They’re not learning Torah for us

Or Elchonon Yeshiva, Tiberius, Israel, circa 2011: Haviv Shimon, Wikimedia

Israel’s Haredim have long justified government funding for full-time Torah study and shirking from national service on the grounds that they contribute to the country through learning, yet their disdain for both the State and their fellow Jews expose this to be an insidious lie. The new government must act to end this farce.

“The name of the evil shall rot”, so said UTJ head Moshe Gafni last week about Naftali Bennett, the man who today officially became Israel’s new Prime Minister.

One could say that along with their partners in political crime in the Likud and Religious Zionism, the Haredi politicians in Shas and the UTJ had not exactly reacted well to the looming reality of a new government in Israel.

Lashing out last week, the heads of the Haredi political parties decried the rise of an “extremist, left-wing government without values or a moral compass” which would see the Jewish character of the State being “wiped out”. They called Bennett, an Orthodox Jew, “wicked”, disparagingly labelling him a Reform Jew, and comparing him to the biblical figure of Korah who rebelled against Moses. They also demanded that he remove his kippah.

This vitriol comes despite the fact that, at least publicly, the leading coalition figures had previously stated that other parties were welcome to join their government should they so wish, and despite the fact that the new coalition’s architect, Yair Lapid, called on his supporters not to gloat but to instead seek to repair rifts within Israeli society. In other words, there was no provocation whatsoever that could even come close to justifying the venomous fury that came spewing out of the mouths of Messrs Gafni, Litzman and Deri. And this is because it comes from a much deeper place than the immediate political reality in which they’ll be denied – or, rather perhaps, have denied themselves – a place in the new government.

Such despicable rhetoric against fellow Jews is nothing new for the political representatives of Israel’s Haredi community, even if the target – a national religious, Orthodox Jew – is different. Just a few months ago, UTJ’s Yitzhak Pindrus called military servicewomen who convert to Judaism through an IDF programme not recognised by the Rabbanut ‘shiksas’. His comments came just days after the UTJ published a breathtakingly offensive political campaign video in which it compared non-Orthodox Jews to dogs and a month after Shas MK Moshe Abutbul labelled the denomination of then-Labor Party candidate and Reform Rabbi, Gilad Kariv, a “cult”.

Three years earlier, Shas MK Yinon Azoulay, publicly turned on non-Orthodox Jewry in a particularly creative fashion, blaming them for incurring divine anger in the form of a minor earthquake which struck northern Israel. And three years before that, Azoulay’s father and fellow Shasnik, MK David Azoulay, as Religious Services Minister, said he did not consider Reform or Conservative Jews to be Jewish. The same Moshe Gafni who compared Bennett to Korah just last week countered that while they could be considered Jews, they were nonetheless, “stabbing the holy Torah in the back”.

So disdainful they are of fellow Jews who have the audacity to not conform to strictly Orthodox standards of belief and practice, many such Haredim would have long been accused of being among the most antisemitic people on the planet if they didn’t don black hats and beards. Bennett, by forming a government that excludes their political representatives, has now crossed a line, and is transformed into a despised “Reform” Jew in the same way that any political opponent of former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is a “leftist”.

And, of course, while their prime targets of hate might be Reform or Conservative Jews, these Haredim too express derision towards huge swathes of Israel’s secular Jewish population. The Haredi communities’ blatant disregard for social distancing regulations necessitated by the pandemic over the past year, accompanied at points by violent protests and rioting, constituted an even greater wedge between this extremist non- and anti-Zionist segment of Israeli society and their fellow Jewish citizens. To many of Israel’s Haredim, the law of the land is determined by wayward Jews (if they can truly be considered Jews at all, that is) and the authority of the secular state is to be mistrusted and disrespected.

The hatred directed towards their fellow Jews coupled with noncompliance with state authorities exposes one of the most insidious lies long championed by the Haredi sector and their political supporters. It is a lie that comes with a name – Torah Umanuto, or “Torah is his job” – and it claims that the Haredi way of life in Israel benefits the State.

The Haredim have long been granted sweeping exemptions from national service and are laden with benefits to support a lifestyle of learning in state-funded yeshivot, further disconnecting the self-ghettoised community from wider society and draining state resources. This brazenly unfair status quo which becomes only more damaging year on year as demographics shift in the Haredi sector’s favour, has been justified by breathtakingly dishonest discourse revolving around the guiding principle of Torah Umanuto. This term refers to the arrangement in which Haredim enroll in yeshivot rather than be conscripted to the military, and underlying it is the notion that the Torah study contributes to the spiritual, and by extension, physical wellbeing of the state. It is not uncommon to hear that Israel’s military victories since 1948 are to be attributed to Torah study rather than the IDF.

Yet, aside from the fact that one must subscribe to the grand and unprovable theological underpinnings of this belief in order to respect it, it is also breathtakingly dishonest to claim that many of the Haredim in their yeshivot are concerned about the wellbeing of their fellow Jews about whom they are so disparaging. It is an unbelievable stretch of imagination to suggest that a sizeable number of those pouring over pages of Talmud in study halls across the country give a damn about the State that pays for the upkeep of the very building in which they sit or the stipends they receive instead of working for a living.

For the vast majority in the Haredi communities, Zionism, the ideological foundation of the country, is not a word that carries any positive connotations, and the Haredi sector is at best ambivalent and at worst downright hostile to the Zionist project’s success – except in so far as it funds their increasingly audacious needs. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” might be a wise cautionary tale for some, but in all fairness to the Haredim who have exercised remarkable control over Israeli politics for decades, there has been little reason to heed its lessons. Until now, perhaps – hopefully.

How many Haredim are thinking of the security of the State and the safety of its soldiers that defend it when they gather in study halls or in prayer? Do they learn in memory of fallen soldiers or pray for their souls? Do they stand in respectful silence with the rest of the country on Memorial Day or celebrate the birth of the State the day after? If the majority of Haredim cared about the State, why do we see report after report of mass disobedience to the law, and in more extreme but not uncommon instances, verbal and physical abuse directed towards security personnel, even when they come to their need on Mount Meron or in pandemic stricken B’nei Brak?

For whom are the Haredim learning other than themselves? Why don’t they share their love of Torah, of fulfilling commandments, or of upholding ancient customs with the rest of the people of Israel? Where is the urge to go and teach, educate, or impart their love for the Almighty with their fellow Jews? Where is the desire to give back to the country with their unparalleled and inspiring mastery of the Talmud? Where is the overriding concern of ensuring that our traditions or beliefs are not lost, but our transmitted down from generation to generation, not just within their own communities, but within the Jewish world at large?

The truth is that, for the most part, the Haredim are not learning for us. It is a shameless, cynical lie to say that they are.

If only they did learn for us. If only they did serve the Jewish people – beyond the confines of their strict conformist denomination – through learning, teaching, and imparting knowledge. The Jewish world and the Jewish state would be all the richer for it.

Until that happens, and that may be a long time coming to say the least, it’s time to turn off the taps with immediate effect. The new government must, without delay, reallocate the state funds which are wastefully flowing into the yeshivot and kollels of this ungrateful, extremist sector of Israeli society. Rather than issuing stipends to full-time learners of Torah, the government should financially incentivise men in the Haredi sector to work. Haredi schools must be compelled to teach secular subjects that can equip their students to climb out poverty, integrate into the workplace, and cease to rely on state benefits. And the military exemption law must be reformed. The unjust and unsustainable status quo must be upended as a matter of urgency and high priority.

The Haredim are not learning for us – although I pray for the day that they do. And until this day comes, the State must cease generously supporting their activities which are so lacking in national merit and are conducted with such disdain for the citizens who fund them. Reforming the Haredi sector is possibly the only ideological matter that virtually every member of this diverse cabinet can rally around. To waste this opportunity would be a national scandal. Let’s hope they don’t let us down.

About the Author
Yoel Collick is a writer and researcher of Jewish, Israeli and Middle Eastern affairs based in Jerusalem. He has a degree in History and Political Thought from the University of Cambridge and served in the International Cooperation Division of the Israel Defense Forces.
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