Social justice, religious freedom and the tent protests

Protest leaders did their utmost to stick to economic demands.

Rothschild Tents 311 (photo credit: Linda Epstein)
Rothschild Tents 311
(photo credit: Linda Epstein)
‘We want social justice!” protesters roared this summer. Tents lined the streets, demanding a fairer economy, support of the working class, housing solutions and more. The tents have mostly gone, and the Trajtenberg Committee, appointed to give recommendations to the government in response to the public protest, has released its report.
Protest leaders did their utmost to stay within the scope of economic demands. They avoided addressing the inevitable societal conflicts that might have been brought out in order to provide the necessary solutions.
They also didn’t speak about the larger questions of social justice.
In the face of the expected vehement political resistance, there should be great interest in Hiddush’s recently released 2011 Israel Religion and State Index. It reveals both additional dimensions of social justice that are lacking in the country today, and provides compelling backing for some of the Trajtenberg Committee’s recommendations.
It also demonstrates how far government policies are from the will of the public.
Trajtenberg didn’t keep to the protesters’ “political correctness”; he had to come up with solutions, not just list grievances. He rightly stressed that a major source of the frustration over social injustice stemmed from “sectors in the population that do not sufficiently partner in bearing the burden, both on account of their low participation in the workforce and on account of their avoiding national service in general and military service in particular.” Everyone understood that this was primarily directed at the haredi sector, as did the haredi political parties, which were quick to reject the report.
In the reports specific recommendations, the committee emphasized the importance of enforcing the core curriculum (math, sciences, English and civics) in the ultra-Orthodox educational system, limiting the period of state subsidies for studying in yeshivot, increasing funding for professional training, and drastically escalating the participation in military/civil service, among other things. These are all aimed at significantly increasing ultra- Orthodox participation in the workforce and ensuring a more equitable share in the national burden. The committee laid down the principle that “Social justice means a correlation between the contribution and effort of the individual, and the reward given to the individual in each and every sphere.”
While exaggerated accounts in the haredi press maintain that the Trajtenberg Committee adopted the “Hiddush Torah” regarding their sector, we at Hiddush take some pride in presenting these issues to the committee and demonstrating their effect on the increased burden on the middle class.
Eli Yishai, the Shas interior minister, has responded to the Committee’s findings with contempt, stating that “the weakest sectors have been left behind.”However, commentators, including in the haredi press, saw through his public statements and attributed his strong opposition on this matter to the recommendations’- far-reaching impact on the benefits and privileges enjoyed by the haredi sector.
THE DATA from the 2011 Index is clear: 64 percent of Israeli Jews view the tension between secular and ultra- Orthodox as the most or second-most acute domestic conflict in the country.
Only 30% view the tension between rich and poor as such. In addition, 87% believe ultra-Orthodox young people should be obligated to do either military or national service; 79% favor reducing subsidies for students in yeshivot so as to encourage ultra-Orthodox men to join the workforce; 80% maintain that core curriculum studies should be mandatory in ultra-Orthodox schools as they are in other schools; and 65% of the Jewish public believes that yeshiva subsidies and the absence of ultra-Orthodox men from the workforce are some of the essential reasons for the heavy burden on the middle class.
These economic impacts are further exemplified by leading economists.
Prof. Stanley Fischer, governor of the Bank of Israel, holds that the main problem facing the country’s economic growth is the non-participation of ultra-Orthodox men in the workforce.
Prof. Eugene Kandel, head of the National Economic Council, holds that Israel could be one of the 15 richest countries in the world, if only haredi men and Arab women participated in the workforce relative to their size in the population. Prof. Dan Ben- David, who heads the Taub Center, repeatedly reminds us that if we don’t address these issues, Israel faces the threat of slipping into the economic state of a developing country.
Yishai says he opposes the report because it does not speak up enough for the poor, but it is he and his own party who have facilitated many of the root causes creating these economic disparities.
THERE ARE many aspects of social justice that go beyond the economy and require urgent change in Israel. I will only refer to the arena of religion and state. How can one seriously advocate social justice while denying hundreds of thousands of citizens the basic human right to marry, or when women are pressured to sit in the back of public buses every day, or when Sephardic girls are denied admission into Ashkenazi-dominated haredi schools in the name of “religion?” Clearly such religious coercion as exists in Israel is not based on wide public support. Regarding all these phenomena and many others, the Religion and State Index shows a large majority opposing them. When asked their opinions regarding making the Declaration of Independence’s promise of “freedom of religion and conscience” a reality, 83% of respondents expressed support! Not surprisingly 80% expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of religion/state matters and 62% expressed support for freedom of marriage and legal recognition of both civil and religious marriages of all streams in Judaism. A similar majority supports equal recognition of all conversions to Judaism, whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform.
Interestingly, a comparable result was seen in a recent poll commissioned by the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, headed by Yuli Edelstein, which showed that 63% view people who converted to Judaism under Reform or Conservative auspices as Jews. Needless to say, Edelstein has not seen this wide public support as reason to urge a more pluralistic policy in the ongoing “Who is a Jew” saga. It is also worth noting that studies done by the Central Bureau of Statistics demonstrate that 60%-65% of the Jewish public supports allowing civil marriages here, relaxing Shabbat restrictions, and more.
This provides both a context and background to the very critical report on Israel published recently as part of the US State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report.
There is clearly a huge gap between the current government policies on these matters and acceptible standards in all Western democracies. This won Israel the dubious grade of zero on a comparative scale measuring religious freedom in the recently published “Democracy Index” recently published by the Israel Democracy Institute. It places Israel next to Syria, Saudi Arabia and China. No parallel to the breaches of religious freedom in Israel can be found in any Western democracy.
Will it take a “culturkampf” (culture war) to finally realize the promise of religious freedom and equality, as prophesied by Chaim Weizmann in his 1947 blueprint for the state-to-be and the challenges it would face? Hopefully not. It is high time for Netanyahu and his fellow leaders to listen to the public before this culture war breaks out. World Jewry also needs to speak up and realize that fulfilling the vision of religious freedom and equality is a global Jewish interest of the highest order, and its absence is a major hindrance to Israel’s future and Jewish Peoplehood.
The writer is the head of Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel.