Change the system but stop haredi-bashing!

Candidly Speaking: The haredi lifestyle is not a threat to this country. Their attempt to haredize the country is.

Haredi protesters in J'lem's Shabbat Square 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredi protesters in J'lem's Shabbat Square 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Last month, at the outset of the upheaval over enforced haredi gender separation, I wrote a column titled “Confront Unbridled Religious Zealotry Now.”
Regrettably, the fundamental issues requiring attention have been totally submerged by a flood of histrionics and outright haredi-bashing that will only intensify divisions within the nation.
Many Israelis regard haredi lifestyles and the halachic interpretations of their rabbis as excessively stringent and incomprehensible. But as long as haredim do not seek to impose their lifestyles upon others and as long as they fulfill their civic obligations like the rest of society, we are obliged to respect their right to practice their rituals or customs. Besides, there are many positive aspects of haredi lifestyles that non-observant Israelis would do well to emulate and benefit.
However, when haredim seek to impose their standards on the nation, we are entitled to become angry. This is what should concern us, rather than the criminal behavior against women by individual thugs – whom the bulk of the haredi community and their rabbis have unequivocally condemned. Yet the media frenzy suggests that the principal threat confronting us is violence from hordes of violent zealots seeking to impose Taliban standards of conduct on the nation.
This has fanned waves of hysteria, demonizing haredim who are held collectively responsible for the crimes of a small number of degenerate zealots.
Despite the Natorei Karta extremists who shamefully undermined the haredi cause by demonstrating in the streets wearing yellow stars and comparing themselves to Holocaust victims, the failure to deal with these fanatics rests principally with our own law enforcement officials. Over the years, they frequently avoided addressing these issues and stood aside, emboldening the wild fanatics.
The same applies to the price tag outlaws. Instead of directing collective blame toward law-abiding settlers who are outraged by such actions, the media should be condemning law enforcement officials for failing to apprehend and jail these criminals.
IN SHARP contrast to the hysteria directed against haredim collectively, it is noteworthy that the media is far more accommodating toward far-left Israeli agitators who encourage and even orchestrate violent demonstrations that include stone-throwing and physical clashes with police and military authorities, often culminating with serious injuries. The Leftist media downplay such violent behavior and even shower praise on the perpetrators.
The problem we face today is not the haredi lifestyle. It is their increasing effort to control all religious issues and challenge the credentials of rabbis unwilling to subscribe to the stringent rulings of their religious leaders.
The critical areas affecting the general population are conversion and marriage, for which a haredi-controlled Interior Ministry and Chief Rabbinate have created nightmarish obstacles to deter sincere converts. The rabbinate also indirectly encourages increasing numbers of non-observant Israelis to wed abroad, either because of the stringency of their pre-nuptial requirements or because growing numbers of secular Israelis simply want nothing to do with the institution.
In the national interest, it is incumbent on the government to ensure that moderate national-religious rabbis serve their constituencies in these areas without interference from haredi instrumentalities.
THE OTHER crucial issue, which has been overlooked in the current hysteria, is the ever-increasing proportion of Israeli schoolchildren attending state-financed haredi schools. By excluding all secular subjects from their curricula, these institutions guarantee that increasing numbers of Israelis will not be prepared for gainful employment and will thus remain dependent on state welfare all their lives.
Despite the fact that vast numbers of haredim are sinking deeper into excruciating poverty, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, their centenarian spiritual leader, last week urged his followers not to permit their children to be tarnished by secular studies – stressing that they should live apart from society at large.
Discouraging observant Jews from earning a livelihood is unprecedented and there is no sound halachic foundation for rejecting secular knowledge. Maimonides was a physician, a philosopher and thoroughly versed in worldly knowledge. Today he would be disqualified from teaching at most haredi educational institutions.
Indeed, religious Jews throughout the ages took pride in earning a livelihood. Throughout the Western world, with few exceptions, haredim today are educated in secular subjects in their schools, enabling them to contribute productively to the economy. Yet, here in Israel, this is considered inconceivable. If we are not to become a third-world country, it is imperative that the government intervene in this area.
In addition, the issue of military service continues to generate rage among secular and national-religious Israelis. Over 90 percent of haredim remain exempted from any form of national service.
There are absolutely no grounds for Orthodox Jews living in a Jewish state surrounded by enemies to be exempt from serving their country. Haredim should be obliged to fulfill their civic obligations by serving in the army or other forms of national service.
It is these issues, rather than the obsession with degenerate zealots, that represent the crucial challenges of the demographically expanding haredi population and that we are obliged to resolve now.
Most Israelis would eagerly welcome electoral reform that would deny one-dimensional groups from exerting excessive political leverage to extort governments to capitulate to their ever-increasing demands.
If the Likud and Kadima parties could set aside their political shenanigans – which are based on power struggles rather than ideology – and unite to resolve this problem, they would be enthusiastically supported by the vast majority of Israelis.
Those who consider this inconceivable because the Netanyahu government is heavily dependent on haredi support are mistaken. The prime minister is fully aware of the extent of the rage generated over the past few weeks. He would be well advised to introduce reforms now which could be gradually implemented, allowing haredim to maintain their lifestyle but also obligating them to become productive members of society and thus gain the respect of the nation. In the long run, this would also benefit haredim because with their demographic growth, the country will soon be unable to economically sustain the status quo and they would fare better by having reforms introduced gradually rather than facing collapse.
The writing is on the wall and if Netanyahu fails to move soon, at the next elections he may face a party led by someone like Yair Lapid, who could emulate his late father who resurrected the Shinui party which primarily focused on haredi-bashing. By harnessing the anti-haredi hysteria sweeping the country, the Left could well destabilize Netanyahu’s coalition and regain the reins of government.
The prime minister would be well advised to take preemptive action now to forestall such a situation.

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