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.