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Can Haredim be governed by Israel’s secular authorities?

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–It is appropriate to ponder the significance of one hundred thousand ultra-Orthodox demanding independence from the Israeli judiciary. While the Sephardim suffer discrimination in the ultra-Orthodox communities, only a few of their leaders made that point. It was more common for prominent Sephardi rabbis and politicians to join hands with the Ashkenazim, overlook their plight, and insist on religious freedom from the hostile judges of the secular state.

Only about half of the parents ordered to jail actually arrived there. Most of the women disappeared on route.  The police ordered a search, but prosecutors considered a cancellation of their arrest orders. Appeals were being prepared to free all of the parents. Sabbath intervened. The police would not dare go after ultra-Orthodox mothers on the sacred day of rest.

What does this mean for the nature of Israel? Is there nothing the state can do to impose its orders on some 10 percent of the Jewish population? Due to their weight alongside the chronically balanced secular parties, must we continue to fund schools that discriminate ethnically, and do not teach what people need in order to support themselves in a modern society, all the while numbers creep upward as they cleave to “be fruitful and multiply,” and refuse to participate in the defense of a society beset by hostile others?

It is not easy to govern Israel. Alongside tensions and worse that come from Israeli Arabs, those of surrounding countries and their international supporters are issues more prominent domestically between the secular majority, the ultra-Orthodox minority, and floating “traditional” and “Orthodox” communities that can shift to support the ultra-Orthodox in behalf of Judaism.

The Zion conceived by Theodore Herzl was simpler. He came only gradually to recognize the weight of Eastern European Jewry, more religious than the assimilated Western European Jews with whom he identified. He was even less aware of Jews from North Africa, Iraq, Yemen, and Iran, who have come to be a majority in modern Israel, and have intermarried with Europeans to produce an amalgam as much “Israeli” as “Jewish.”

There is no sign that Herzl thought about Jews of Ethiopia, or that he contemplated the problem of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox who insist on keeping apart from Sephardi ultra-Orthodox at a time when the larger society has moved beyond the acceptance of ethnic segregation.

Israel adheres to the rules of democracy and the nuances of politics. The results are seldom applauded widely, and often invite criticisms for being “undemocratic.” However, democracy pertains more to rules of the game than the nature of results. We can expect a democratic treatment of this latest hiccup in our national history.

Institutions will recognize the power of communities that can produce 100,000 demonstrators, and keep them orderly on a hot day with nothing more untoward than a few cases of fainting and dehydration.

Cosmetic changes are more predictable than extensive reform in the management and finance of schools. Plans are underway for the government to spend more money to expand the colleges that serve the ultra-Orthodox. The purpose is to induce them into a mode of higher education that will prepare them for work rather than to force them out of the religious academies. The IDF has programs to expand its recruitment of the ultra-Orthodox into units that are useful to the military while also accommodating their special needs.

Demographic projections are notoriously problematic. The ultra-Orthodox may not be impervious to economic constraints. The support they receive from the state has never been more than what allows voluntary poverty. There is always a drift out of the community for personal reasons, as well as a drift into the community by individuals coming from secular Jewish and non-Jewish backgrounds.

These fingers will never type in the distant future. We must leave some issues for later generations. The most we can do is to teach them Jewish lessons of coping with constraints, and not giving into the temptation of rushing the Messiah. He/She will come when appropriate. 

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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