Shulamit S. Magnus
Jewish historian

Hating Haredim Is Not the Answer, Sane Policy Is

I would like nothing better than to believe that haredi establishment political power will wane after the disaster unfolding before us of open rebellion by much of that sector against the State and national health policy during an epidemic. In an analysis, (“After the ultra-Orthodox Rebellion, Netanyahu Looks Weaker Than Ever”), this is what Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz claims will happen.

But as long as haredim have the right to vote, their parties will hold significant and disproportionate parliamentary power in Israel’s coalition morass. The most recent polls, released just last night, show the three haredi parties—representing the Middle Eastern haredim (Shas); the Lithuanian (non-hasidic, Ashkenazi) haredim; and the hasidic, Ashkenazi haredim– maintaining their Knesset seats. Why would that be otherwise?

The only way these parties would be kept out of a governing coalition is if there were  agreement among enough other parties about doing this. This happened most recently just a few years ago, for a brief government that Netanyahu brought down for his own reasons, before he formed another, and all the governments he has led since, with the haredi parties.

A government without the haredi parties is necessary but hardly sufficient. What we need are fundamental reforms so that the extreme dysfunction, now manifest in open rebellion against society itself, ends, and we see our way to a much saner society and healthier polity.

Such reforms would include the requirement of serious secular study in all schools; not an absurd five hours a week for the haredi system, which was proposed, and even this, shot down, in the recent government in which the haredi parties were in Opposition, but quality, methodical study, taught by competent teachers.

We would see a reform to end the monopoly on marriage, divorce, and burial that is now in the hands of the State-established Chief Rabbinate, Israel’s own theocracy, which regularly and systematically abuses women, Jews by Choice, and would-be Jews by Choice; which enshrines nepotism in empires of kashrut supervision and marriage officiation staffed by male relatives and lackeys. An establishment which runs similarly staffed rabbinical courts, which make a business out of prolonging divorce proceedings– fees are by the hearing, after all—and from gett extortion against women, while using blacklists about alleged mamzerut to hold hostage women who might think of freeing themselves from dead marriages, and the rabbinical courts. Courts that refuse to consider violence, even extreme violence, emotional and financial abuse, and child sexual molestation, as grounds for marriage annulment.

A coalition without the haredi parties that means more than just their exclusion would enact policies to end the subsidies to the yeshiva empire. Because this empire is the basis for the corrupt nexis between haredi illiteracy and poverty and the power of the haredi parties: an illiterate, impoverished, dependent population needs political parties– as these regularly remind them– to keep subsidies coming to put food on their tables. Food which the haredi population could put there itself if men were given educations that enable them to earn decent livings and not delegate wage work to but half the population– a female helot class whose earnings are insufficient to keep large haredi families above the poverty line.

Such a government would also need to enact other critically-needed reforms to fix ailing Israeli democracy: term limits for Prime Minister; and non-governmental, politically independent appointment of the State Comptroller, whose stated task is to oversee government functions and keep these honest (does anyone believe this is the case now?), and the national Police Commissioner. These are just two critical offices whose appointment process Netanyahu has politicized utterly, the latter of which, he has refused to fill.  This has left us for over a year with only a deputy national police commissioner– and lots of other juniors competing through various political games to get the top job—to be bestowed like a prize by Netanyahu or one of his loyal underlings, like Amir Ohana.

The open rebellion against State and society by major segments of the haredi establishment and population will only yield more hate against haredim as a whole. Netanyahu has incited hate against Arab Israelis; against the entire justice system, as he, indicted, awaits trial (unless, of course, he decrees another lockdown– say, in December, right before his trial is supposed to start, in January– which would keep lawyers and judges– and him– out of court); and against “leftists,” defined as anyone who opposes him, including such noted lefties as Avigdor Liberman and Naftali Bennet. More anti-haredi hatred does not serve him. He needs to keep hatred directed against his traditional opponents

But anti-haredi hatred also does not serve Israeli society, which needs a coherent plan to end the fundamentally corrupt systems on which the haredi establishment’s political power is based. It is this establishment which has brought us to our current, sorry pass of endemic haredi poverty, functional illiteracy, embedded misogyny, and rampant xenophobia. Haredi xenophobia is not just directed against the classic targets of xenophobia– members of other religions or ethnicities, or immigrants– but against all who are not haredi. It grips an entire population raised on suspicion, hate, and ignorance of the “outside,” and on a claim of ultimate privilege to behave however it decides, the hell with the rest of us.

A population that, with a straight face, asserts that it has, and must have, total “autonomy,” while using the State’s electrical, water, and gas supply systems, its health system, roads, and airport. Not to mention, the services of its police and army.

We can waste our energy raging against the product of a political system that we ourselves have tolerated and enabled, government after government since the inception of this State, or we can insist on systemic change to end that system, and heal our society and our polity.

About the Author
Shulamit S. Magnus is a professor of Jewish history, author of four books and numerous articles on Jewish modernity and the history of Jewish women, and winner of a National Jewish Book award and other prizes. Her opinions have been published in the Forward, Tablet, EJewish Philanthropy, and the Jerusalem Post.
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