors and sub-groups think and act alike in all regards? Upon close examination, it is clear that the answer to that question is no.
Some ultra-Orthodox sectors believe in incorporating basic educational tools such as mathematics and English into the daily curriculum of ultra-Orthodox schools, while others maintain that 100% of the pupils’ curriculum must comprise religious texts and studies.
Many oppose joining the IDF and maintain that ultra-Orthodox men must continue their religious studies after finishing school, yet approximately 15% of the eligible young ultra-Orthodox men do enlist. Given the therefore heterogeneous nature of the ultra-Orthodox public, it is perhaps unwise to develop antagonism to it in its entirety.
During my recent visit to a European city, in which I was asked to speak to an audience of Jewish community leaders, I met an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who was raised in a very conservative ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem and made his way to becoming the rabbi of a burgeoning Jewish European community.
In his words, the only thing that helped him find employment in a manner suited to his abilities and standing was the fact that he spoke a foreign language. That is, as opposed to his friends from the same ultra-Orthodox sector, who spoke only Hebrew and/or Yiddish, and had studied neither English nor mathematics at school – as per the decision of their elected leaders.
The rabbi added that the government stipends awarded to his ultra-Orthodox friends in Israel were not sufficient, given the present-day cost of living, so that many of them could not, in fact, study all day, and had to work to supplement their income.
The only work they were able to get was as laborers, since they had not learned necessary skills while at school. In his opinion, this was a fully unproductive and frustrating reality.
I admire how that rabbi remained loyal to his way of Orthodox life without being blind to its shortcomings, which he did not regard with criticism and anger but rather with empathy and respect.
Last year, when an Israeli-Arab policeman, Amir Khoury, saved many Jewish ultra-Orthodox inhabitants of Bnei Brak, and died while doing so, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews went up to his father’s house in the Galilee to pay their respects and pray for his soul.
There are not enough words to describe the beauty, compassion and gratitude in that gesture. As a symbol of the community’s indebtedness, a street in Bnei Brak was named after Khoury.
United Hatzalah, an organization dedicated to saving lives, that was both established and is largely staffed by ultra-Orthodox volunteers is a beautiful beacon of light depicting the values entrenched in that community.
No society is perfect. In every group, some people are good, while others are less so. Yet it is difficult to ignore the fact that many choose to live as ultra-Orthodox Jews – some because they were born to it and others because they chose it at a later stage in life.
Their right to this choice is a basic tenet of any democratic state. Hence, their sheer numbers are becoming more and more difficult to ignore in terms of policy. The inherent problem is that the ultra-Orthodox leadership tends to influence policy in a manner often far from conducive to its own public’s benefit.
The lack of proper education or skills conducive to adequate employment in a majority of this population, combined with their lack of IDF service and their right to government stipends to study – instead of contributing to the military and the economy – exacerbate the antagonism from their secular fellow citizens.
I certainly do not claim to know the will of God, yet as a believing Jew, I find it difficult to imagine that while looking down upon mankind, He is pleased with the schisms amid His people in Israel.
Additionally, Judaism does not encourage illiteracy or a lack of education, nor does it encourage leaning upon the earnings and contributions of others. This is evidenced by many of our leading religious sages who were both brilliant scholars and extremely well-educated in various walks of life. Judaism hails hard work and has many very particular rules for fair trade and the treatment of employees.
Every citizen of Israel, whether secular or religious, Jewish or Arab, is equally eligible for education, infrastructure, housing and more. Every one of us should be given a full set of educational skills and tools with which to become fully trained for employment; along with the opportunity to enrich ourselves with extra studies in religious issues or in any other field we choose, provided it does not harm anyone else in society.
Likewise, every one of us should serve our “debt” to society, either in the form of military service or through National Service which includes working in hospitals or senior homes or assisting troubled youth.
Such service to our nation is religiously, morally and value-warranted, given that all of us are, after all, equal in the eyes of our one God.
The writer is the founder and the CEO of Ruth-Strategic Consulting, a former MK for the National Unity Party, a former deputy ambassador to Cairo and a past adviser to president Shimon Peres.