Eliyahu Berkovits

Faust is dressed like an ultra-Orthodox Jew

Is it possible to pinpoint the exact time that a model society loses its soul?

Is there a defining event whereby a principled society fundamentally compromises its core values, having to decide between wishful and practical thinking? Or perhaps, it is a long, drawn-out process — each time the circle is squared, or a blind eye is turned, an additional layer of the soul withers away until nothing is left of it?

Although many readers will not be happy with my opinion, I can state unequivocally that in many ways, ultra-Orthodox society is an exemplary one. In today’s consumer-driven world, with huge billboards screaming out at us “Consumo ergo sum” (I buy; therefore, I am), an entire sector of society distances itself from the belief that a carbonated drink is — in the words of the advertisement — “the taste of life.” Ultra-Orthodox society is one whose members devote themselves to continuous soul-searching as to their obligations in this world and to God, who willingly make do with less, living a life of modesty, charitable acts and selfless giving.

This has been one of the secrets of the success of ultra-Orthodox society and why it has drawn so many people to it. However, this is a situation of a double-edged sword for the ultra-Orthodox community. Total devotion to its ideals, which inherently means distancing itself from the modern world is only feasible for individuals or for small groups, not for an entire sector of society that has one of the highest rates of natural growth in the world.

The truth is that ultra-Orthodox society has always had to square circles, learning to ignore its obligation to join the rest of Israeli society in the burden of defending the state. They refuse to share the burden because serving in the IDF would unravel the ultra-Orthodox socialization process that takes place within the closed confines of yeshiva study halls. The explanation provided by the ultra-Orthodox sector is that it is fighting on a different front — a spiritual war, protecting the Jewish character of the State of Israel. The decision not to include core subjects such as math, Hebrew, and English in schools lies behind the relatively low rate of employment among the ultra-Orthodox, especially in high-level jobs, coupled with the high rate of natural growth means that ultra-Orthodox society receives far more support from public funds than it contributes. Since this is in stark contradiction to the values it espouses, ultra-Orthodox society tells itself the story that it makes a disproportional contribution to the economy through indirect taxation on consumer goods, while ignoring the fact that it cannot sustain itself using its own resources, and relies on external support.

Even if this squaring of circles has not yet led to moral bankruptcy and to severe cognitive dissonance, a red line was crossed this week. An ill wind blows from each line of the coalition agreements signed with the ultra-Orthodox parties when the current government was formed. The Valley of Dry Bones (Book of Ezekiel – chapter 37) was full of the unrealistic private member bills proposed by the ultra-Orthodox MKs in previous governments, and this ill wind gave the bills a new breath of life in the current Knesset. These are bills that should never have been proposed in the first place.

Last week, the bill proposed by MKS Moshe Gafni, Uri Maklev and Yitzhak Pindross passed its preliminary reading. The bill calls for adequate representation of ultra-Orthodox employees in local authorities and public corporations, and was first proposed in earlier governments. At first glance, the bill seems to be based on similar calls for adequate and appropriate representation in the civil service, municipalities, and local authorities for members of the Druze community or for Israelis of Ethiopian descent. However, as Dr. Gilad Malach of the Israel Democracy Institute notes in his professional opinion, the present proposal is very different from the existing legislation applying to these two sectors.

The existing legislation does not determine what percentage of employees belonging to these two sectors must be employed in government ministries, municipalities, or local authorities, nor does it define the level of these designated jobs. For municipalities and local authorities, the law states that they are permitted, but not required, to set aside designated jobs for the ultra-Orthodox. Gafni’s proposal is different, in that it would make it mandatory under the ordinances of the municipalities and local councils, to designate jobs, and it defines the percentage of designated jobs for the ultra-Orthodox on boards of directors, in municipalities and local authorities, and determines that jobs should be designated jobs be at all levels. The proposal also states that for the first five years, their percentage will be double that of their percentage in the general population. The percentage is to be calculated — and often based directly — on the percentage of ultra-Orthodox children in the population, rather than on the percentage of adults of working age.

The truth needs to be told — this is not a proposal calling for appropriate representation. This is a case of the winner of the election grabbing everything he can lay his hands on, a gluttonous orgy of designation of public jobs which discriminates against the rest of the population. Integrating the ultra-Orthodox into society and the economy, opening up the civil service to them is a welcome, inevitable move. However, the proposed bill does not promote integration; rather — it is a hostile takeover.

With their excessive concern about the welfare of ultra-Orthodox society and their attempts to preserve its lifestyle, Gafni and his colleagues are pulling the rug out from under the value structure which is the foundation for this way of life. In their attempt to preserve the ultra-Orthodox world, they are dealing a knockout to the moral core of ultra-Orthodox society.

Rabbi Israel Salant, is one of the spiritual fathers of the ultra-Orthodox world. All ultra-Orthodox children grow up listening to stories about how sensitive he was not to hurt anyone, and how he was fiercely opposed to any religious activity or commandment that could harm to a fellow human being.

The law for “adequate and appropriate representation” that is progressing along the Knesset legislative path is neither just, nor fair; it is neither wise nor ethical. And above all, it is not ultra-Orthodox.

The struggle against this law is not about opposition vs. coalition. It is not even about the general public vs. ultra-Orthodox society. It is about the soul and the values of ultra-Orthodox society. Anyone who cares about the spiritual existence of this model society should be on the front lines of opposition to the bill.

About the Author
Eliyahu Berkovits is a researcher in the ultra-Orthodox program in Israel and the Program for Religion and State at the Israel Democracy Institute, and a doctoral student in the Department of Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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