Thursday, May 11, 2023

The Consequences of Flexing Charedi Muscle

A beautiful sight. But at what cost? (TOI)
To say that I have mixed feelings about this is an understatement. On the other hand I got a sick feeling - a knot in the pit of my stomach after reading the following headline in the Times of Israel: 

Stipends for married yeshiva students to nearly double in state budget. 

That is just the tip of the iceberg. Charedi demands for joining the governing coalition include the following:

 …coalition agreements will pour billions of shekels into the ultra-Orthodox community and education programs with Orthodox messaging... 

After it is approved, the (nearly doubled) increase in stipends will be paid out retroactively to cover all of 2023… 

Also, in the coming year, NIS 40 million ($11 million) will go toward strengthening Haredi institutes that are exempt from teaching the core education program that is compulsory for schools in the education system — a sum that will increase to NIS 120 million ($32.7 million) next year... 

The budget includes NIS 6 million ($1.6 million) for advice on “family purity,” referring to the strict rules of intimacy that Orthodox Jews abide by… 

A further NIS 30 million ($8 million) will be budgeted to the Education Ministry as a grant for education and Jewish culture “adapted to the religious way of life and memorial activity for the rabbis of religious Zionism.”

Another NIS 60 million ($16 million) will go toward building student dormitories in the West Bank, while NIS 2.25 million ($610,000) will go to the Hebron Regional Council, the local authority for a Jewish enclave in the West Bank Palestinian city.

Some NIS 500 million (almost $140 million) will reportedly go to the Jerusalem, Tradition and Mount Meron Ministry, headed by United Torah Judaism’s Meir Porush, and a similar sum to a government body for the socioeconomic advancement of the ultra-Orthodox… 

The exorbitant funds funneled to the Haredi community under the current government, amid soaring prices, has riled many in the secular public, with the issue — juxtaposed with high unemployment rates and low enlistment rates in the Haredi public — becoming a cause celebre for anti-government protests.

On the one hand, I understand the needs of a community whose dedication  to Torah study requires them to forego earning the kind of income they desperately need to feed their large families. That their wives work is simply not enough to sustain them. 

On the other hand that this dedication is taken to such an extreme that it precludes even getting the kind of education required to find decent jobs should they someday need to do that – exacerbates that need. 

I have complained a lot recently about the lack of any Limudei Chol (secular studies) curriculum in certain segments of the Chasidic world in the US. But the situation in Israel makes the US situation seem minuscule by comparison. The vast majority of Charedi population in Israel does not receive any Limudei Chol education beyond 8th grade. And even there - it barely covers Hebrew grammar and math. Clearly not enough of an education for them to find high paying jobs as adults. That they are discouraged from finding jobs until they have a proverbial knife at their throats does not help matters. 

I get that Charedi leadership – through their representatives in the Knesset want to relieve the crushing poverty that results from the huge family expenses combined with their inability to do anything about it. At the same time. a more honorable way for doing that would be to ‘teach their men to fish’ rather than simply giving them the ‘fish’ by way of public funds. Funds that are mostly collected from the working public who will surely have their taxes increased in order to fund the increased Charedi budget all this will entail. 

And another thing. The demand for unconditional exemptions from any form of army service does not help their cause either. The Charedi public shares neither the military nor financial burdens. And that causes a lot of resentment and bitterness 

Now it’s true that there are a lot of working Charedim that have found ways to earn a decent living in a variety of ways. But to say that it is a lie that Charedim do not work and therefore contribute financially does not mean the burden is equally shared by both. That is belied by the demands of Charedim to double the budget for those who spend all their time studying Torah and do not work. 

Their argument that by studying Torah, Charedim are doing their part by contributing to Israel’s spiritual welfare - and that this should absolve them of sharing the financial burden does not hold water. Because Charedim benefit form the material benefits of a working, tax paying secular public. The tax burden should be shared equally. Instead Charedi politicians refuse to acknowledge that and complain just how much the secular world refuses appreciate them. All an attitude like that does is contribute to polarization that has led to some violent protests of late.

That said, I don’t really blame Charedi politicians for demanding increased spending for their non working constituents as a condition for joining the coalition. But asking for government handouts that will be mostly be funded by the working secular public is not a fair way to alleviate the poverty that so many of their constituents are going through. 

Charedi politicians should instead be looking at their educational paradigm and fix that! 

As an Orthodox Jew, I appreciate the idea of funding family purity programs that advance the cause of religious life in the holy land.  But asking for handouts in that cause simply exacerbates the animosity of secular Jews that don't understand why the government should suddenly start funding an ancient ritual they do not follow. And may not have ever heard of.

And finally there is the money going to fund settlement enterprises in the West Bank. I understand the need to support the already legally existing institutions there.  What I do not understand is building new structures that will increase the Israeli presence.. 

As I keep saying our biblical and historic rights to live anywhere in biblical Israel is overshadowed by the incitement to violence such activity causes. To say- as their supporters do - that they hate us and attack us anyway is hardly an excuse to make matters a lot worse through such incitement. I am therefore opposed to funneling any tax revenue in that direction except for cites and towns along the border - that have been there for decades. 

So yes, I have a knot in the pit of my stomach about the kinds of demands Charedim are making that will surely tear the country further apart. 

Charedi politicians and their rabbinic leadership should be aware of the consequences of their demands and weigh the pros and cons. The pros of alleviating poverty through government handouts and avoiding army service may end up destroying their golden goose. And along with it the Charedi way of life.