Think about it: The directorate for Jewish identity

The ministry that should deal with fortifying Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities is the Education Ministry.

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett (photo credit: REUTERS)
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the Coalition Agreement signed between the Likud and Bayit Yehudi, article 16 speaks of “the establishment of a Directorate for Jewish Identity within the Ministry for Religious Services that will support various activities in this sphere.”
It is most likely that it was former chief rabbi of the IDF Brig.-Gen. Avihai Rontzki – a very close colleague and associate of Bayit Yehudi leader Naftali Bennett – who insisted on this article being included in the Coalition Agreement.
As chief military rabbi Rontzki conducted an unrelenting struggle with the IDF Education Corps about control over the inculcation of “Jewish identity” in the IDF’s Jewish soldiers and officers, making it absolutely clear that in his view the military rabbinate should be responsible for much more than providing religious services to military personnel.
During his tenure as chief IDF rabbi in the years 2006-2010, to the activities of the military rabbinate were added lectures and tours designed to expose the IDF’s non-religious personnel to a very specific variety of national-religious “yiddishkeit,” and visits to Jewish religious sites – most of them in east Jerusalem and the West Bank.
This development was not received well in all quarters.
It is this approach that has now been brought to the Ministry for Religious Services.
Though formally the Directorate for Jewish Identity has not yet been established, Rontzki has been appointed to head it, it has a reported budget of over NIS 4 million (how on earth does a body that has not yet been formally established receive a budget?), and the educational NGOs that will implement the directorate’s activities have already been selected.
Surprise surprise – none of these NGOs is based on a pluralistic approach (i.e. the idea that there are many legitimate approaches to being a Jew); they are all Orthodox, national religious, and the main one is Ohr Torah Stone, headed in Israel by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin from Efrat in Gush Etzion.
Let me make it absolutely clear: I have no issues on this matter with Bayit Yehudi, which is merely trying to implement its perfectly legitimate election platform. I don’t even have issues with Rontzki, who has never kept his agenda secret, and I have a lot of respect for Rabbi Riskin, who is relatively open and pragmatic, compared to some of his colleagues.
My problem is with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who agreed to include article 16 in his coalition agreement with Bennett, even though he must be aware of the fact that despite the professions of Bayit Yehudi to the contrary, all seculars (perhaps with the exception of MK Ayalet Shaked, who is Bayit Yehudi’s secular fig leaf, and has publicly defended the concept of the directorate and its plans in embarrassingly naïve terms) consider the real intention of the planned directorate to be gentle proselytism.
The four programs that the not-yet-established directorate will be implementing, which were recently approved by the Religious Services Ministry, involve the appointment of “Judaism coordinators” (the mere name is enough to give one the chills) in communities that define themselves as secular – collaborators from within these communities – to organize activities that will familiarize secular Jews with Judaism and Jewish traditions, including “deepening the Jewish identity among [secular] students”; meetings between religious and secular families; and “making community synagogues more accessible and more influential.”
I am not saying that these programs are not legitimate in themselves, though I personally consider meetings between religious and secular families organized by religious bodies to be a totally biased arrangement, in which secular families are exposed to religion, but religious families are not really exposed to the secular way of life, and to the fact that the notion that the “secular wagon is empty” is nothing but the biased (some would say ignorant) observation once made by Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karlitz (Hachazon Ish).
The problem is that these programs are to be partially financed by the government (the rest of the financing will come from the NGOs implementing them).
What would the haredim have to say if the coalition agreement with Yesh Atid would have provided for the establishment within one of the ministries allotted to this party of a Directorate for “Equality in Bearing the Burden,” to act within the haredi neighborhoods, and to be implemented by secular NGOs, whose attitude to the haredim and their refusal to serve in the IDF is basically negative, and all this with government funding? What would the religious community in Israel (haredi and national religious alike) have to say if the coalition agreements with Yesh Atid and Hatnua would have provided for the establishment, within one of the ministries allotted to these parties, of a Directorate for Advancing the Basic Tenets of the Haskalah, to act within neighborhoods that define themselves as religious, in cooperation with secular NGOs, and with government funding? Or, what would the Jewish settlers in Judea and Samaria have to say if the coalition agreement with Hatnua would have provided for the establishment within one of the ministries allotted to this party a directorate for spreading information within the Jewish settlements about the international law principles that Israel is committed to in the field of human rights, national rights, and occupied territories, in cooperation with NGOs like the Israel Democracy Institute, or Israeli human rights organizations, and with government funding? Many readers are probably sniggering by now, either because they do not believe in any of the values to be advocated by the hypothetical directorates mentioned above, or because they do not believe that Netanyahu would dare agree to include such provisions in his coalition agreements with the predominantly secular parties, for fear of what the religious parties and settlers would say, or do.
Many readers might also argue that I do not know my history, because at the time that Mapai was considered omnipotent, it too used public financing to try to impose its own ideology and values on those who were not secular, Ashkenazi social democrats.
Well, I am well aware of Mapai’s heavy-handed, undemocratic methods of trying to prevent real manifestations of pluralism, but also of the fact that these methods backfired, and that to the present day the Labor Party still bears the stigma of what Mapai did back in the 1950s and 1960s. Furthermore, the fact that Mapai did something that was wrong, doesn’t justify the parties that are dominant today using the same objectionable methods.
Even though the moderate, liberal, secular population in Israel seems to be numerically on the decline, and on the defensive within the Israeli society today, the moment Rabbi Rontzki’s cohorts start to act on behalf of the new directorate, I have no doubt that the secular reaction will be one of outrage, and the result might well be the exact opposite to what Bayit Yehudi is striving to achieve. Hopefully it is not too late to disband the condescending idea of the new directorate before it is actually established, and starts operating.
The ministry that should deal with fortifying Israel’s Jewish and democratic identities – once these are properly defined, and the correct balance between them established by agreement between all sections of the society – is the Education Ministry, and not the superfluous Religious Services Ministry, whose functions should be handed over to the local authorities. Furthermore, all this should be done from a statist approach, and not a sectarian one.
Is anybody listening? The writer is a retired Knesset employee.