A Prediction Fulfilled — Sadly
Exactly one year ago, in a piece entitled “Yair Lapid Sets Back the Clock,” I predicted that Yair Lapid and his Yesh Atid party would reverse a decade-long trend toward greater chareidi integration in the broader Israeli society. The Marker recently confirmed the accuracy of that prediction with respect to the number of chareidim seeking higher education and enlisting in the IDF.
An unidentified official in the Council on Higher Education termed the registration for the start of the upcoming academic year among chareidim as a “catastrophe.” According to the best estimates of the head of the council, Professor Manuel Trachtenberg, there will be a 20 percent decline from the chareidi registration for the 2013-14 academic year. The decline has been particularly dramatic among male students
The decrease in the number of chareidim registering for academic programs comes at a time when government support — in the form of student loans and grants — for chareidim in academia has greatly expanded. Avraham Feldstein, the director of Kemach, which offers tuition stipends for chareidi students, notes “the absurdity that at the very time the government is investing significant funds to encourage chareidi higher education, it has created a public atmosphere that has caused chareidim to refrain from taking advantage of the government’s initiatives.”
Feldstein describes a totally new atmosphere among young chareidim coming into Kemach’s offices: “They are much more concerned with obtaining rabbinical approval than in the past.”
The same pattern is evident as well with respect to enlistment rates. Defense Minister Moshe (Boogie) Ya’alon recently told the Knesset Committee on Foreign Affairs and Security that the IDF had witnessed a 50 percent decline in chareidi enlistment in recent months.
Prior to the advent of the new government, decisions about leaving kollel to work, obtain academic training, or enlist in the IDF were more or less private decisions made by individuals based on their particular circumstances. While the gedolim always upheld the ideal of long-term learning for the community as a whole, when approached by individuals who felt the need to leave kollel for one reason or another, they almost always gave their approval.
SO WHAT CHANGED over the last year that led to such “dramatic” drops in chareidi men signing up for academic courses or enlisting in one of the IDF programs for married men? Can the change be attributed to the improved economic circumstances of the Torah community? Lower apartment prices? A sudden infusion of new private donations into yeshivos and kollelim? Hardly.
The only thing that changed was the advent of the current government, with Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid as the treasury minister. The trends of the previous decade were not sufficiently rapid to satisfy him. So he embarked upon a campaign to squeeze the Torah community in every possible way and force men to leave Torah learning for the workplace — slashing funding for yeshivos and kollelim and yeshivos ketanos, removing municipal discounts available to kollel families. In each case the cuts were enacted with great fanfare to please his electoral base.
The rhetoric employed contributed to the impression in the Torah community that it was the very learning of Torah that was under assault. The language of “shirking” applied to those learning in yeshivah contemptuously turned yungeleit into “welfare queens,” whiling away their time in ease while supping at the public trough. Never heard was an expression of appreciation of the intensity of learning that can be readily observed in hundreds of yeshivos and kollelim around the country, or of the dedication of Torah scholars who push sleep from their eyes to continue their studies late until the night.
The new draft law included specific provisions potentially subjecting those learning in yeshivah or kollel to criminal sanctions. Whether those sanctions are ever applied or not is not the issue. It was not enough to portray yungeleit as lazy ne’er-do-wells swinging in hammocks; now they became criminals as well. Even Shahar Ilan, the direct of Chiddush, an organization dedicated to the fight against “religious coercion” and which just last week won a suit in the Supreme Court against income supplements for kolleleit, warned Lapid that the so-called criminalization provisions would strike a mortal blow at chareidi participation in the IDF.
Lapid and his Yesh Atid cohorts, like Education Minister Shai Piron, spoke too of the need to forge a common Israeli identity, and the IDF as a natural place to do so. They thereby succeeded in turning the IDF, in chareidi eyes, from primarily being an instrument of national defense into an institution for the socialization of chareidim into a culture to which they have no desire to be acculturated. Chareidim do not believe that there is some happy meeting point between Torah and non-Torah values.
As a consequence of all these concrete steps and the accompanying rhetoric, Lapid and company turned the decision to leave kollel from an individual decision, based on a host of personal and familial factors, to a communal decision — one that would be handing a victory to Lapid’s anti-Torah agenda. And when the Torah community and Torah learning is under attack, even things that are normally perfectly permissible are viewed in a different light.
During a time of gezeiras haShmad, it becomes forbidden to wear a particular color shoelace — not because it is inherently forbidden, but because the ruling authority is attempting to force the Jewish community to cease maintaining its distinctiveness from the non-Jewish community. I’m not comparing the current government decrees to a gezeiras Shmad. But the example establishes the principle that when Torah is perceived to be under attack, individual decisions, perfectly permissible in and of themselves, have to be reevaluated in a communal context.
That is what is taking place today. Chareidi young men who as individuals might be eager to acquire training to earn a livelihood, are putting their individual considerations aside in order not to provide succor to the enemy.
For that Yair Lapid has only himself to blame.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha.