Thursday, February 24, 2011

Let Them Work

When extreme polar positions are placed at opposite ends of a continuum, the distance between them is 180°, the maximum. If the line is reconfigured and made into a circle, the gap is eliminated entirely as the two extremes abut, the lesson being that no matter how far apart they may seem to be, extremists of all stripes have much in common.

A case in point is the perennial Israeli issue of charedim or the fervently Orthodox in the workforce. At one extreme, there are the ultra-secularists with their anti-religious baggage. At the other end, are the religious extremists who pounce on any in the Orthodox camp who advocate greater charedi participation in the job market. As Shahar Ilan demonstrated the other day in Ha’aretz, the anti-religious extremists fabricate statistics showing that overwhelmingly charedim do not work. Ilan’s pseudo-statistic is 70 percent. Other writers who are not as biased, come up with a statistic of about 50 percent, which is also off the mark.

The truth is that a great number of charedi wage earners do not earn anything close to what is needed to sustain their families, largely because of family size and the high cost of religious living and also because many hold low paying positions, such as teaching in religious schools. As is true of lower socio-economic groups nearly everywhere, there is significant involvement of charedim in the underground economy, meaning that their work and income are essentially unreported, and although this circumstance should not merit a certificate of good behavior, it remains that work is work. The higher classes have their own lucrative tax games, so that only those who are without sin should cast any stone.

Another factor in the charedi work profile is discrimination against them by employers, a situation that rarely gets attention. The subject was addressed forcibly by Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, as he launched a campaign to encourage the hiring of the fervently Orthodox. Peres noted, “People believe that the religious don’t want to work. That’s nonsense. There are thousands of charedim who want to make a living – men, too. This is a stigma that divides the people.” He continued, “The belief that there are two nations – one that works and one that’s lazy – is false.”

According to Chaim Guggenheim, head of a manpower organization, “There are tens of thousands of charedim looking for work.” Many face job discrimination, as according to one report, “92% of companies [in Israel] still don’t employ charedim.” A survey conducted by Ono Academic College found “that employers preferred to hire disabled persons as opposed to charedim.”

In 1965, I was instrumental in forming the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, a group comprised mainly of young Orthodox lawyers, becoming its first president. We quickly came to focus on discrimination against religious persons, particularly in the workplace. During one of my trips to Israel in the early 1970s, I approached Joseph Burg, the longtime leader of Mizrachi, the Religious Zionist party, and suggested that Israel follow America’s lead and enact legislation protecting Sabbath observers. By Israeli law, Sabbath is a day of rest and businesses are required to close, yet even in the early 1970s an expanding number of employers were able to secure exemptions on the ground that necessity mandated Sabbath work. Burg demurred, arguing that protection of religious Jews would be tantamount to accepting that other Jews could work on Shabbos and Mizrachi could not go along with that. The upshot is that job discrimination against religious Jews abounds in Israel.

The other extreme has been amply and unhappily on display in the disgraceful reaction to Rabbi Chaim Amsellem’s suggestion that more charedim join the workforce rather than remain full-time in yeshiva. Amsellem had been a Shas Party member of the Knesset.

Shas overwhelmingly is oriented toward traditional but not fervently religious persons of Sephardic heritage, yet Amsellem was quickly drummed out of the party, an offensive and foolish act. It may be that Shas’s political leader, Eli Yishai, Israel’s Interior Minister, is afflicted by an advanced case of messianism, a condition arising perhaps out of his belief that his name compels such behavior.

Amsellem’s sin – if he did sin – is his speaking out, meaning that what he said made sense but he should have kept his opinion to himself and not give voice to a view held by many charedim. Apart from my lifelong notion that, consistent with religious obligations and discipline, it is appropriate for religious Jews to have opinions and express them because a mind is a terrible thing to waste, Orthodox laypeople and lower rabbinic figures spoke out on public matters in pre-Holocaust Europe at the major conferences of Agudath Israel. There were lively debates and disagreement on vital issues, including of a religious nature, in which lay leaders participated. In the recent period, the attitude that one’s opinions must be put into cold storage has unfortunately taken hold.

The effort to delegitimize Amsellem sends the message to young charedi men eager to enter the workforce that doing so would diminish them as religious Jews. Torah study is our highest pursuit. Working for a livelihood is also a noble pursuit.

Predictably, the Amsellem matter serves as a feeding opportunity for those in an attack mode against charedim. They have embraced Amsellem as one of their own, although assuredly he is not. The Times featured the story, indulging in numbers games, including the claim that more than 50 percent of charedi women do not work. Indeed, a great number are hard at work at home caring for a household of children. Whatever the failings of Rabbi Amsellem’s new bedfellows, his message is on target. More charedim are needed in the workforce and more charedim want to work. When Shas attacks those who advocate greater charedi involvement in Israel’s economy, it is joining forces with those who promote discrimination against charedim. Extremists are, after all, birds of a feather that flock together.