Haredim: The real existential threat to Israel
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Haredim: The real existential threat to Israel

There may not be an Israel in 20 years and, by then, diaspora Jewry may not care. If that comes about, God forbid, blame it on the unchecked political clout of the haredim, the rigid fundamentalists.

KEEPING THE FAITH: One religious perspectIve on issues of the day That clout is artificial; it is the spawn of an electoral system in desperate need of overhaul. That clout has created a far more dangerous threat to diaspora Jewry’s continuing relationship to Israel than the temporarily dormant conversion bill. A rupture in that relationship would cost Israel whatever political clout diaspora Jews routinely muster on its behalf, as well as their donations and financial investments. Such losses alone are an existential threat to the state.

The even greater threat is aimed at Israel’s ability to grow its economy, continue its scientific research programs, and maintain its strong defense capability. This threat results from how the haredim use their political clout to ignore Israeli education law.

The state pays haredi schools to provide their students with a basic secular education – meaning the study of English, basic science, simple math, geography, and history. The schools take the money, but do not teach the subjects. The state knows this, but does nothing about it because haredi political clout will not allow the state to act. Yet not only does this failure to provide a basic secular education rob the state of millions of dollars it sorely needs elsewhere, it poses a real and present danger to Israel’s security.

The state also pays the salaries of the haredi teachers who are supposed to teach these subjects. You cannot teach, however, what you do not know. The daily newspaper Yediot Achronot put these teachers to the test – literally. It distributed 10 questions to 25 haredi teachers. The questions were taken from government lesson plans for grades one to three and were absurdly simple. Among them: If the first three words of the Hatikvah are “Kol ohd balevav,” what is the fourth word? On which continent is Israel found? What does the word “Saturday” mean? What is the square root of 81? Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?

The average test score among the 25 teachers was 59. Ten of them missed at least half of the questions (including the one about the Hatikvah, to which one haredi teacher on the government payroll reportedly responded, “I don’t know and I don’t want to know”). Seventeen of the 25 did not know what “Saturday” meant.

The textbooks used in these schools only exacerbates the problem, Yediot Achronot reported. English textbooks, it said, are virtually non-existent. The basic “science” text is “The Nature of Creation.” Purported to be a biology text on the human body, it contains such tidbits as “when you smell something bad, you mustn’t recite a prayer or quotes from the Torah,” and “When God saves a man’s body from something bad, the bones on which the body stands must thank Him.”

This is not about whether haredi schools have the right to teach whom they want what they want. This is about the security and survivability of the State of Israel, which hangs in the balance.

According to the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Jerusalem (named after local New Jersey philanthropist Henry Taub), in 20 to 30 years the haredi sector will be the dominant Jewish one in Israel’s economy. The current lack of basic education means that in 20 to 30 years Israel will have trouble hiring qualified street sweepers, much less finding the engineers, physicists, researchers, technicians, and doctors it will need. The military ranks will also be severely depleted.

“When the haredim become dominant, where will all these come from?” asked Tel Aviv University economist Dan Ben-David, the Taub Center’s executive director. “A country with security troubles such as ours does not have the luxury of going bankrupt,” he told Yediot Achronot. “We will not be able to maintain an army to defend us, or fund the equipment we need. If the haredim continue to receive the same education [as they are getting now], I have no doubt Israel will not be able to exist in two decades.” Ben-David is not normally an alarmist. Aside from having been TAU’s “outstanding teacher of the year” in 2004, he co-authored the Kadimah party’s 2006 socio-economic platform and has advised prime ministers for over a decade.

Israel has enough laws and regulations on its books to deal with the problem. Only haredi clout prevents it from doing so.

To Israel’s immediate detriment is how haredi clout is making it increasingly difficult for non-haredi Jewish olim – Orthodox, non-Orthodox, it matters not – to officially be recognized as Jews for the purposes of marriage and other life-cycle events.

The pending conversion bill is nothing compared to new regulations issued by Israel’s Chief Rabbinate in May. According to those regulations, anyone applying to marry in Israel whose parents were married outside the state must prove his or her Jewishness to the satisfaction of a haredi-dominated local rabbinical court. Depending on the court, this can mean anything from providing ketubot for three or four generations of parents and grandparents to also supplying birth and death certificates going back that far.

“I don’t know anybody who has that,” said an angry Rabbi Michael Melchior, the Orthodox former Labor minister and onetime chief rabbi of Norway. He complained to the daily newspaper Haaretz that “even [the word of] a very Orthodox rabbinate [outside Israel] doesn’t count anymore.” Only the records count, he said, and these are usually unobtainable.

In Israel outside the haredi community, Nachum ben Yosef Shmuel Sokolow is revered as an early Zionist leader. Among other things, he was Chaim Weizmann’s immediate predecessor as president of the World Zionist Congress.

To Hillary Rubin, who made aliyah in 2006, Nachum Sokolow was her grandfather’s uncle. To legally marry her South African-born Jewish fiancé, however, she is being forced to travel to Cyprus for a civil ceremony. That is because the rabbinate in Herzliya demanded that she provide ketubot and birth certificates going back four generations.

“I am the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors,” she told Haaretz. “Any documents my grandparents may have had from their families we don’t have any more…. Who has a death certificate from somebody who was gassed to death…? [My] grandparents were persecuted for being Jewish, and here I am being told I’m not exactly Jewish.”

“It’s as if one day you wake up and you’re no longer a Jew in the Jewish State, but outside Israel you are still Jewish enough to be hated by most of the world,” Haaretz quoted Rubin as saying. “It’s a weird feeling.”

If not checked – and soon – this unbridled use of raw political power on the part of a sector of Israeli society that does not even care to know the words of the Hatikvah will eventually cause diaspora Jewry to abandon its support for Israel.

In recent months, Jewish media and Jewish organizations have exhausted themselves in rallying the troops against the writer Peter Beinart’s criticisms of Israel and then against the conversion bill. If diaspora Jewry truly wants to defend Israel’s future, it must focus instead on the real threat from within. It must wage an effective campaign for electoral reform in Israel, limit haredi clout, and spare us from the disastrous consequences of haredi ignorance and impertinence.

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