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A chance to tear down the ghetto walls

A government without the ultra-Orthodox paves the way to correcting a grave historic injustice

In a historic development, Israel is poised to swear in a government that includes no Haredi ultra-Orthodox members and the Haredi reaction has been close to hysterical. Ashkenazi Haredim need to be part of the government because that is how they protect the “interests” of their electorate and lay their hands on the funds needed for the upkeep of their exilic way of life. Because they view themselves as the only true Jews, the existence of the Jewish state has not meant a paradigm change for they still see themselves as a persecuted minority living amongst a hostile majority. The only difference is that the government of Israel is nominally Jewish and therefore slightly more in accord with their way of life and needs.

The rhetoric used by their politicians and in their mass media has been extreme almost to the point of accusing the other parties (even if they include orthodox Jews) of being anti-Semitic. This should not come as a surprise given their attitude towards the State. As far as they are concerned, they are still living in exile, an autonomous minority community surrounded by people who want to undermine and destroy their way of life.

The blame for this state of affairs should not be placed only on the shoulders of the Haredi politicians and religious leaders who, instead of encouraging their flock to get a secular education and join the work force, have used the enormous public funds given to them by previous governments to increase their control and close access to the outside world. Much of the fault for the present state of affairs has to be apportioned to the governments who bought into the myth that the Haredim represent true Judaism, both historical and contemporary, and that it is they who have kept the flame of Jewish identity alive over the ages. This historical fallacy along with a subconscious guilt at seemingly having abandoned the Jewish way of life has empowered the Haredim political parties, as they have been able to pretty much milk former governments and retain the status quo in return for support of governmental policies.

The Haredim are one of numerous streams of Judaism which have risen and fallen over the past 2,000 years. They are no more legitimately Jewish than other current streams such as Conservative and Reform, and many of their ideas, customs and ideologies would have seemed strange to Jews living in medieval Ashkenaz or in sixteenth-century Poland. The Haredim (a generalization for many different streams) evolved in response to changing historical circumstances and advanced their interpretation of divine writ to give meaning to their lives, community and relationship with God. Their way of life does not deserve to be considered special or unique in any way, shape or form and should not be funded from the public purse.

The formation of a government with no Ashkenazi Haredim (the so-called Sefaradim a.k.a. Shas are a different story though there are some parallels) is an opportunity to break down the fences erected by their leaders and integrate them into Israeli society. Each person’s belief system is his or hers alone and the State should not interfere nor inhibit religious praxis. However, the gradual weaning of the Haredim from public funding will be an act of gemilut hasadim, loving kindness, as it will force them to tear down the walls of their ghettos and negotiate a path into mainstream Israeli society.

About the Author
Chaim Hames is the Chair of the History Department, Ben Gurion University of the Negev and the author of I (do not) Believe: Israel and Judaism – Past, Present, Future (in Hebrew, Ktav 2011) – the opinions here presented are his alone