The Israeli democracy and the haredi

PART I

Introduction

As the second general election of Israel rolls around, I have been reading a number of respected political commentators who assert that the Israeli democracy is “alive and well”.

For example, Haviv Retig Gur, argues that “the electoral system, despite all its manifest shortcomings, is responsive to that which matters most in a democracy: it forces the competing groups to co-operate” (my free translation from French). A proposition which historically and up to the present does not quite stand scrutiny, particularly in this year’s electoral fever.

Surely the term co-operate would hardly apply to the haredi. As David Suissa, succinctly put it, “Israeli religious parties’ crave for power because it enables them to fulfil their religious agenda”

In their case, the co-operation is purely opportunistic and self-serving. Victor Rosenthal in his June 3 article in Israpundit points out: “Israel’s electoral system based on proportional representation, has been and increasingly continues to be an expensive and subversive recipe for democratic deficit.  Governing is increasingly becoming a matter of being a successful practitioner of a “’ coalition racket’… where a small party can exploit its position to gain massive leverage and benefits. The religious parties, and in particular the haredi, are outstanding players of this racket particularly since it has been and continues to be practically impossible for any party to form a government without having them onside. And these parties are quite happy to be onside for any party seeking to form the government at the right price in terms of Cabinet positions, funding for the haredi and their institutions, undertaking to keep them out of the army and enacting Torah friendly legislation.  Nor are they in any way reluctant to cause the fall of any government of which they are members, which fails to act to their liking.”  (Slightly edited without changing the thrust of his argument).  In this connection one only need to remember the fate of the Rabin government which permitted Saturday flights.

David Weinberg, asks his readers “to disregard feral, foul and false talk that slanders Israel. Israeli democracy is not ‘shattering’ nor are we facing ‘the darkest days Israel has known.’” He then proceeds to make his point in terms of the existence of “a continuum of respectable views of public policy formulated [in the governing of the country] that defy simple categorisation as democratic or anti-democratic…and to abjure accusations that every controversial policy innovation is motivated by hatred, moral insensitivity or authoritarianism”.

Then again, surely, one need not engage in foul, feral and false talk that slanders Israel by pointing out that, contrary to Weinberg’s assertion, on at least one issue –there has not been much of the sort in dealing with the issues concerning the haredi community and the adverse impact of the way in which these issues have been playing out.

Evelyn Gordon on the other hand, provides a case study which in her opinion proves her point: namely that “The true measure of whether a democracy is functioning properly… it’s whether democracy’s self-correcting mechanisms are working.”

The test case and the illustrations provided by Gordon merely prove that Israeli democracy defined   in the context of the administration of justice is alive and well.  Nevertheless these are not the only the self-correcting mechanisms needed to keep the Israeli democracy alive and well. More particularly, those that exist on the relationship of the haredi with government and the rest of the Israeli society are certainly not up to scratch.

  1. The writer’s position

As the history clearly demonstrates, the question as to whether democracy is alive and well cannot be determined solely by the current state of affairs. Just as, if not more, importantly, it also demands an answer to the question as to whether carrying on with the current system, this democracy will serve Israel well into the future, say for the next 50 years.

Regrettably, Ben-Gurion after realising his mistake in granting special privileges to the yeshiva students and their teachers forfeited the opportunity to correct his mistake which created the inequitable situation where as Ben-Gurion put it, “the yeshiva students were sacrificing themselves for the study of the Torah while other Jewish youth were [and continue to] literally laying down their lives in defence of the state.”

In due course, in 1977 Menachem Begin compounded the original mistake, ignored the second question when he declared that “the “[full time] Torah study [and presumably all the praying that goes along with it] is [the haredi] occupation.”  In the result,  providing the kinds of funding required to finance the yeshiva system to meet the needs of the fast expanding community became  the  marching orders of his and of the successive governments right up to and including the 2015 Netanyahu government .

A thoroughly secular Ariel Sharon in turn, was one of those who saw the haredi as the authentic Jew without whom the Jewish people cannot survive. He is reputed to have repeatedly stated that “If we don’t have yeshivot there will be no Jewish people”.

Nobody seems to have asked him how the Jewish people managed to survive during the centuries when the haredi movement did not exist or whether we need hundreds of thousands of them to study the Torah and pray to help the Jewish people survive, not to mention the fact that, for example, the large American ultra-Orthodox community has been and continues to do likewise.”

In a 2017 report of the Israel Democratic Institute (IDI), in line with those of Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, estimates that that by 2065, less than 50 years down the road, the haredi will constitute about 33% of Israel’s population. The credibility of this projection is enhanced by the fact that according to Professor Yedidia Z.Stern,” fully fifty percent of all haredi were born in the twenty-first century… [making it] one of the youngest communities in the world.” A nightmare scenario.

Clearly, neither Begin nor Sharon, nor other government leaders were thinking about the actual and potential adverse impacts of the high fertility rate of the haredi on Israel’s future demographic composition and, among other things, on its political culture, institutions, economic well-being and national security.

Now, one may “pooh pooh” this  projection  and its anticipated serious negative impacts by pointing out that a) the number of haredi  attending university and pursuing post-graduate studies have shown a dramatic increase to the current 10,000 plus figure; b) between  2003 and 2014  the fertility rate of haredi women dropped from 7.5 per woman to 6.9 children and is expected to continue to decline to 5.5 by 2025 to 2029;  c)the rate of the haredi women’s participation in the labour market  has been going up to reach a rate not  very far from that of other women save for the fact that a substantial number of the former work on a part-time basis and in any event less than 35 hours a week and c) there has been some progress in the number of the Haredi males enlisting into the IDF.

I would argue that on such highly complex matters   as the relationship of the haredi community with the mainstream Israeli society, optimism based on current trends is not an appropriate, relevant, valid or reliable tool in formulating public policy to deal with these matters.

At all events, based on the experience to date, such optimism is questionable. As experience has shown, apparent or actual progress, even marginal progress towards the resolution of a particular problem is not unidirectional. Progress may become tenuous, stall or may be wiped out in part or in whole.  The following examples illustrate this proposition

Education

In 2013, while 27% of haredi students took matriculation examinations, merely 10% earned a matriculation certificate. Of these, only 2% were boys and 17% were girls. By the 2015-2016 academic year, while overall 12% got a matriculation certificate, the percentage of boys taking the exams declined from 16% to 14% and their success rate in getting the certificate failed to improve.

Enlistment in the IDF

Overall, the proportion of haredi youth who enlist in the IDF or alternatively in the National Civil Service is roughly 30% of each cohort of eligible draftees. This rate is 5% higher than that in 2016, and that percentage has been said to have been going higher every year. In numerical terms, cumulatively, according to the IDF records between 2007 and 2017 the number of eligible haredi soldiers went from 270 to 3675. And in 2017 their numbers in active IDF service totalled 7066, although it has been suggested that the IDF has been somewhat cheating in their numbers as the figures are computed by counting a number of religious recruits as haredi.

Be as it may, the number of conscripts remains lower than the target stipulated by law called for the annual conscription rate of the haredi males shall not be less than 3300 per year. So far, the percentage of those who have served in the IDF is 31% compared with 85% on the other Jewish males. The Supreme Court of Israel struck down the law as being discriminatory inequitable and  since then the Knesset has been having a hard time  trying to put together a new legislative scheme that would be acceptable both to the haredi members of the government , to the other Israelis ,and more importantly to the Court.

In the meantime, the IDF, among other things, a)  is struggling to remedy the shortage of personnel created by the government’s i) decision to cut the length of mandatory military service for men from three years to two years and eight months, and ii) plan  to further reduce service to 30 months beginning in 2020 ;and b) has launched a new initiative  to address the shortage of soldiers who elect  to go into combat service by sending combat soldiers and officers into local pubs , particularly those in the big cities, to encourage their youthful patrons to enlist in front line combat units.

However, in fairness to the haredi it should be pointed out that due to the considerable investment required to bring them up to scratch, the IDF has not been particularly enthusiastic to make this investment.

On the ground, this past July, the arrest of an haredi woman who refused to attend the IDF conscription office as required, if only to declare that she could not serve for religious reasons triggered rioting by  hundreds of  haredi youth who  shut down parts of Jerusalem and of Route 443 highway.

Again, while the enlistment of the number of haredi youth in the IDF has somewhat increased, in August of the current year, Eda Ha’Haredit, anti-Zionist group within the haredi movement proceeded to file a complaint against the State of Israel, of all places, at the United Nations’ Jerusalem office (Office), an organisation not particularly known for its fairness in dealing with Israel.

The letter of complaint delivered to the head of the Office accuses Israel “of committing illegal acts by obliging the young orthodox to enlist in the army of extermination [of Judaism]”. The letter further accuses “the Zionist power of oppressing the Orthodox population and breaching its freedom of religion, contrary to the Geneva Convention.”  It finally demands the U.N. to intervene on an urgent basis against the government of Israel, for her serious breaches of international law…” (These excerpts are quoted from the letter were originally translated into French and subsequently translated into English by the writer.)

Finally, Dr. Asaf Malachi  of IDI, who in 2019 studied  the Haredi National Civic Service  program  offered as an alternative to military service and as a means of helping the integration of the haredi youth, concluded that  the program is failing  in “ at meeting its quantitative ,economic and social goals”  and that  “over the past five years the number of haredi volunteers …has dropped by  two-thirds”.

Participation of the haredi men in the labour market

The curriculum of the yeshivas continues to exclude the kinds of subjects that would make the haredi youngsters suitable for gainful employment and earn better incomes .Hence, save for their natural intelligence and aptitudes, these students are mostly, if not wholly, unsuitable for gainful employment except for the most menial low paying jobs that pay little and offer little prospect of advancement; that is provided they remain on the job market .The current likelihood  of  them doing that it is not promising.

On July 14 of this year, Shahar Ilan of CTech  reported that  Assar Walsenburg, the deputy head of the budget division of the Israel’s Ministry of Finance ,at a conference  held by the IDI, presented data which, among other things, show that : a)  “the employment rate  of the haredi men has been on a downward trend for the last two years dropping from 52% to 50.5% compared to a rate of  87% for the  non-Orthodox men”, and b) in the event,  this trend or overall state of affairs persists, “this would cost the Israeli market , in approximate U.S. dollars, $11.25 billion a year by 2030 and 112.5 billion by 2065.”

In all of this, I am also concerned that, in the final analysis, all things considered, it is practically impossible to predict whether the onset of a series of conflicts, or a major one between the haredi community and the government and say the IDF, may well reverse significantly the gains and progress the haredi made to date. More critically, in such circumstances, the haredi recruits’ primary loyalty will be to their community or to the IDF, while the ones who pursue university and post-graduate studies will keep their cool or put their knowledge and expertise to the service of their community to assist them in their struggle against the government.

                III. Israeli Jewish perspectives beyond the haredi  community                           

Surely , beyond the haredi community, the Israeli Jews would reject  the propositions of the haredi  that defines the  key functions of  a) “the “government   of Jews” vis-a-vis them is to act as a cash cow to finance largely their needs and wants in exchange for their knowledge of Jewish law  and  prayers; and b) those who sit in the Knesset  and in Cabinet  is to secure, by  all available means, including political blackmail, all the things their community  needs, wants and wishes to have.

By way of illustration, on the question of enlistment in the IDF, the IDI reports that while 68.5% of Israelis comprising 79 % of secular, non-religious; 70.5% of the religious and 59% of the national religious, support the recruiting “young haredi while permitting a small number of outstanding scholars and I would add, yeshiva teachers and, up a prescribed number of their most promising students to remain in the yeshivas. A notion anathema to the some 95% of the haredi.

My guess is that those 68.5% of Israelis, if not more, would further support the following propositions:

Firstly, as Rabbi Haim Amsalem, a former member of the Shas party and a one-time member of its Knesset contingent, expelled from the party for his “modern ideas”, who subsequently founded the Am Shalem movement and became the former no.2 of  the Zehout party that has now withdrawn from the election process, put it during an interview:

“A modern state which defines itself as Jewish and democratic must choose a [religious] way-“the Judaism of the just middle”, i.e. the traditional Judaism which is beneficial for the entire population and which the majority of the population is capable of handling and applying.” (Translated from French with minor editing by the writer without changing the intended meaning of the Rabbi.)

This view appears to have been shared by the late Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson, called one of the most influential leaders of all times, who advocated “accessible Judaism”; a Judaism that would hardly describe the kind of Judaism practiced by the haredi community.

Secondly, the haredi  a) youth ought to write the matriculation examinations and  achieve a respectable rate of success ; b) men must enlist in the IDF as and when ordered  as well as reporting forthwith for duty in the event of the call up of the reserves ; c) males must participate in the labour market at a rate and in a fashion comparable (full time) to the rest of Israelis, and c) otherwise, save for the universal government  social programs involving subsidies and allowances which they are entitled to receive, must pursue their avocations on their own shekels and with the help of such philanthropic assistance as they may be able to secure, as do the American ultra-Orthodox community,

Thirdly, extricate the religious establishment of Israel, commencing with the Chief Rabbinate from the clutches of the ultra-Orthodox.

PART II- The nature of the problem

I .The concept of Democracy: The basic national democratic pact

  1. The pact

The national pact in a democratic society is based on the notion to which Canadian constitution refers to as “peace, order and good government”. Within this framework, the primary duties of the State and of the citizenry are to insure, and promote respect for human dignity; the free non-discriminatory exercise of personal rights and freedoms.

In turn, these duties underlie, to borrow Vivian Bercovici’s terminology, the citizenry’s “shared state values” and “democratic commitments”.

Clearly, the haredi subscribe to these duties insofar as they are owed to them

  1. The nature of personal rights and freedoms

In a democratic country, citizens have the right and the freedom to choose the way they intend to and do lead their lives, subject to the laws of the land. However, as a matter of law and of generalised social, cultural, economic expectations of a democratic society, the rights and freedoms in issue are not absolute.

Indeed, for the sake of social peace and other national interests, the rights and freedoms of an individual must be reconciled with the opposing or conflicting rights and freedoms of others, as well as with the fundamental social, cultural, economic values and expectations of the country at large.

Last but not least, by any means, the individual rights and freedoms must also be reconciled with the duty of the State to take such lawful measures as are deemed necessary to deal with the external and internal threats to the security of the country and its citizens, to its economy, culture, peace and order.

In such circumstances, subject to the authority of the courts, the State can abridge the exercise of certain rights and freedoms to the extent this is strictly necessary and in keeping  with the notion of democracy, to address such threats to prevent, and failing that, to remedy their actualisation.

The haredi clearly reject the foregoing propositions on religious grounds. They assert that their values, rights and freedoms and sets thereof are absolute and immutable against any and every other set of values, rights and freedoms and that therefore they are entitled to act accordingly.

In the result, the haredi society rejects the  basic national democratic  pact by rejecting, as Bercovici aptly puts it, “the shared state values and democratic  commitments of the ordinary citizenry”  by refusing  “to  assume fully  the responsibilities and privileges of living in a democracy” and I would add, the sacred duty  to enlist in the defence and security of the country, in the unqualified belief that Torah learning  and knowledge takes precedence over such things.(added and edited without affecting the author’s thought)

Part III. Compounding the problem 

  1. The Chief Rabbinate

Israeli religious establishment is in the grips of the ultra-Orthodox. This establishment reinforces the positions of the haredi community and finds it impossible to deal with the substantial diversity of the Israeli population in a conciliatory and inclusive manner. This in turn, makes it harder to address the haredi situation. By way of illustration:

First, we have the heart wrenching case of women and members of other branches of Judaism being denied the right to pray at the Kotel.

Second, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem Schlomo Amar, formerly as one of the two Chief Rabbis of Israel described homosexuality as “an abomination” and in 2016 “as a cult”.

Obviously he did not learn anything from the adverse public reactions to his utterances. He recently declared: “Homosexual people cannot be religious [and] should not pretend to be… With their bodies they sin against the Jewish people [“they are irreligious]…God knows that it is wild lust that needs to be overcome and it can be overcome…Everyone can overcome. There is no need for understanding or a psychologist or any nonsense. All they need is to be God fearing [and] just belief in God to overcome.”

Egregious, extremely uncharitable, and highly divisive  pronouncements that in effect  amount to a sort of mass excommunication  of  a  significant segment of the Israeli population  on the basis  of their sexual orientations, a  matter on which Amar is clearly  not qualified to opine .With such guidance, what could we reasonably expect  the haredi to say?

Third, the Chief Rabbinate’s arbitrary, abusive treatment of those married to Jews seeking conversion to Judaism, which as Naftali Bennett justly points out, albeit in a somewhat exaggerated fashion.

Setting aside the exaggeration, he is right to point out that this treatment is indeed causing “a severe problem of half a million Israelis who are integrated into the Jewish society, are descendants of Jews, marry Israeli Jews, serve in combat units but are not   [recognised] as Jewish according to Jewish law”. Worst, according to Evelyn Gordon is “the Israeli rabbinate’s growing practice of retroactively invalidating conversions which violates centuries of tradition”.

On this issue, I venture to suggest that a lot of Diaspora Jews, particularly those in the U.S. who have a high rate of mixed marriages but are otherwise highly qualified as individuals and couples who would make ideal immigrants to Israel, would greatly hesitate, and more often than not, decide against making the move.

Finally, in the circumstances, on a somewhat lighter note, by way of comic relief from the foregoing examples, this past month, the Chief Rabbi and all the Sephardic rabbis of the City of Elad, mostly populated by the haredi issued a decree that read “We have heard and seen lately that young boys and children walk around publicly with dogs. This is strictly forbidden…As explained in the Talmud and by the Ram bam, anyone rising a dog is accursed and especially in our city where many women and children are afraid of dogs.”

  1. The rights of the haredi to vote, run for the Knesset and become member of the Cabinet

As professor Yuridia Z. Stern points out, the “haredi reject the Zionist aspiration for normalcy, which they consider to be a form of forbidden Hellenization. They view the Jewish state as having no intrinsic value and, only support the government because it permits the physical survival of the Jews and serves as the financial patron that dispenses largesse to the Torah world. Their vision [and wish] is to continue the life of Diaspora in the Holy Land.”

2.1. The right to vote

Section 5 of the Basic Law: The Knesset, 1958, as amended, reads:

Every Israeli citizen of or over the age of eighteen years shall have the right to vote in elections to the Knesset, unless a court has deprived him of that right by virtue of any Law.”

The haredi while praying for the arrival of the Messiah reject the existence and legitimacy of a pre-Messiah State of Israel and by implication the notion of its citizenship in the country. Their exercise of this right constitutes a fundamental violation of their Judaism.

2.2. Running for a seat in the Knesset

Carrying on with this logic, the haredi cannot run for the Knesset, an organ of the State of Israel.                    This is self-evident in the light of section 7A, paragraph1 of the same law (amendments 9, 35 and 39) which reads:

7A. A candidates list shall not participate in elections to the Knesset, and a person shall not be a candidate for election to the Knesset, if the goals or actions of the list or the actions of the person, expressly or by implication, include one of the following if the objects or actions of the list or actions of the person, expressly or by implication include one of the following:

1.negation of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state

2.….

3….

Clearly, if the haredi do not recognise the religious legitimacy of the pre-Messiah State of Israel, and their religious views as to the key characteristics of it, surely paragraph 1 of the section 7A would disqualify them from running for a set in the Knesset.

The legal obstacles to running for Knesset are compounded   by the provisions of sections 15 and 16 of the      Basic Law that provide:

  1. (a) A Knesset member shall make a declaration of allegiance as follows:

“I pledge myself to bear allegiance to the State of Israel and faithfully to discharge my mandate in the Knesset;

      (b) Arrangements for the declarations shall be set by law. (Amendment (23)

  1. A. If the speaker of the Knesset has called upon its members to make their declarations of allegiance and a member has not done so, that member shall not enjoy the rights of membership as long as he has not made the declaration.

3. Suggested further steps
The following are the suggested further steps that may be considered.

First, to enforce strictly the provisions of the Basic Laws governing the entitlement to vote, run for a seat in the Knesset, compliance to take one’s seat in it and in the Cabinet.;

Second, to revoke prospectively the right to vote or to run for office elections those who fail to enlist in the IDF as and when ordered and to respond promptly to subsequent call-up(s) of the reserves.

Third,  to make it mandatory for all yeshiva students  to take the national school curriculum with some allowances being made for the study of Judaism and to matriculate;

Fourth,  to require the haredi males – save for a) those pursuing university studies upon graduation  from secondary school or trade schools, until completion of their studies; b) the leading  haredi Judaic scholars , the full time yeshiva teachers in the community’s schools and a prescribed number of students with the potential to become such scholars; to secure  gainful  full time employment, and failing that, to suspend the payment of government subsidies  to the haredi community, its members and institutions;

Fifth,  to reduce  the reproductive  capacity of the community through a variety of programs designed  a) to entice  the haredi girls and women  to integrate and hopefully marry  into the mainstream society, and  at all events, b) to  introduce them to the practice of family planning  by a variety of means and thereby  to reduce  their laisser-faire approach to the size of their families, and to resist the same approach of their spouses.

Sixth, with all the savings effected from reducing the state funding of the haredi communities, to offer financial inducements to the young haredi not to marry young and not to have in excess of a prescribed number of children by granting them a monthly allowance on a sliding scale based on the difference between the current general Israeli average number of children per family and the number of children the haredi families will be prescribed to have.

The problem with the last two suggestions is that, assuming for argument sake, that the schemes are successful, this may lead to the formation of another kind of demographic time bomb with concerning  the respective sizes of the Jewish, Arabic  and  other minority, populations.

I readily admit that these are somewhat utopian tasks and goals to achieve. Then again as Ben-Gurion once put it: To believe in Israel is to believe in miracles.

Undoubtedly, all of the foregoing schemes and I venture to guess ,any scheme contrary to the wishes of the haredi,  will  result in ongoing  violent  resistance and in the process cause  serious social upheaval. And there lies the crux of the problem in seeking to resolve the current and future problems confronting the Israeli society on this matter.

On the assumption  that the Turks keep their shirt on, presently Israel is surrounded by genocidal enemies  on three fronts and judging from the current state of affairs in Jordan where the King is tenuously hanging on to power,  a possibly fourth one  requires the full attention and preparedness of the IDF.

In the circumstances, any one or more governmental reform initiatives to address the outstanding issues concerning the haredi community, may potentially, and, more likely will result in the opening of yet another front within the country, is the very last thing Israel needs.

Concluding note

In the process, absent other outcomes, the  Israeli Jews  must  choose  without further delay, one of the following  two paths open to them: a) to  address resolutely and effectively to neutralise  the threat  to Israel’s original and continuing avocation posed by the haredi community, despite the ongoing  genocidal threats to its very existence and the ongoing military confrontations and the real prospect of being forced into one or more wars at present and for the foreseeable  future, or b) to face up to the prospect of having to live with the demography of Israel in 2065.

A third potential path out of the conundrum would be the collapse of the ultra-Orthodox strategy of self-segregation in the near future, although whether this would necessarily lead to abandon their brand of Judaism remains to be seen.

About the Author
Doğan Akman was born and schooled in Istanbul, Turkey. Upon his graduation from Lycee St. Michel, he immigrated to Canada with his family. In Canada, he taught university in sociology-criminology and social welfare policy and published some articles in criminology journals After a stint as a Judge of the Provincial Court (criminal and family divisions) of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, he joined the Federal Department of Justice working first as a Crown prosecutor, and then switching to civil litigation and specialising in aboriginal law. Since his retirement he has published articles in Sephardic Horizons and e-Sefarad and in an anthology edited by Rifat Bali titled This is My New Homeland and published in Istanbul.
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