Losing the Secular Public
No Torah Jew finds it difficult to justify Israeli government expenditures on Torah education. For us, it is clear that without the citadels of Torah that all the efforts of the IDF to protect us from the dangers all around will be for naught.
But obviously few secular Israelis share that view. From their perspective, the most notable aspect of Torah education – at least that of males – is that it leaves many of its recipients lacking basic numeracy and unable to enter the workforce at anything above menial jobs, which will, in any event, prove insufficient to feed their large families. At most, some will acknowledge that the intellectual acuity attained in Talmud study makes it possible for many chareidi men to acquire later some of the missing skills and knowledge.
In Yoder vs. Wisconsin, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Free Exercise Clause of the United States constitution prevented Wisconsin from enforcing its mandatory school attendance laws against religious groups who opposed education for those over 14. In reaching that conclusion, the Court noted that the religious groups in question are, in general, law-abiding citizens almost never found on the welfare roles. Few secular Israelis look at the chareidi community in the same way.
Should we be concerned about the view of the secular public? Or is it enough for us to rely on the power of the chareidi parties in the governing coalition to preserve some level of government funding of chareidi educational institutions?
Perhaps. But there is no guarantee that the major parties will not unite one day for the express purpose of changing Israel’s electoral system to greatly reduce the power of the chareidi parties. We have already seen, in recent years, government coalitions in which the chareidi influence was minimal. In addition, the Supreme Court, not the Knesset, might take upon itself the question of state funding of chareidi education.
AT THE VERY LEAST, then, a case can be made for the development of arguments designed to persuade secular Israelis if not of the value of a Torah education, at least of the justice of funding the chareidi educational system. The most likely form for such an argument goes under the rubric of “multiculturalism” – the idea that states should respect the various subcultures that make up the citizenry. (A number of Western democracies do fund religious education albeit not without strict curricular requirements.)
Multiculturalism has the advantage that it holds sway over much of the Left elites. That is why so many feminists are willing to look the other way to abuses of women in Muslim societies around the world.
At the same time, some of the negative consequences of multiculturalism have begun to be noticed. Many blame multiculturalism for fostering the emergence of cultural minorities in the West who are deeply hostile to their host country, while enjoying many benefits from those host countries. A Moslem takeover of a number of Western European countries no longer seems a far-fetched nightmare scenario. Every Western European country today has a significant and fast-growing Moslem minority that does not feel any allegiance to the laws of its host country, insists on the enforcement of its cultural norms, even in the face of the governing law, in areas where Muslims constitute a majority, and which contains cells of those violently opposed to the civil authorities and prepared to resort to terror against them.
If Torah Jews are perceived by secular Israelis the way that Western Europeans perceive their Moslem enclaves, then any argument based on the multicultural ideal is bound to fail. Unfortunately, such comparisons are becoming more and more frequent, in large part triggered by the recent rioting in Meah Shearim and attempts to aggressively enforce chareidi cultural norms in mixed neighborhoods.
Ma’ariv’s Ben-Dror Yemini entitles a recent oped, “The Taliban is Here.” His piece is, inter alia, an attack on the multiculturalism, which in his view has allowed the most extreme elements in Moslem societies, whether in the Gaza Strip or Western Europe, to impose their will on those societies. And the same, he writes, is taking place today among the chareidim. He does not claim that the majority of chareidim support the rioting, only that the violent minority of chareidim will dictate to the majority and from there to the larger society. He concludes with a call on Israel’s political leaders to act quickly to curtail chareidi autonomy, including our educational system.
I have known Yemini for more than a decade, and worked closely with him for many years on the issue of the Israeli Supreme Court. As op-ed editor at Maariv, he brought me to the oped page, in large part to provide a chareidi voice. Chareidim has never been a particular subject of his, and in all the time we worked together, I never detected the slightest hint of animus towards chareidim. But clearly the recent rioting and news reports of the aggression of certain groups in Ramat Beit Shemesh have traumatized him.
In a similar vein, the Jerusalem Post’s Evelyn Gordon recently urged Mayor Nir Barkat to employ collective punishment against Meah Shearim, until the damage is paid for and the riots stop. She employed exactly the same justification used for cutting off electricity to Gaza: If the majority opposes the terrorists, then they must be forced to act to stop them; and if they support them, we have no reason to continue facilitating their attacks on us.
Gordon is herself Orthodox, and has a number of close chareidi friends. As a columnist, she is the voice of calm, patiently building her case block-by-block. That she is now drawing parallels between chareidim and Gaza terrorists is an ominous indication of just how much damage the recent riots have caused to our image.
I cite Gordon and Yemini not in agreement — the rioters constitute a tiny fraction of chareidi society — but as sociological data of how damaging the riots have been to our image with the secular public.
In the midst of the Viet Cong’s 1968 Tet Offensive, CBS’s respected anchorman Walter Cronkite, uncharacteristically interjected into his nightly broadcast his opinion that “victory” in Vietnam was impossible. President Lyndon Johnson, watching in the White House, commented, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the nation.”
If we’ve lost Yemini and Gordon, we’ve gone a long way towards losing any chance of convincing secular Israelis of the justice of our position.
Mishpacha Magazine, 19 August 2009