Exorcising the Haredi Golem

by Maskil on 12 Mar 2008

An unsolicited proposal from the Diaspora…

The untimely (and distasteful) demise of Shinui as a political force in Israel spelled the end of Israel’s only free market liberal party (as far as I’m aware). Shinui was also one of the last bastions against the creeping Haredisation of Israeli public life, funded by the (still mainly secular) Israeli taxpayer.

Some of the issues confronted by Shinui have been adopted by NGOs. For example, I understand that an NGO called Omets (or Ometz) is attempting (my précis) to promote good governance and the rule of law in Israel.

Putting the two concepts together, I was wondering whether it would make sense to form a “single issue” Israeli NGO, focused completely on addressing the issues around the separation of church and state in Israel, and in particular those where principles of equality are compromised.

Why this concept might work

Unlike a political party with a wider platform (hence more issues to disagree on), a single issue NGO or movement may appeal to a much broader audience. As a non-partisan movement or pressure group it would not advocate political views on other issues, thereby alienating potential support.

How would such an NGO function?

  • By using all the tools available to citizens in a democracy: elections at all levels of government, lobbying, petitions, peaceful protests and demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, the media, and of course the courts.
  • A focus on those areas where constitutional and democratic norms and the principle of equality have clearly been violated. (Blanket draft exemptions to yeshiva students would be a prime example of this.)
  • Placing particular emphasis on exposing and challenging all inequitable political coalition deals in court, as this is usually where the rot begins. Deals that favour a particular constituency should by definition be treated as illegal or unconstitutional.

What are the issues?

The list of issues to be tackled would consist of all the usual suspects:

  • The entire framework of laws and regulations that allows for blanket deferments and exemptions from the draft to yeshiva students.
  • An immediate end to all government (including municipal) subsidies to private schools (including the Haredi school system), at the expense of state run education. The taxpayer should not be expected to foot the bill for any but state run schools.
  • The immediate closure of private schools that refuse to teach a compulsory core curriculum. Israel simply cannot afford the luxury of schools that now leave up to 25% of the schoolgoing population without skills with which to enter the workplace
  • Withholding welfare grants to households that are voluntarily indigent. Full time study in a yeshiva or kollel should not be regarded as study for the purpose of welfare or study grants.
  • Child subsidies to be on a flat rate basis irrespective of the size of the family. Attempts to use these subsidies to promote large families are an anachronism and have consistently backfired against the state.
  • Limited alternative forms of national service to be extended to a period of three years, i.e. in line with initial military conscription.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. I would be glad to hear of any significant items that should be included.

Why now?

By some estimates, the Haredi population will have reached “critical mass” in Israel within no more than a generation or two. At this point it will almost certainly have become impossible to secure Israel’s character as a democratic secular state with a Jewish and Zionist nature. This may be the last opportunity to prevent the transformation of Israel into Haredistan and its eventual demise.

Does Israel need another NGO?

Bodies such as IRAC are doing a wonderful job of exposing and attempting to counter these abuses. IRAC has a much broader agenda, however, and its association with Reform Judaism may limit its appeal in some quarters. I believe that a broad based, single issue NGO outside the political system may succeed where other organisations have failed.

What I’ve referred to as the Haredi Golem did not bring itself into existence, nor does it continue to thrive without assistance. It is very much the creature of successive Israeli coalitions, deals and governments. I have no doubt that the Haredim in Israel will continue to flourish. Let them do so, however, on an equal footing with the rest of Israeli society, and without the benefit of an inordinate share of the public purse.


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