Did The Global Jewish Forum on Haredim Face the Facts?

by Rabbi Uri Regev

Recently, the top leadership of worldwide Jewish communities convened in Jerusalem for the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency meeting. In a relatively rare programming initiative, five hours of the three-day gathering were dedicated to the topic of “Haredim and the Jewish Collective”. Makom, created by the Jewish Agency to enhance and nuance conversation about Israel, designed the day’s program. As we at Hiddush are deeply devoted to the vision of Israel as a thriving Jewish and democratic society, Makom’s aim of “careful honesty [rather] than breezy avoidance” speaks profoundly to us.

But however well intentioned the Jewish Agency and Makom’s goals were in confronting these issues, I fear they did not provide the assembled Jewish leadership with the necessary exposure to the facts to understand the situation, nor did they adequately address expert opinions which call for decisive measures to handle this urgent situation.

The crisis facing Israel with regard to the ultra-Orthodox population is clear, as we were recently reminded in a public address by Professor Stanley Fischer at Harvard University.

In addition, Hiddush’s repeated public opinion polls show that Jewish Israelis view the clash between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews as the most acute domestic conflict in Israeli society. Makom and the Jewish Agency opened the door to discuss the impact of this crucial issue on Jewish Peoplehood, but conversation without consideration of all the facts can only go far enough.

While Makom functions on the praiseworthy principle of “bettering not battering”, their programmatic choices led them to dull the seriousness of the situation and thereby, mislead, even unintentionally, their audience. Robbie Gringras, Makom Artist-in-Residence, writes that they were considering two possible schools of thought to introduce the issue, Dr. Neri Horowitz and Professor Dan Ben-David. Rather than present them both, they chose to display only one. While they acknowledge that Ben-David is “absolutely right”, they claim that he is “a little bleak”. They conclude that they “chose a little bit too much light rather than a little bit too much darkness”.

The problem, of course, is that while they view the difference between the two as analogous to the Hillel/Shammai divide, they deviate from the rabbinic tradition of presenting both views and only then coming to a majority based decision. This need for diversity of opinion is particularly poignant considering the vast majority of Jewish Israelis strongly desire fundamental change in government policies regarding the ultra-Orthodox, which seems to have gone unaddressed.

While Professor Dan Ben-David uses statistical analysis and projections as his tools, Dr. Horowitz sees a slow and steady social change, optimistically waiting for ultra-Orthodox integration into society. Horowitz does not confront facts and figures, instead trusting things will get better. Indeed, change in the social fabric of ultra-Orthodox society has the potential for transformation, but seemingly endless funding and integration programs have not anywhere near seeded the change necessary to protect Israel’s economy, security or democratic character. Horowitz’s obligation is to at least examine these statistics and show how a different trajectory is possible.

This is not a case of slight optimism over slight pessimism; while Horowitz rejects a mounting culture clash, credible experts from all disciplines and streams reject his rosy outlook for internal social structural change. Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Hartman Institute, spoke about the likelihood of Israel turning into “a halachic state” and stressing that “anyone who is committed to democratic values cannot live with the political and religious viewpoint ultra-Orthodox Judaism represents”. The industrialist Dov Lautman said “This isn’t a forecast but rather the truth … today we are first in the Western world in poverty and last in education; if we continue this way … we will no longer be part of the Western world. Even the State of Israel’s security is in danger. It sounds bombastic, but that’s the honest truth”. More recently, it was the former head of the Mossad, Ephraim Halevy, who spoke about the “hareditization process” as being more dangerous to Israel than the Iranian threat, and it was the governor of the Bank of Israel, Professor Stanley Fischer, who said the non-participation of ultra-Orthodox men in the workforce is the main obstacle to Israel’s economic thriving. Needless to say, there are many others who share that view, and yet, Makom and the leadership of the Jewish Agency chose to shield their participants from this non-rosy perspective. A similar approach was taken by the JFNA in the recent GA, where the compelling critical approach was kept out of the carefully selected panel which presented the topic with an optimistic slant.

Ben-David calls for emergency action to fix the educational and workforce systems, which he warns are surely headed for disaster. Hiddush advocates for a shift in government policy, recognizing that subsidies all yeshiva students receive are a disincentive to work. As 25% of Israeli Jewish first graders are ultra-Orthodox, whose boys’ school systems refuse to implement core curriculum like math, science and English, Hiddush advocates for stronger enforcement of core curriculum to give these students a chance at self support and the ability to meet the realities of a modern workforce. The statistics are staggering, but what really hits home is that 70% of Israeli Jews are in favor of legislative changes to make public funding conditional on implementing core curriculum.

However, politics continue to stand in the way. We hope the Global Jewish Forum received this perspective as well, that going with the flow will no longer cut it.

As Gringras reports: The ultra-Orthodox population is doubling every decade, over 60,000 young ultra-Orthodox men are granted automatic exemption from army service causing senior military officials grave concerns for Israel’s security, under 50% of all ultra-Orthodox adults work, and those that do so work fewer hours than anyone else in the country. Over 90 “Mehadrin” bus lines throughout the country require women to sit at the back of the bus.

The facts must be faced, the immediacy of these issues realized, and a comprehensive plan put into action.

The question that the participants in the Jewish Agency forum should be asking themselves is this: are you confident that the school of thought presented to you adequately faced the facts, and has a plan that will halt Israel from this threatening cycle? Should we not be presented with multiple perspectives and be able to come to our own conclusions?

The leadership of the Federation, through their admirable commitment to Israel and generosity, channels some $300 million a year through the Jewish Agency to meet critical social and welfare needs in Israel. At the same time, some $300 million are taken out of the State budget and allocated to fund ultra-Orthodox yeshivas. While the Federation world would not dream of authorizing such allocations, their generosity and trusting the process pursued by the Israeli government helps Israeli politicians to continue funding the yeshivas at this level, rather than investing in key domestic social needs. With this in mind, I wonder if the leadership of the world Jewish communities would not be better served paying a bit more heed to the so-called alarmists.

Rabbi Uri Regev heads Hiddush, Freedom of Religion for Israel, an Israel-Diaspora partnership.