Monday, February 03, 2003

A Change for the Worse

Shinui is not Israel’s first anti-religious party. That dishonor goes to Labor which for the better part of Israel’s existence dominated the country’s politics and nearly from the beginning of the state waged war against religion in such vital areas as education and absorption. While it weaned North African immigrants away from tradition and relegated them to second-class citizenship, Labor poured huge sums into kibbutzim, those oases of Ashkenazi privilege that masquerade as harsh outposts of sacrifice.

Then there was Meretz, avowedly ultra-secularist and more openly hostile than Labor to religion. In short, there has always been a hard core of Israeli Jews – now estimated at 20% - whose political agenda gives priority to governmental actions that are harmful to traditional Judaism. Interestingly, the ultra-secularists have never explained how absent any religious and historical claim, Jews have a right to the land. Some believe, in fact, that the Jewish claim is weak, even bogus.

Now we have Shinui led by Tommy Lapid – ten times cruder and one-hundred pounds heavier than Yossi Sarid – capitalizing on the decline of Labor and Meretz and certainly on public animosity toward Orthodox, especially charedi, Israelis. Since Shinui will have one-eighth or fifteen of the seats in the next Knesset, in this early stage of post-election maneuvering it is hard to see how it will not be a major player in the new government. Religious parties and their constituencies are in for tougher times.

Apart from the stark bigotry of Lapid’s message – he would discourage Orthodox Jews from North America making aliyah – there is an important distinction between the old Labor party and Shinui, for Labor acknowledged the place of religion in the Jewish state and David Ben-Gurion entered into the Status Quo Agreement with the religious parties which provided for Israel having a religious public persona. Shinui would tear down whatever remains of the Status Quo; in fact, as a consequence of legal rulings, legislation and social practice not much remains.

Whatever governmental coalition emerges, the election results and, more fundamentally, the winds of public opinion ought to result in serious reflection among Israel’s religious leaders and parties, an exercise that they have not demonstrated being adept at. There is a public relations problem and while religious leaders must not follow either election returns or opinion polls, there is a difference between paying attention to public opinion and yielding to it. Attention must be paid, if only because reaching out to marginally observant Jews is high up on the agenda of Orthodox activity in Israel and its effectiveness depends largely on how such Jews look at religious life and leaders.

The point is made in a surprising article by Moshe Schapiro in the post-election issue of the U.S. edition of Yated Ne’eman, the main charedi newspaper. He writes that the election results convey the message “that our level of unpopularity among the populace at large has reached new heights.”

There is little that the Orthodox can do to win over Meretz and Shinui adherents, the ultra-secularists whom I regard as a clear and present danger because Israel cannot survive without fidelity to what has always maintained us. There is, however, much that turns off Israelis who are not hostile to religion, as for example, the constant re-inforcement of the perception that religious parties are primarily interested in getting more shekels. While the characterization is unfair, it is a dynamic element in Israeli life.

It is unfair because outsiders and especially those who are lower socio-economically tend to conduct their political transactions out in the open, thereby always seeming to be making monetary and other demands, while those who are in power and privileged conduct their raids on the Treasury with stealth and leave few fingerprints.

It is unfair because the funds allocated to religious causes provide important services. Shas – it receives by far the lion’s share of such funding – illustrates the point. It has established a network of schools, after-school programs, youth groups, summer camps and other services aimed at improving the lot of disadvantaged Sephardim. That explains why Shas did better than expected in the election. While the media regularly portray it as an ultra-Orthodox party, its rank and file are overwhelmingly traditional but not especially observant Israelis who have seen how Shas has improved their lot.

Even on the hot-button issue of payments to yeshiva students, unless we are willing to ignore the value of Torah study, it’s hard to understand why they should not be entitled to the same treatment accorded to university students. Incidentally, yeshivas contribute importantly to Israel’s economy because they receive outside contributions, there are fund transfers from overseas to students in Israeli yeshivas and parents of foreign students visit and spend money in Israel. This is a subject that merits analysis.

But for all of the gratuitous hostility aimed at the Orthodox and especially the charedim, there is much self-harm to the religious cause in the handling of the military service issue. Schapiro rightly asks whether charedim “show enough sensitivity to the tens of thousands of parents out there who do send their children to the army for three long years?”

The answer is that they do not and it was demonstrated not long ago when the charedi camp rejected the modest proposal that yeshiva students do public service during their intercessions, rather than go on vacations while other Israelis – many of them observant – look on in disgust. There was no excuse for this super-insensitivity. Was it necessary to be so provocative, to further alienate Israelis and give aid and comfort to Shinui? Charedim gave Tommy Lapid a gift on a silver platter and he took full advantage.

I believe with full faith that Torah study and yeshivas are essential to Israel’s security, that without the devotion and sacrifice of yeshiva students, Israel would be endangered. This is all the more reason why the yeshiva world must not endanger itself through gratuitous intransigence and a perception of insensitivity.