Sunday, March 18, 2012

Integration – a Road to Israel’s Future

From a secular perspective the growth of the Charedi population in Israel poses major challenges to Israel’s security and economy. As has been noted here many times Charedim largely do not serve in the army. As long as they remain in a Yeshiva or Kollel they are exempt – pursuant to the agreement hashed out in pre-State Israel by secular and Charedi leaders – the so-called status quo agreement.

Charedim see themselves from an entirely different perspective. They choose to live their lives in the most spiritual way they can and are willing to sacrifice material comforts to do so. For men the most important Mitzvah they can do is to learn Torah. As such they are all indoctrinated to stay in the Beis HaMedrash as long as possible with no distractions. This includes avoiding preparation for a career in a profession, the trades, or in business. Women are indoctrinated to seek men like this as the highest form of serving God. This is how their children are raised too.

They also tend to have large families. That is considered a religious obligation. And it explains why this demographic has grown so large since the founding of the State. And why there is so much poverty among them.

This also contributes to the resentment and animosity many secular Jews in Israel feel towards them.

When the status quo agreement was made, the proportion of Charedim was relatively small. So their way of life had no significant impact on the state economically or militarily. But 64 years later their numbers very much do impact on the state. Here is some data from an article in e Jewish Philanthropy:

Fact: the Haredi population in Israel is doubling every decade.

Fact: Over 20% of school children in Israel are at Haredi institutions, which teach neither English nor Math, let alone Citizenship.

Fact: Over 60,000 young Haredi men are granted automatic exemption from army service every year, under 50% of all Haredi adults work, and those that do so work fewer hours than anyone else in the country.

As these numbers continue to grow, I am concerned that this situation is unsustainable. That said - there are things happening to reverse this trend. The army has created ways that allow Charedim to serve without compromising their principles. And vocational programs have been created to train Charedim who wish to leave the Kollel and enter the workforce.

But it all seems like a drop in the bucket for what’s needed. They are good signs, but they are not enough. Add to that the fact that some rabbinic leaders are opposed to army service even under rigorous Charedi rules encouraging them instead to remain in Kolllel as long as possible for - and the problem is a long way from being solved.

The question is can Israel’s economy survive? Or will the increase in a non working public eventually completely ruin their economy?

These are some of the questions asked by a secular organization called Makom. What makes matters worse is that within the Charedi right there is another demographic that has had a corresponding growth – the extreme right. They are the ones who want to assert their standards on the rest of society.

By their actions -they are the ones who are most responsible for the animosity by secular Jews toward Charedim. They are the ones who are super-obsessed with Tznius. They are the ones who have created the Mehadrin bus lines. It is from their community that the extremists zealots of Bet Shemesh stem.

Makom is planning a symposium on these problems in the hopes of finding resolutions to them and to reduce and eventually eliminate this animosity. They of course want to include Charedi leadership.

Here is how they see the problem. There are two perspectives – one pessimistic and the other optimistic:

Dan Ben David sees doom ahead. He will point out, for example, that 45% of Israel’s children are educated in the Haredi and the Arab sector. This is a third-world education at best. Israel will not be able to maintain a first-world army when such a large proportion of its citizens have received a third-world education.

Contrast this with… Neri Horowitz, adviser to Admors and to Ministers. He is a walking encyclopedia on Haredi issues, and celebrates the huge steps made by the government and the Haredi community towards integration. He prefers to advocate for a policy of “internal aliya” – an investment in the absorption of Haredim into Israeli society requiring similar educational, social, and economic strategies to those of welcoming a wave of immigration.

I think both descriptions are true and I agree that Israel ought to work toward absorption of Charedim into society. The problem is that they need to convince Charedi leaders of that. As of now, that just is not going to happen. Charedim are running the other way. They increasingly isolate themselves. To the extent that Mr. Horowitz’s model exists at all - it is an exception rather than a rule. Most of the Charedi leadership rejects this model.

There has to be more integration between religious and secular factions. That will breed trust. That is the real answer. To the extent that Charedim continue to isolate themselves from the rest of society is to the extent that this will never happen.

It is not surprising to me to see that secular Jews in positions of leadership – or at least influence - seek to find ways of getting along. I only wish that the Charedi world would have a counterpart that would seek the same thing. Charedi leaders generally choose not to participate in such endeavors for fear the cards will be stacked against them. Or perhaps because they simply refuse to compromise on their ideals and see no advantage to such a forum.

Not that there aren’t any Charedim like that wouldn’t participate. There are. From that article:

The jewel in the crown was Rabbi Yehuda Meshi Zahav. This is a man who has shifted from being the leader of an extreme (and often violent) Haredi sect, to being the founder director of ZAKA. ZAKA is an internationally acclaimed volunteer organization that focuses on “respecting the dead, and saving life.” It’s a Jewish Red Cross. They treat everyone, and welcome everyone: They even sent a team of Haredi volunteers around the country to teach.

Wow! Teaching resuscitation to Arab women. Who’d a thunk it?! A Charedi organization teaching Arab women anything is beyond surprising – if not downright shocking.

But I tend to agree with the following response to the suggestion that Mr. Meshi Zahav be invited to a conference to represent the Charedi position and give their input to such a conference:

How representative is Meshi Zahav of the Haredi mind-set?” The assumption was that ZAKA is something of a freak of nature, an exception that proves the rule. To give prominence to such an organization would be just as misleading as to present Neturei Karta as evidence of most Jews’ anti-Zionism, or a mild-mannered Persian proving that Iran’s nuclear plans are peaceful.

There is a glimmer of hope in something that happened on Purim and it is not surprising that Zaka is resposnisble for it. It was a project to exchange Shelach Manos between secular and Haredi in Bet Shemesh. (See photo above,) It was a small gesture but it should serve as a model of brotherhood for all of us to follow. But... we have a long way to go.

It is really sad that a dialogue between the secular and religious leaders cannot take place for the betterment of both worlds. If religious leaders could meet with the secular leaders in the same spirit that they did at the founding of the State there is no reason cannot come up with a working compromise that takes current conditions into account.