I am as opinionated as the next Israeli couch potato. And like most of my co-nationals, I sit on my lounge chair and complain to myself about the insane state of affairs we accept from our politicians. But then I saw and heard Agudat Yisrael’s Moshe Gafni stand at the dais of the Knesset and audaciously blame the general Israeli public for purposefully creating the overcrowded ghetto-like living conditions of large parts of his Haredi community — though I assume his living accommodations and those his fellow Haredi power brokers are more comfortable. The hutzpa is truly breathtaking.
A theocratic community that has sanctified ignorance and poverty, glorified limitless procreation without regard to personal financial responsibility, and which is disproportionately subsidized by the greater Israeli community, blames the general public for their resulting conditions. I guess he thinks I should not only work and save my whole life to assist my kids to establish themselves, but I should also buy a six-room villa for every Yeshiva student and his family.
This moment of unusual emotional agitation led me to conjure a simple thought experiment. Imagine two different Israels — one, without a Haredi community, and the other, without a secular community.
The Israel devoid of Haredim would be much more liberal than the one we know today. Women would be whole persons and citizens with no restrictions on how they dress, if they can sing in public, or whether they can participate equally by right in all political and public institutions. Buses and Universities would not even contemplate segregating by gender. Images of women would no longer be defaced by vandals. All Israeli children would get a meaningful education learning basic knowledge and skills to be productive adult partners in the country, its economy and culture. Israel would cease to be the only western democracy that doesn’t protect religious liberty. Every Jew/Jewess would have a respected right at the Kotel and every other public or sanctified public space to express their chosen denomination of Judaism. Government budgets would be transparent and comprehensible to every citizen without all kinds of pseudo-allocations that conceal and obfuscate hundreds of millions of shekel payments to various Haredi purposes. And yes, there would be equality of military service.
What’s more, no more embarrassing pleadings by our Prime Minister with Yankeleh, the venerable grandson of the more-venerable Rabbi Kanievsky to “please, please, pretty-please” follow the pandemic rules because you’re causing sickness and death in your own community and overwhelming the general health services of the country and materially contributing to the closing of our economy. And our institutes of Jewish learning would be populated by young men and women who would proudly carry into the future the ancient and eternal torch of our religious and philosophical wisdom and truths with critical and fearless thinking, including engaging with modern knowledge and wisdom which our forefathers did not have access to when they expressed their ideas and opinions over the millennia. Religious services — kosher certificates, rabbinical services, religious educational services, life-cycle services like circumcision, marriage, divorce, burial, etc — would be provided by the private sector and driven by market forces. They would be cost-effective, efficient, user-friendly, diverse and would be a glory to the name of God, rather than a desecration of the same.
Now, Israel devoid of secular citizens. Firstly, without an effective military, it would probably be short-lived, but for our experiment, we’ll ignore that little problem. There would be a dearth of universities and colleges; and a severe shortage of doctors, scientists, engineers, architects, urban planners, economists, historians, archeologists, sociologists, anthropologists, musicians, artists, and indigenous culture — theater, film, dance, opera, etc. This Israel would disinvite 85% of world Jewry which is Reform, Conservative or intermarried. Oh right, zilch hi-tech. There are not many Haredim in the 8200 Intelligence Unit. At best, we’d have a typical Middle Eastern economy focused on agriculture and maybe tourism. Though with all services closed on Shabbat and Holidays, tourism could be a problem. There would be no or minimal participation of women in public life. The LGBTQ community would cease to exist since we all know there are no gay persons in the Haredi society and those isolated exceptions would simply undergo conversion therapy. Oh, probably no Ethiopian Jewish community either (though maybe the Sephardi Haredim can run some interference on this point). On the positive side, this Israel would, for a time at least, have one of the highest birth rates in the western world and one of the lowest rates of male participation in the workforce. A true Utopia.
Obviously, under our reality this article can’t be a blueprint for Israel nor is it meant to express an unrealistic aspiration. It is meant to shock both sides of this societal chasm into realizing the true relative strengths and weaknesses of each vision. And maybe contribute to a major recalibration of the forces and trade-offs that make up the toxic status quo between the Haredi Israel and the rest of us.