We Owe an Answer
President Reuven Rivlin made an important speech opening a conference on chareidi employment sponsored by the Joint Distribution Committee two weeks ago. He began by pointing out that the 20% of the school children in Israel between first and sixth grade are now in chareidi educational frameworks.
The chareidim are no longer a beleaguered minority, their very survival at stake, said the President, but this fact has not yet registered either with the chareidi community or its opponents. We have gone too long without “changing the tape,” as if nothing has changed from the early days of the state, said Rivlin. What is needed now, he argued, is a partnership of equals between chareidim and non-chareidim.
Much of what President Rivlin had to say will be music to chareidi ears. He strongly criticized the 19th Knesset for the discussion of chareidim. He pointed out that efforts at coercion had backfired miserably and only succeeded in triggering a backlash resulting in fewer chareidim in the IDF and lessened chareidi involvement in the economy. “When one group feels that their world and cultural existence is under threat, it will not lead to a breakthrough in the relations, but a withdrawal. I fear that this is the case with the chareidi community after the 19th Knesset,” he said.
Most importantly, he called for a cessation of efforts to coerce chareidim into an Israeli consensus: “Different camps in Israeli society cannot dictate to the chareidi public how and what is the right way to educate their children or how to conduct their lives. The concept of partnership outlined by Rivlin aims “to replace solutions based on threats or coercion with solutions based on compromise and understanding, starting with the ‘core subjects’ in education and through military service.”
In the realm of employment, he insisted, the general society cannot demand of the chareidi public to join the workforce while slamming the doors in front of them. He called upon employers to “mobilize towards the national mission of integrating the chareidi community into the economy.” He termed it unacceptable that employers should reject qualified men for jobs because of their beards or peyos or women because of the number of their children.
The public sector too must do more, according to President Rivlin. As an example, he noted that he has long supported treating Yore-Yore as the equivalent of a B.A. degree for many government positions and service on government boards.
THE PRESIDENT, HOWEVER, did not confine himself exclusively to what the general society must do. He directed some questions concerning the economy and Israel’s future to the chareidi community as well. “I want to know what is the chareidi community’s solution to the fact that we see many righteous people whose offspring go hungry,” he said. He pointed out that, according to government statistics, one-half of chareidi men between 35-54 do not work, which means that they have low incomes, accrue no pensions, and face an uncertain future. And he noted that, unlike in our father’s generation, when people could support their families without an education, the modern knowledge economy puts a high premium on education, and ever more jobs require academic or vocational training of some kind.
Rivlin stressed that he was not asking these questions on behalf the chareidi community alone “but for our society as a whole.” For instance, Israel still needs an army to protect the lives of all its citizens, and the qualitative technological edge of Israeli army is the key to its success. Even if chareidim are not drafted, he asked, “as equal shareholders in the future of Israel and its security who will fund the maintenance of this army if Israeli society is poor?” That question, he emphasized, “has nothing to do with Zionism, but only with the commitment and responsibility of all groups that make up Israeli society today.”
Rivlin’s question about the economic future of our community is one that most of us ask at least occasionally, with respect to ourselves, our children, and the broader society in which we live and with which we identify.
And the question about how we see our role in Israeli society is increasingly unavoidable as our percentage of the population grows with each passing year. And that is particularly so to the extent that the chareidi community is dependent on government income transfers. There would be something morally compromised about telling those upon whom one is dependent for sustenance that one wishes to have nothing to do with them.
The President did not presume to answer the question he posed to the chareidi community about how they see their role in Israeli society: “I do not want to formulate the answers or solutions for the chareidi community” He sought only assurance that the question was being asked.
I understood Rivlin to be asking a variant of the question that non-chareidi Jews in Israel invariably pose when asked about their feelings about the chareidi community: “Do they care about us? Do they feel any responsibility towards us?” The fact that the question is still being asked at this late date is unquestionably one of the greatest failures of the chareidi world’s public relations with the larger society. We have still not convinced our non-chareidi brothers that we do care about them or that we recognize that our fates are inextricably entwined with theirs.
I doubt that there is only one answer to the question of how chareidim see their role in Israeli society. But it is a question that we must think about. For Rivlin is right that it is time to change the cassette. The miraculous growth of the chareidi population ensures that the community no longer has to worry about its survival, as was true in the early ’50s, when even it Meah Shearim it was said that there was “no house in which there were no dead” swept away by the Zionist ideology that seemed to be the wave of the future.
At the famous meeting between the Chazon Ish and Prime Minister Ben Gurion, the latter could grant a deferment for yeshiva students confident that there would be none within another generation or two. And those feelings found their mirror image in the small, embattled chareidi community.
But those days are no more. The threats to Torah learning today are more likely to come from within than without.
A few months ago, I was in America together with Mishpacha publisher Eli Paley raising money for the new Haredi Institute for Public Affairs. Paley is a fluent, but not native, English speaker, and I suggested that he speak primarily on those subjects about which he feels most passionately, for then his natural eloquence overcomes any need to search for the right word.
The issue that moved him most and which he addressed could have served as an affirmative response to the President’s question: the necessity for the chareidi community to begin to think not just about its own parochial interests but also to concern itself as well with its responsibility for the general society. By responsibility he did not mean integration into a common Israeli culture, which is, and will always remain, impossible for chareidim. Rather, he spoke of a responsibility to influence the broader society according to Torah values.
The world of Torah is strong enough and firmly enough established today, he said, to concern itself with the image of the Torah in the broader Israeli Jewish world, with the application of Torah values to the running of a modern state, and with what Torah Jews have to contribute to the building of a Jewish society in Israel.
How that will be done remains for a long discussion among ourselves and with our fellow Israeli Jews.