Friday, April 28, 2006

Shahar Ilan on religion and state, and the Haredim

Fri., April 28, 2006 Nisan 30, 5766

Significado: HAREDI [noun] any of several sects of Orthodox Judaism that reject modern secular culture and many of whom do not recognize the spiritual authority of the modern state of Israel

Shahar Ilan has written extensively for Haaretz on the ultra-Orthodox community and on issues of religion and state. Ilan, who edits the daily features section of the paper, joined Haaretz in 1991. In a series of investigative articles in 1998, he revealed the large sums of state funding that were being channeled to yeshiva students who do not work, as well as the monies being funneled from various government ministries to Haredi educational networks. The series formed the basis for a book. Before moving to Haaretz, Ilan wrote for the paper's Jerusalem weekly Kol Hair, later serving as editor.
He answered readers' questions on Wednesday, December 10.
Why the hatred? While the Haredi politicians may have done wrong, secular politicians have done much worse and get away with it due to a justice system and media which have their own political agenda. We should be looking for the good between ourselves and recognizing the true enemies who are looking to destroy us.
AlLakewood, U.S.A.

Shahar Ilan:
I have no hate for Haredim. But in my work there is a degree of anger. This if anger of dodging the draft and differentiating between blood and blood. It is anger over fictitious reporting to falsely squeeze more money out of the state. It is anger over arrogance, viewing secularism as inferior and negating its values.

You point out that men who study in kollels and yeshivas do not work. Rightly or wrongly, they believe that they are saving the world by learning Torah 18 hours a day and praying. They believe that working at a job would be a distraction from this holy work. Can you comment on this?
Avi MorrisBrooklyn, NY, USA

Shahar Ilan:
A learned society where two thirds of the men study and do not work has never existed in the history of Israel or any other nation. It does also not exist in any other concentrated ultra-Orthodox society. Haredi men around the world work and support themselves. There is thus no reason that Haredi men in Israel should not do the same.

Do you see any signs of Zionism in ultra-Orthodox society? Could you also comment on the increasingly right-wing and anti-Arab slant of ultra-Orthodox politics?
Adam SandlerCambridge, U.S.A.

Shahar Ilan:
In two ways, the ultra-Orthodox are undoubtedly the most Zionist community in Israel: their firm determination to live in the Land of Israel and their vehement hate for Israel's enemies. Despite the trend among some of the community to live a modern life, there is no discernable trend toward Zionism. On the other hand, even in the secular society the devotion for Zionism is not what it was once. Opinion writers in the Haredi press often rejoice over what they see as Zionism's failure to create a safe homeland for the Jews in the Land of Israel. According to all the surveys, the Haredi public is the most right-wing population in the country and the most hostile to the Arab sector. But this is nothing new. These positions were only revealed to the general public in the 1990s when the ultra-Orthodox became the deciding force in the peace process.

If Israel is the land of the Jewish people, how is it different from any other country if not for the religion? Should it not avoid becoming less and less religious as a state?
Alex BrenerCaracas, Venezuela

Shahar Ilan:
The assumption that Judaism is necessarily Orthodox or religious seems to me to be wrong. My Judaism is secular. I see the Sabbath as a huge contribution to the world, by the Jewish people, but do not see any reason why one cannot watch a movie or use public transportation during the day of rest. I respect Jewish spiritual leaders as well as female spiritual leaders. I see an important value in relationships, including those between people of the same sex. I believe that we need to exercise tolerance and sympathy for the foreigner who lives in our midst, rather than persecuting him and expelling him. I am certain that Israel would be much more of Jewish if it adopted such values.

How do secular Israelis view the Haredim? Are they considered "Israeli" by secular Israelis, and/or do they consider themselves Israelis? How do they view Zionism?
IlyaU.S.A., U.S.A.

Shahar Ilan:
Within 20 seconds to 5 minutes, every discussion between a secular and Haredi person will get to the argument "but you do not serve in the army." Above all, the Haredim are seen by secular people as draft dodgers and slammed for allowing others to fight and die for them. Furthermore, they are also see as budget bleeders who are quick to cheat the state out of benefits, as a sector with primitive and strange practices which tries and forces its way of life on everyone else, without practicing what it preaches to others. Are these opinions born out of ignorance and fear of the "other"? Undoubtedly. Have the rabbis and politicians of the Haredi population in Israel unfairly earned this reputation? Certainly.

Is there a proposal for reform which would allow Haredi men to do national service, like religious women, instead of being confined to the yeshiva and being jobless? I believe, this would solve many social problems.
KedemParis, France

Shahar Ilan:
Under the Finance Ministry's economic austerity plan, the law has been changed and yeshiva students over the age of 23 are allowed to work while continuing their religious studies. An absurd situation has thus evolved under which anyone who quits the yeshiva must do army service to be able to then get a job, while anyone who remains at the yeshiva is allowed to work. Is this logical? No. Is it surprising that this is illogical? Also no. All amendments made to the draft deferral conditions have merely increase the inequality, as has this one.

How long can we expect the Labor and Likud parties to pander to Haredi interests? Do you feel that with the emergence of Shinui as a serious force and the current failing economy that there is hope that Labor and Likud will alter their policies over Haredi interests and they will no longer be held political hostage by the Haredi parties?
HarryModi'in, Israel

Shahar Ilan:
There are two major factors in the government policy toward the ultra-Orthodox sector in the last year: One is the treasury's position that Haredi men must no longer be allowed to get away with not financially supporting their families and must be sent out to work. This has been done by amending the draft deferral law for yeshiva students and by reducing the financial benefits they receive. The second factor is the fact that the ultra-Orthodox parties are not part of the governing coalition and thus are finding it harder to protect the benefits they have collected over the years. Indeed, there have been a number of cuts to allowances for Haredim, inlcuding to the budget for yeshivas and child allowances. Since some of these amendments are being implemented gradually, we will only know in a number of years if they have achieved their goal. The question, however, remains whether the ultra-Orthodox get back these benefits should they get back into the government.

How many Haredim live in Isrel? How long does it take for Haredim to double in numbers?
Alexis PetriFrankfurt am Main, Germany

Shahar Ilan:
There are no precise numbers as the Central Bureau of Statistics does not classify people according to their level of orthodoxy. Economists estimate that there are about 300,000 Haredim - about 5 percent of the Israeli public - while geographers say closer to 500,000 and those linked to the world of Haredi advertising say 800,000. I personally tend to accept the figures from the geocartography research institute which puts the population at 600,000 - or 10 percent of the population.According to Prof. Eli Berman of University of California, San Diego, the ultra-Orthodox population doubles itself every 15-16 years.

I saw a flash movie on the Gush Shalom Web site. Two statements in it caught my attention: "Religious laws dictate the lifestyle of non-religious Israeli citizens", and "No separation between religion and state. Non-Jews are discriminated in most areas." Could you enlighten me on these points?
Nemesis Copenhagen, Denmark

Shahar Ilan:
The State of Israel is defined as a democratic, Jewish state and not only as a democracy. Numerous laws are thus a result of this. It is very hard for a non-Jew to get citizenship. Marriage and divorce are carried out according to halakha (Jewish tradition) and there is no option for civil marriages in the country. A couple with different religions must travel abroad to get married. The Arab sector is badly discriminated against when it comes to funds and jobs. Foreign workers have no chance of gaining citizenship. And this without even mentioning the not exactly sympathetic treatment of non-Jews by the religious and traditional Jewish communities. The truth: It is preferable to be Jewish in Israel.

Who comprises the 'ba'al b'teshuva' movement? Is it more successful among Israelis who identified themselves as secular or Israelis who identified themselves as traditional? And among which ethnic groups is it most successful?
David D.NYC, USA

Shahar Ilan:
As a generalization, one can say that secular people, particularly of Ashkenazi origin, tend to go to the extreme when they become newly religious and turn into extreme, ultra-Orthodox. In contrast, traditional Jews, predominantly of Sephardi origin, simply reinforce their religion, become more religious. The masses of newly religious Jews come from among the traditional, Sephardi communities, i.e. potential Shas voters. Recent years have seen more of a focus on bringing children back into religion and moving them to more religious schools. The funding for this comes from the ultra-Orthodox in the U.S.

Based on Israeli govt. statistics it appears that Haredi Israelis from birth to death cost the government overall less per capita than the general citizen when all services are totaled i.e. penal, social, education, courts, general public services etc. Your thoughts please on why the public perception is so contrary to the numbers.
Rena SheltonAspen, USA

Shahar Ilan:
I am not familiar with such statistics. The total government assistance to a yeshiva student and his family of 10 children in 1998 stood at NIS 11,000 net a month, or NIS 17,000 gross (around $4,000 in today's terms).This sum increased significantly only recently returning to this level due to cuts to child allowance. The financial support of even small families runs into the thousands of shekels every month. Two thirds of Haredi men do not work and thus do not pay income tax. Secular and religious tax payers are forced to foot the bill for this way of life. As far as I know, it is every man's right to decide whether or not he wants to work and to have as many children as he desires, but it should be up to him to support his family, and not out of the state budget.

I read a few of your articles. I must say you seem very, very hostile towards Orthodox Jews. One thing stands out, is your disdain for the Oorthodox "arrogance." We Orthodox Jews really believe there is a God - and that he gave us a set of rules to live by. However, Shahar Ilan thinks Gods rules are wrong or outdated and thinks they should be changed. And we're the arrogant ones?
Michael New York, USA

Shahar Ilan:
I am always in awe of those people who are not prepared to believe that the universe created itself but are able to explain to themselves how God created himself. In any case, I respect the beliefs of every person - Jew and non-Jew - as long as it does not harm others. I have not met many ultra-Orthodox people who respect my beliefs.

Given the current political make-up of the government (Shinui and NRP), what are the genuine prospects of the secularization of Israeli society? What are the chances that in the near future, Israel will recognize civil marriages, permit transport on the Sabbath and treat all denominations of Judaism (and other religions) with equality?
Jason ArditiSydney , Australia

Shahar Ilan:
Zero. Every since Shinui became part of the government, it has failed to chalk up any significant legislative successes. It has not done anything to complete the legislation of a constiution, there has been no progress on the matter of civil marriages and some 300,000 non-Jewish new immigrants still cannot marry here. No one is trying to operate public transportation on Sabbath. The status of progressive forms of Judaism is unchanged. Not only have yeshiva students not been drafted into the army, conditions for their draft deferral have been eased. By the way, surveys show that Shinui voters are not disappointed. This is due to the satisfaction that the Haredim are not in the government and the fact that the Israeli voter has already got used to the fact that their elected leaders never keep their promises.

Will there be a time when the Haredim will serve in the IDF to the same degree as everyone else?
Roy KinstonMelbourne, Australia

Shahar Ilan:
That seems like futurism at the moment. The Haredi rabbis refuse to let the boys go into the army, fearing that they will be exposed to the secular society and will be tempted out. There is no way to forcibly draft thousands of yeshiva students. It is even difficult to imagine the day when take any real economic sanctions against those people who refuse to serve in the army.

Should the ultra-Orthodox religious authorities in Israel be allowed to administer all matters of private affairs? If so, what does that mean for all those Jews who may be turned off by their decisions, and if not, how does Israel maintain its identity as a Jewish state?
Preston NealPreston Neal, USA

Shahar Ilan:
I fail to see the connection between the Orthodox monopoly over matters of the family and the desire to maintain the State of Israel's Jewish character. As far as I understand, Conservative, Reform and secular Jews can define their Judaism for themselves and maintain the state's Jewishness. There is no reason why Judaism should be expressed through dark matrimony laws which degrade and debase women. There is also no reason why coming into Judaism should only be done through the Orthodox movement. The Conservative and Reform movements convert people with far more feeling and humanity. There is also no reason not to allow secular conversions through identifying with the culture, the language and a desire to join the Jewish people.

What are the chances that the Reform and Conservative (and even other streams) will be officially recognized through the creation of respective religious courts with the autonomy to carry out marriages, conversions, etc?(A similar question was also asked by Keith Stern of Boston USA)
Yehuda Tzvi Jerusalem, Israel

Shahar Ilan:
The chances of recognizing Reform and Conservative marriages seem pretty slim. In the near future, anyone wishing to marry with a progressive rabbi will have to also go through a civil marriage abroad. It is certainly possible that sooner or later, the High Court of Justice will recognize progressive conversions.

Do you consider yourself a Haredi? If not, how are you qualified to write about them without sharing the same background and culture?
Ben ThomasLondon, UK

Shahar Ilan:
A writer is meant to gain knowledge and understanding of the subject he covers. He is not necessarily meant to be part of the subject itself. A writer who covers the Arab world does not have to be an Arab. A writer who covers the space program does not have to be an astronaut. To tell the truth, it is far more important that a ultra-Orthodox affairs writer understand Haredi politics and finances than know how to read a page of Gamara. However, I have never come across a matter of halakha which was vital to my work that I could not learn and understand with a little help from my sources.

Is it possible to expect that in ten, or even fewer, years, Israel will also join the group of fundamentalist state in the Middle East with a religious government?
Patricia la MontMexico City, Mexico

Shahar Ilan:
Figures show that this could happen if 30-40 years. I do not however believe that the processes we see today will continue forever. The ultra-Orthodox community is growing at its current rate thanks to the government subsidies. But these are being cut. The result will be that a severe economic crisis will force many Haredi families to limit the number of children they have. The Haredi society has managed to build effective walls which have prevented its breakup. As it grows, the social supervision will be harder and joining the general society will be easier. Will there be more religious people in the country? Undoubtedly. Will Israel be a Jewish Iran? Doubtful.

How do the majority of Haredim, their leading rabbis see issues like the Separation Wall, road map, Geneva Accord and policies of Sharon government. How do they see the issue of Jewish settlements? How the pragmatic majority of Haredim see the Neturei Karta and other anti-Zionist organizations and rabbis (Moshe Hirsch)? Who is the real successor to Rabbi Schach in the Lithuanian Haredi community?
Marek CejkaBrno, The Czech Republic

Shahar Ilan:
The litmus test by which the Haredim test political positions is the treatment of the goy, the non-Jew. He who is compassionate to the goy and fights for their rights is considered to be less trustworthy. Some of the Haredim, especially the Lithuanian community, are prepared to make concessions and are opposed to the settlements. However, they do not trust the decision makers on the left and thus, like a large portion of center voters, they are prepared to make concessions, but only on condition that they be carried out by the right.

The fact that the core curriculum will seemingly never be applied in Haredi schools is a shocking disgrace. What would it take to apply the political will to correct this?
Shelley CorrinMontreal, Canada

Shahar Ilan:
Most of the Haredi political effort since the establishment of the state has been concentrated on blocking any recognition of the secular Israeli by the Haredi man. The Haredi has also been prevented access to education that would enable him to become part of the general public. Examples of this include the establishment of the independent Haredi education networks, and the refusal to compromise over the draft deferral for yeshiva students. The desire to prevent any possible integration into general society is also the reason for Haredim's refusal to include general studies in their schools. The only way to deal with this is to cut the budgets of these schools. It is not at all clear whether the government will have the guts, or desire, to do so.

Can the Shas phenomenon of the previous government be expected to re-emerge in future governments in either the same or different form?
DanielSydney, Australia

Shahar Ilan:
Of course. The fact that a secular government exists is an obvious miracle that goes against the laws of nature of Israeli politics. One must give thanks for this miracle, as long as it continues, but one must not expect that it will last forever.

As someone who knows Jerusalem and the way it is perceived better than most in this country, what can be done to re-integrate Jerusalem into the soul of the "center" of the country? And what is more important to focus on -- culture or the economy (places of work)?
Jacob Ner-DavidJerusalem, Israel

Shahar Ilan:
The only way to bring the secular population back to Jerusalem is to invest heavily in the city and create job opportunities, especially in areas such as high tech. This will not happen until a peace agreement is signed. Moving Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus to the center of the city could revitalize the dying city center. On the other hand, it is not at all clear whether the ultra-Orthodox municipality is even interested in bringing the secular Israelis back to the city.

Why don't the secular understand, that without Haredim there is no Jewish People? What percentage of the Israeli population's ancestry, going back four generations where religious Haredim? Haredim have kept the Jewish people's continuity, the rest have evaporated and assimilated. Look at the US today and Germany in the 19th century.
Moshe ZafirNew York, USA
Shahar Ilan:
There is almost no link between the Israeli Haredi sect whose most sacred beliefs include dodging the army draft and avoiding work and the Judaism kept by our ancestors. Israeli ultra-Orthodoxism is a complete distortion of Judaism and the Jewish culture and it is doubtful that such Judaism should be sustained. In my opinion, Jewish leaders like Shulamit Aloni or Reform Rabbi Uri Regev are far more faithful to the Jewish tradition.

Considering that the economical situation in Israel is one of the worst in the last decades. Do you think that the Orthodox/Religious -Zionists are the main group of Jews who are immigrating to Israel?
Esteban BrombergBuenos Aires, Argentina

Shahar Ilan:
When talking about immigration from the West, the religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews do not make up the majority of the immigrants - but practically all the immigrants. It is safe to assume that this is because of the deep ties they feel toward the Land of Israel. In contrast, mostly secular Jews emigrate from the former Soviet Union states, mostly as this is seen as a way to improve their living conditions.

Why is the secular press in Israel allowed to get away with depicting Hareidim like the Nazis depicted the Jews? Instead of the Jews are our Misfortune, you secularist substitute Hareidim are our misfortune. Why do you have no shame?
Yechiel M. NakdimenLakewood, NJ, USA

Shahar Ilan:
Is it not possible to eliminate the phrase Nazi and its connotations from the Jewish dialogue? The Israeli press criticizes the behavior of the Haredi rabbis and politicians. One can agree with this criticism or reject it - but why cheapen the Holocaust?

Do most secular Israelis still support the idea of Israel as a specifically Jewish state?
James KingNew York, USA

Shahar Ilan:
Of course. Almost everybody does. But some are very much opposed to the unequal treatment of non-Jews by the state.
The Modern Orthodox actively participate in Israeli society, the economy and the military. Yet many in the secular arena, especially the self-styled elite, often direct their disdain (and even "hatred") at all the religious indiscriminately from Haredi to traditional. Is religious observance the key element in this baseless hatred among brothers?
Jay LefkowitzBrooklyn, NY, USA

Shahar Ilan:
True. Many secular people have a hard time differentiating between Haredim and national religious Jews / modern Orthodox. This comes from ignorance, but also from the fact that the modern Orthodox Jews were partners with the Haredim in their struggle for funds and legislating religious laws. This confusion is increased by the fact that Shas is a Haredi party, but both modern Orthodox and traditional Jews also vote for it. The modern Orthodox Jews are very much identified with the settlers, whom much of the Israeli public oppose.

Are Haredi schools drawing children away from state and state-religious schools, and if so, how is this affecting children's socialization in Israel? Also, what do you make of the Ministry of Education's decision not to enforce the core curriculum in Haredi schools?
EitanHerzliya, Israel

Shahar Ilan:
The Haredi schools intentionally prevent students from acquiring the knowledge that will help them make a living in the future. The Education Ministry's decision goes against Israeli law and a host of international agreements. It may indeed be that in the future, newly non-religious Israelis will file a petition against the state and the ministry for educational negligence.

How much money do you feel a state should spend on culture? You, as a cultured Israeli, enjoy the arts, cinema etc., Haredim don't. Why can't they perceive their way of life as their cinema, art etc. Why should the elite intellectual minority impose their values of a perfect society, on the rest of us?

Shahar Ilan:
The state should indeed finance a group of several hundred learned scholars who study Torah in the traditional manner. Currently, the state finances 80,000 yeshiva students - two-thirds of Haredi men. This is intolerable

Why is Haaretz so anti-clerical oriented?
Ya'akov BarthTel-Aviv, Israel

Shahar Ilan:
Haaretz has a liberal policy and believes in freedom of speech and expression and is opposed to religious coercion. The paper thus often deals often with matters of religious coercion, budget battles and extreme statements by Haredi public figures. The reason for this is that the Haredi leadership is often characterized by such behavior.

Are you seeing signs of economic realism in the Haredi community? Have the current budget cuts which affect the large Haredi families pushed the power brokers in the Haredi world to reevaluate the institutionalized disdain for work?
JBIsrael, Israel

Shahar Ilan:
Rabbi Aharon Leiv-Steinman, one of the leaders of Degel Hatorah, has been touting a policy of proving Haredi men with professional training. Many of his fellow rabbis are vehemently opposed to his proposal. The recession and high unemployment also reduce the motivation of Haredi yeshiva students to leave the yeshiva and go out and work. This is, however, an important and interesting process, but one that is yet to catch on.

While the Haradeim have traditionally been affiliated with Ashkenazi Jews, I understand there has been a growth in Sephardic fundamentalist groups as well. What extent has this reached, and how does it differ with the more traditional Hassidic groups?
Harold CitronGreat Neck, USA

Shahar Ilan:
Shas, the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party, has 11 mandates and make up some 9 percent of Knesset members. Out of some 300,000 Shas voters, most are traditional and modern Orthodox Jews, though one can assume that 50,000-100,000 of them are Sephardi Haredim. Though religion in Sephardi countries was characterized by tolerance, Shas has been very influenced by the extremism of the Ashkenazi Haredim, practically competing with them over extreme positions. One very strange phenomenon is the fact that Sephardi Haredim have adopted the style of dress of the Ashekanzi Haredim.

Tens of thousands of secular schoolchildren are leaving the secular school system for religious schools. Do you think that if the secular public would concentrate more on solving the problems endemic in secular schools such as violence, drugs and lack of respect for authority, instead of constantly attacking the religious schools, less kids would be attracted to the religious schools?
RobManchester, UK

Shahar Ilan:
Schools for the children of people who have recently become religious have two major advantages over the state system. The first is its missionary registration scheme that uses thousands of volunteer yeshiva students. The second is an extended school day financed by donations, mostly from the United States. If the state were to finance a long school day in socially deprived areas and run a campaign to register for public schools, these schools for the newly religious would quickly be emptied of their students.

Without religion in the government, Israel would become a country like any other Western country. With religion defining much of the country's identity, it resembles more its neighbors whose religious interpretations influence their governments, whatever form of coercion that entails. How is this dilemma to be solved if undue influence of religion is so pervasive?

Shahar Ilan:
You take the mistaken position that the Orthodox stream of Judaism has a monopoly over the religion and is the only way representative of the Jewish people. In practice, there are many ways to be Jewish, some Orthodox, some of the progressive Jewish movements, some secular - but all of which need to be given equal representation by the State of Israel.

Can you please let us have some statistics as to how many Haredim do not go to the army and do not work as a proportion of the population, or better still as a proportion of the religious community.
S. BenistyLondon, UK

Shahar Ilan:
Ninety-nine percent of Haredi men do not do any significant military service. Two-thirds of Haredi men are not part of the work force, though some are work unofficially. Two-thirds of Haredi women are not part of the work force, though some of them also work unofficially. This results in a large number of illegal work and tax evation within the Haredi sector.

Why doesn't the Israeli government suggest a sort of civil service that suits the Haredi community and meets their needs?
GabrielMontreal, Canada

Shahar Ilan:
The Haredi rabbis refuse to allow yeshiva students to do any military service, even two weeks of reserve duty a year. The reason for this is fear of exposing the yeshiva boys to the secular culture.

Why doesn't the Israeli government suggest a sort of civil service that suits the Haredi community and meets their needs?
GabrielMontreal, Canada

Shahar Ilan:
The Haredi rabbis refuse to allow yeshiva students to do any military service, even two weeks of reserve duty a year. The reason for this is fear of exposing the yeshiva boys to the secular culture.

Do a significant number of people from Haredi families become non-Orthodox or secular, or do all Haredim remain Haredi throughout their lives?
Nadav BarzelaiToronto, Canada

Shahar Ilan:
Only a few individuals leave the Haredi fold, it is a relatively small phenomenon. A few dozen use the services of organizations that assist the newly secular. One can also assume that a few dozen more leave without any such assistance. Many of those who leave are women as their education includes general, formal studies and often professional training.

You write often about issues of religion and the ultra-Orthodox and claim that you are just an objective reporter trying to uncover the honest truth. Fairness and intellectual honesty would dictate that a forum be given to a different approach as well - and that ultra-Othodox writers have the chance to respond to your serious charges. I challenge you to provide this opportunity.
Herschel GrossmanStaten Island, NY, USA

Shahar Ilan:
As editor of the guest opinions section, I can say that the number of offers of opinion pieces from Haredi writers is very small. My attempts to convince Haredi public figures and members of the Haredi media to send in opinion pieces have born little fruit. Understandably, Haredim prefer to write for a more sympathetic public rather than try and convince the readers of Haaretz.