Answering Daniel Gordis

How the citizens of Israel speak about and to one another makes a great deal of difference. If anyone should understand that it is Daniel Gordis, Senior Vice-President of the Shalem Center.

More than anyone, Gordis has been responsible for breaking the painful news to supporters of Israel that there is little hope of peace in the near future. That was the thrust of his most recent work, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, for which he received the National Jewish Book Award.

Winning that war requires maintaining a modicum of civility when voicing our complaints about one another. Without a measure of unity, we will not prevail in that long war. Thus I was shocked by my friend’s recent vitriolic diatribe against the charedi community (“The Five-State Solution,” Jerusalem Post, June 25).

He fires a series of one-sentence accusations at the charedi community, not lingering over any of them long enough to interject even a trace of analysis, or nuance, or solutions. If charedim have ever contributed anything of value to Israel, or might ever do so, it has escaped his notice. Lifting a page from the old campaign posters of Meretz and Shinui, he labels the entire charedi community an “existential threat” and a “cancer.”

GORDIS BEGINS with the 100,000 “Men in Black,” who rallied to protest the Supreme Court’s decision sentencing mothers and fathers of school children in Emmanuel to jail for contempt of court. Those 100,000 protesters, according to Gordis, “insist on their right to racial discrimination in their schools.”

He ignores the fact that over a quarter of the students in the “chassidic track” in Emmanuel were Sephardi. (Compare the percentage of tenured Sephardim in Israeli universities or sitting on the Supreme Court.) Nor does he address the findings of Mordecai Bass, who was appointed by the Education Ministry to investigate the Emmanuel Bais Yaakov. Bass determined that the division of the school into two-tracks was based solely on religious standards and not ethnic origin.

The Supreme Court’s handling of the Emmanuel litigation, in all its stages, was both a legal and tactical embarrassment. In peacefully protesting (a point ignored by Gordis) its decisions, the “Men in Black” were exercising their democratic rights, not threatening Israeli democracy. Even given the Court’s notoriously lax standards of standing, it was ridiculous to allow someone who has never lived in Emmanuel to proceed as the principal petitioner. The NIF-funded petitioner was ill-positioned to represent the best interests of the girls in the general track – 80% of whose parents informed the Court that they did not want the two tracks to be reunited.

The Court’s initial determination that ethnic discrimination had taken place rested almost entirely on the difference in the ethnic composition of the two tracks, though both had a mix of girls from Sephardi and Ashkenazi homes. The Court could not conceive of any possible explanation for the differential other than ethnic discrimination. That does not constitute legal analysis.

Unwilling to acknowledge the impact of differences in religious backgrounds and standards of observance, the Court then saw no reason not to order the full integration of the two tracks. Worst of all, it attempted to draft the students in the chassidic track into its experiment in social engineering by holding their parents, who were not even parties to the suit, in contempt when they sent their daughters to school in Bnei Brak. The Court thereby denied those parents the right enjoyed by all other parents in Israel to educate their children in a school they deem suitable.

Before accusing the “Men in Black” of being a mortal menace for declaring that they would follow their rabbis, not the Supreme Court, in determining how to educate their daughters, Gordis should reread Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, one of the first works of political theory translated into Hebrew by the Shalem Center. The charedi protesters were within a long Western political tradition from Antigone to Martin Luther King. How could a truly religious person not place G-d’s law, as he understands it, over that of the secular state? Nuremburg established the principle that one can even be held culpable for failing to place certain supra-legal principles above the law of the state. As long as the parents who refused to bend to the Court’s dictates accepted the consequences of their refusal, they did not threaten Israeli democracy.

HAREDIM WILL SINGLE-HANDEDLY destroy Israel’s flourishing economy, claims Gordis. How does he know? He read a headline in which Professor Dan Ben-David says so. End of story.

Ben-David has generously spent many hours with me in recent months, and he is a man of many worries – our defunct educational and political systems, no less than the charedim. With respect to the latter, he argues that if long-term trends in charedi employment continue, we will be in big trouble. But those trends are not continuing, they are being reversed – and dramatically so.

At a recent forum on charedi employment, Beni Fefferman, head of research at the Ministry of Industry and Trade, devoted much of his presentation to refuting Ben-David’s “the-sky-is-falling” scenario. He pointed to an 8.4% increase in male charedi employment and 6.5% among women since 2002, with the rate of increase accelerating. Ruben Gorbatt, in charge of charedi employment initiatives at the Joint Distribution Committee, notes that 8,200 distinct individuals were involved in various JDC haredi employment programs between 2006-2009. He expects that number to reach 6,000 this year alone. Prior to 2006, the average number was 500 per year.

Business Week reported last September, that hi-tech companies like Matrix are able to prevent hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts from being shipped to lower-paying countries by employing young charedi woman willing to work for far less in exchange for a religiously appropriate work environment.

There is a revolution taking place in charedi academic and vocational education. When Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s daughter Adina Bar-Shalom, opened the Jerusalem Haredi College in 2000, she offered one degree program. Today, around 1,000 students are enrolled in eleven degree programs offered through Israel’s leading universities, and a similar center of approximately the same size now exists in Bnei Brak. On a recent visit to JHC, I met a young dayan studying for a B.A. in computer science, with the help of a generous stipend from the Wertheimer family. The Kemach Foundation, which is funded by private philanthropy, the JDC, and the government, disbursed over 2,000 scholarships in 2009 for academic and vocational studies, 85% of them to charedi men.

Attitudes are changing rapidly. Nine hundred charedi men, the large majority of whom were until recently learning in kollel, are now enlisted in the IDF, where they are receiving top-level technical training. I recently witnessed a confident power-point presentation by the former editor of the Eidah Hachareidis paper Der Yid, who heads the Mafteach charedi employment office in Beit Shemesh. Five years ago, the charedi press turned down ads for vocational and academic programs; today it is full of them.

Were Gordis interested in addressing problems, rather than demagoguery, his energies would be better spent advocating for a negative income tax to increase the incentive for charedim to enter the workforce or for changes in the current tax code, which encourages women working more than men.

THE LATE RABBI SHLOMO LORINCZ relates in his memoirs how he once received a note from the Chazon Ish, as he was about to deliver a blistering attack in the Knesset on President Chaim Weizmann, who was considered hostile to religious concerns. The Chazon Ish instructed him to absent himself from the Knesset instead. Later he explained his instructions to the young MK: Your speech would have had no impact on his re-election, and would only have turned him into a more bitter enemy. In short, before speaking ask yourself what is my goal and how will the speech advance that goal.

Daniel Gordis should have asked himself those same questions before penning his screed. He rightly apologized to Jonathan Swift for tabling his own “modest proposal” – one so lacking in wit, in every sense. But he owes himself a bigger apology. A person of his stature should not be writing at cross-purposes to his cherished goal of securing the Jewish people’s long-term future.

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10 Responses

  1. Bob Miller says:

    What is the Shalem Center’s mission, and how is their Senior VP furthering it?

    Here is part of their president’s statement as posted at their web site:
    “The response must come, first of all, in the realm of ideas. It is crucial to develop an understanding of Jewish thought and tradition that can serve as the basis for unity in Israel and throughout the Jewish world.”

    What I see in Gordis’ approach as quoted in the above article is anti-unity in a divisive spirit that contains actual hatred for one sizable category of Torah Jew.

  2. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I think you should not only write these columns, you should sit down with Daniel Gordis over coffee or whatever and discuss it with him, if he agrees to meet with you. Ask him why he, like many other opinion-molders, don’t bother to talk face-to-face with members of the hareidi public before forming opinions about them. As a communications person himself, Mr. Gordis should be a little more sophisticated about swallowing other people’s opinions whole.

  3. lacosta says:

    don’t forget that dr gordis was a C rabbi in LA before moving….

  4. irwin lowi says:

    Stop looking for nachas from people like Gordis who are not shomer Torah or Mitzvos. (It’s hard enough from those who are!) As a key component of the conservative movement here in L.A. he follows the other “philosophers” who morph into their own religions. Call him friend if you will, but you get what every other well meaning Orthodox person gets from the left, compassion when you take a view they agree with and spit when you don’t.

  5. Chaim Fisher says:

    Thank goodness someone had the fierce commitment and ability to delve into all this and write such a clear and convincing refutation of our enemies’ accusations.

    We must bond as tightly as we can. The dangers from outside are too great.

  6. dovid 2 says:

    If until recently, mainstream Israelis viewed Charedim with indifference, it is common for them to see us today with alarm as unbending, hostile, fast increasing crowd, unwilling to shoulder the financial responsibility related to our own upkeep, and unwilling to shoulder the burden in defending Israel from Muslim onslaught. They are concerned that the long-term trends are not sustainable both from economic and defense perspectives. They view us the way Muslims are viewed in France and other Western European countries. Since it’s impossible to quantify the effects of Torah learning and the performing of mitzvos on the nation’s material wellbeing and its security, secular Israelis are skeptical of our claims. Given that we start from an almost zero base, R’ Jonathan’s statistics of changing trends (“8.4% increase in male charedi employment and 6.5% among women since 2002, with the rate of increase accelerating.”) are too minuscule to register on the radar. It really amounts to only 1.01% per year for males and 0.79% per years for females. For such a small change to make its effect discernible, it may take more than a generation. While we expect or even demand that secular Israelis change their attitudes towards the Charedi community, we don’t have similar expectations of ourselves. Secular studies are not taught to high school bachurim. The Charedi world to this day takes a dim view of a male or female who goes to college to acquire a profession, as well as of a young man that joins the army. The 900 Charedi men that joined the army that the article was referring to, did so in order to acquire training that leads to well paid jobs in the private sector. These tasks are in demand also from the secular sector, which means that there are limits as to how many Charedim can the army absorb. The reality is that most tasks in the military have little applications outside the army. What can a soldier who served for three years in the infantry or tank corps do with the skills he acquired, besides the real danger to life in limb that serving in such units entails? The bachurim in Nachal Charedi (infantry) are still regarded as nebach cases who didn’t make it in the yeshiva world. Many of their own family members are bashful about the whole affair. In addition, mainstream Israelis are rightfully disgusted that their just or unjust criticism is often met with epithets such as Nazi, self hating Jew, etc. Only this week, a comment in a Charedi blog related to Israeli police brutality called the Israeli prime-minister Reichfuhrer Netanyahu. Rabosai, Israeli police brutality is a reality that must change and we must do something about changing it. But it’s not going to change by calling the cops and the politicians Nazis.

  7. Adam says:

    dovid2 – excellent posting. It is this kind of self-examination that the rest of the Jewish community look for in us. Most people, even the irreligious, lok to us as the (supposed) Jewish ideal. It is only by demonstrating an openness and willingness to examine ourselves that we may win back some respect.

  8. Dovid says:

    The article by Danny Gordis typifies the new level of vitriol that otherwise “moderate” secular intellectuals have recently taken to using agains the Charedim. In addition there is an attempt now in secular intellectual circles to provide “objective” quantitative evidence that the Charedim will “ruin” Israel.

    The vitriol I believe comes to a significant extent because secular Israel today faces a severe identity crisis and therefore they lash out in jelousy at those that have the strongest identity: The Charedim. Both the vitriol (comparisons of Charedim to cancer in this case) and the alleged statistics serve to avoid having to look inside the secular community for issues. They provide a clear external enemy and, in their minds, a clear reason for the superiority of their system.

  9. Leon Zacharowicz says:

    I wonder what the reaction might have been if Daniel Gordis had called any other group an existential threat to Israel.

  10. dr. bill says:

    I guess stanley fischer agreed. he is a rather clear thinking apolitical figure. sadly he reported the problem getting better for israeli arabs not charedim. think carefully about your statistics that say otherwise. if you are filling at hole a foot an hour and increase your ability by 50% to afoot and a one/half but the rate at which the hole deepens is growing to 2 feet an hour, which way are you going?

    i am more encouraged by efforts to fix the problem at its core – elementary school education – that is happening in some chassidic communities.

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