Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Israel’s Existential Threat

Inside a modern economy renowned for its innovative high-tech sector, they see a growing problem. Critics say the Jewish pupils who attend ultra-Orthodox schools can recite chapter and verse of the Bible, but most can't spell the name of their largest Arab neighbor, Egypt, in English.
About half of Israel's pupils either attend Arab schools that are under-funded, or ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminaries where "secular" subjects such as English, science and mathematics take a back seat to biblical studies, or are completely ignored.

These are the opening lines of an article in Reuters.

As optimistic as I am about the future of American Orthodoxy - one that is becoming an integrated community combining moderate Charedim and Centrist Modern Orthodox Jews - I am equally pessimistic about a future Israeli Orthodoxy. The uniting factors that I see in America are the very ones I see as divisive in Israel. Those factors not only threaten unity - they threaten Charedi world as we know it. But mostly I think they threaten the very existence of the state.

The two worlds of Datim – counter parts to Modern Orthodox Jews in America – and Israeli Charedim are so far apart that the chasm is almost unbridgeable. It is almost as though they were as different from each other as they both are from Conservative and Reform Jewry.

One might not have thought so. After all - the one thing that unites all of Orthodoxy in the entire world is the commitment to observe Mitzvos - quintessentially exemplified by Shmiras Shabbos – sabbath observance.

It seems like a no brainer at first blush. What better uniting factor can there be than that? One might think that unity through Mitzvah observance would supersede all other considerations. But it doesn’t. There are many issues that separate the two camps in Israel. But the one issue that is the greatest barrier between them is the educational gap – followed very closely by army gap. Charedim generally do not serve. Datim generally do.

While army service is a very important and divisive issue, it is not one that directly affects the lifeblood of Israel’s existence – the economy. Without a vibrant economy Israel cannot survive. If the current trend continues Israel’s economy may die – and the State of Israel right along with it. The trend I am talking about is the increasing population of Israeli residents that do not work - and do not seek to work.

The male Charedi in Israel is generally illiterate in anything other than Torah subjects. Secular subjects are virtually absent in their schools. Post high school it is zero. Pre high school it is only basic math – unless you count Dikduk - Hebrew grammar as a secular subject.

Datim get a full secular education and many go on to get degrees and professional training. That results in good jobs in most cases after army service.

Charedim on the other hand are strongly discouraged from working. They see this as Daas Torah from their rabbinic leadership. There is no need for a secular education. Secular education is therefore forbidden in their schools.

This has resulted in a problem that pales in comparison to the unity issue between Datim and Charedim.

The Charedi and Arab populations are the fastest growing segments in Israel. The current prediction is that these two groups will comprise about 50% of the population in just one generation. They are 30% of the population now. And fully 50% of the student body comes from these two groups. Both groups suffer poverty and unemployment. But Charedim are unemployed and uneducated on purpose.

Charedim are poorest demographic in Israel. Many live a barebones existence - subsisting mainly on debt; on parents who help them out in some cases; on the generosity of wealthier American patrons to their charities; and - mostly - on the largess of government subsidies.

There are some Charedi schools in Israel that have a secular studies program. I know of Ma’arava a Chafetz Chaim high school. The article in Reuters mentions another one - the Nahardea school near Tel Aviv. But there are only five such schools - all of which are basically boycotted by mainstream Charedim. Although I am told there are waiting lists of Charedim who want their children to enroll which is a good sign they nonetheless are a drop in the proverbial bucket. Besides - of sixty thousand Avrechim virtually all of whom have many children, 5 schools is a joke.

What kind of future can Israel have with these kinds of statistics? Aside from the crushing poverty this causes so many Frum Jews how will Israeli society continue to function? Who will provide the essential services that any civilized nation needs for its very existence? Who will join the Israeli Defense Forces that protect the country?

Even as Charedi politicians continue to succeed in exchanging ‘votes for welfare payments’ from ruling coalitions - it will eventually lose the tax base that currently sustains it!

And yet Charedi leaders refuse to budge. They insist on maintaining the system as it is. Yeshivos they say, are for learning Torah only. Any attempt by the government to install even a modest secular curriculum in Charedi schools is treated as though it were being done by Russian Czars trying to subvert Torah observance. Government officials attempting it have been vilified as pure Reshaim and sometimes even compared to Nazis!

A reflexive Charedi type response to the concern over an existential threat to the State might be one of derisive laughter. The destruction of the State is a good thing to them. They see a Charedi takeover as Divine salvation.

Expression of concern by those like me about the welfare of our fellow Charedi Jews is met with a retort of ‘The Gedolim know what’s best for us - not you.’ ‘If they don’t want any secular studies there shouldn’t be any.’ Working is at best a B’Dieved. Leaving the Beis HaMedrash is seen as only a last resort.

Those of us who raise these issues are accused of being motivated solely by Charedi hatred. Or Gadol hatred.

Besides - they will say - secular education is over-rated when it comes to Paranssa. They will also point to Israeli Charedim who work and support their families and yet never spent a day studying secular subjects in a classroom. The dearth of jobs is the fault of bad economy, job discrimination against Charedim, or the lack of army service which prejudices secular and Dati employers who have served.

I am sure that much of this is true. But I am equally sure that the overall attitude to learning versus work combined with the lack of any secular studies or preparation for the work force is by far the bigger problem. For those who ‘break down’ and decide to enter the workforce. It is a lonely road.

Some do have the initiative to find some training after they ‘get up’ from learning. But they are often in their forties with a large family to support. And they are at a disadvantage in that they are still undereducated and under prepared. They also compete with a much younger and better educated Dati or secular Jew. Additionally Dati and secular Jews who hit the job market much earlier in life - have much smaller families to support - and accordingly their financial needs are much lower.

Israel cannot survive if half of its population not only does not work but does not seek to work. Not to mention the threat to national security an under populated military force.

I don’t have any answers. I certainly do not wish to limit the potential for Torah learning of any Jew, Charedi or not. In some cases full time learning is appropriate. (Although in my view a true Gadol should be knowledgeable in secular studies too. But that is another subject.) There has to be some way for a Charedi to get a basic education. I wish Israeli leaders would adopt a more American style educational system. Like those 5 Charedi schools. But sadly it’s just not happening.