Lessons From Beit Shemesh: Some Slow Progress


In recent weeks my head has been full of the angry voices of my friends and partners in the United States — leaders of the American Jewish community, allies and comrades-in-arms in the great task of strengthening the bonds between Israel and the Jewish people worldwide. They are angry about the same things I am angry about.

The cause is plain. To see, in the modern democratic state of Israel, a Jewish schoolgirl being shouted at and abused by ultra-Orthodox (haredi) extremists in the town of Beit Shemesh; to see publicly subsidized buses in Israel being turned into gender-segregated transportation — for me, as an Israeli, as a Jew, as the chairman of the Jewish Agency, all this is unbearable.

And so I understand perfectly why my American friends are outraged. I even understand when they wonder whether they should continue as partners in the Jewish Agency if events like these represent the new face of Israel, if Israel itself is becoming a place where people deigning to invoke the values of Judaism are allowed to conduct themselves in a manner that can only be characterized as anti-Semitic.

If the cause of the anger is plain, so is my answer, and it comes in two parts. The first is addressed to our friends abroad. The second is addressed to the government of Israel.

In order to grasp the significance of what is going on now in Israel’s haredi population, it is necessary to know something basic: over the last 10 to 15 years, this community has been undergoing an amazing transformation — and in a direction that all friends of Israel must applaud.

In the last five years alone, the number of haredi young men volunteering for service in the Israel Defense Forces, though still lamentably low, has quadrupled. The numbers of haredim enrolled in commercial courses designed to prepare them for professional careers have increased dozens of times over. If in 2005 fewer than 500 were getting a higher education in universities and colleges, six years later the number tops 4,000. Ten years ago, only a handful of haredi households were connected to the Internet; today, almost a quarter are.

Walls are falling — and the Jewish Agency has made and continues to make its uniquely inclusive contribution to the process. One small example is our highly successful Youth Futures program, aimed at helping children from disadvantaged homes.

Among the thousand families affected by this program are religious and secular Jews alike, as well as Arabs and Druze. Only the ultra-Orthodox community refused our help, keeping us at arm’s length from their troubled families. But in the last year this too has changed. Haredi leaders in Safed and Bnei Brak, acknowledging certain longstanding problems in their cloistered communities and appreciating the successes already achieved by the program, are competing for our help.

It is precisely for this reason — the gradual but inexorable integration of more and more haredim into Israeli society even while safeguarding their religious uniqueness — that those bent on keeping the ultra-Orthodox community hermetically sealed off have become increasingly virulent, and in some cases increasingly violent. All the recent provocations have been the work of these extremist elements, who in truth form a minority of a minority of a minority.

Let’s leave it to the rule of law to deal with these extremists. Instead, let’s focus our energies on advancing the integration of haredim into Israeli society. One of the ways to accomplish this is to strengthen our partnerships. The Jewish Agency facilitates 47 local partnerships between different Jewish communities around the world and Israeli towns and cities. Beit Shemesh, for example, is linked with the Jewish federations of Washington, D.C. and South Africa. In the wake of recent events, this partnership declared a contest, soliciting proposals for creating dialogue among the different groups in Beit Shemesh, from the ultra-Orthodox to the national religious to recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union and beyond.

More than two dozen proposals have been advanced; and in a few days, the three winners, whose proposals will be turned into programs, will be announced. In fact, a major agenda item at the forthcoming meeting of the Jewish Agency’s board of governors will be the bolstering and expansion of our existing programs to accelerate the integration of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox.

I do not wish to understate the complexity of the task. There is no denying that a whole series of issues has rocked not only the relations of secular and religious in Israel but the delicate balance of interests between Israel and the diaspora. Many of these issues center on the identity and status of Jews abroad, especially for purposes of marriage and divorce in Israel and/or standing under the Law of Return.

Who is a Jew, and who gets to decide? Why are increasing numbers of local municipal rabbis, all appointed and subsidized by the state, raising obstacles to conversions approved by other Orthodox rabbis? Why is the whole process of conversion being made into a machine for exclusion? How have so many other issues having to do with the use and abuse of public space in Israel been allowed to fall under the veto power of the ultra-Orthodox parties?

The answer is politics. And herein lies my second message, addressed to the government of Israel.

Let it be acknowledged that, for decades, secular Zionist political leaders in Israel have steadily ceded authority over the proper relation between religion and state to the political representatives of the country’s ultra-Orthodox community. On both the left and the right, these leaders believed that there were issues — strategic issues — more important than who controls relations between religion and state and how public space is shared, and that in order to garner support for the former they could sacrifice their influence in the latter. The result has been a disaster.

To clarify the point, consider the history of the so-called Tal Law, which only recently re-emerged for discussion in the Knesset. Introduced as a legislative proposal a decade ago, it was aimed at stimulating young Israeli haredim to enter the workforce and thereby mitigate their exemption from military service.

Like all legislative proposals, the Tal Law required two rounds of readings in the Knesset. As circumstances developed, the first reading occurred during the short-lived premiership of Ehud Barak, when Ariel Sharon was the leader of the opposition. For partisan reasons, Barak endorsed the bill; for partisan reasons, Sharon spearheaded the fight against it. The second reading then occurred under Sharon’s premiership, with Barak now at the head of the opposition. Sure enough, the positions were reversed.

At issue in these respective votes was not the merits of the Tal Law. At issue was only which party felt more in need of ultra-Orthodox support for its own political purposes. We are long since past the point at which this situation can continue to be ignored, and its corrosive consequences swept under the rug. To the contrary, history has shown that the allegedly secondary issues at stake are not merely of tactical significance but rather carry tremendous strategic weight, because they strongly influence the character of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

But here too it is a mistake to think nothing is being done, or that nothing can be done. And here too it is our partnership, the unique partnership between the Agency and the government of Israel that can make the difference.

Look at how the last round of the “Who Is a Jew” debate unfolded.

When a bill was introduced into the Knesset aimed at giving sole authority to the Chief Rabbinate for determining the validity of conversions, emotions rapidly became inflamed. As the one body where all the streams of the Jewish community, the representatives of world Jewry and Israeli political leaders convene together, the Agency was the first to warn the government about the brewing controversy. Then, when the controversy did explode, it was we who brought together the government of Israel and representatives of world Jewry to explore and exploit the interest of all sides in finding a solution. The dialogue continues to this very day, not with threats but with the understanding that all sides need and depend on one another. Today, even in the absence of any formal agreement, a “cease-fire” reigns — the bill in question has been blocked from reaching the Knesset — based on deep mutual understanding and a bold declaration by the prime minister that on these issues he represents not only his party but the interests of world Jewry.

The point is a general one. Unlike on matters of Israeli national security, critical decisions on matters of Jewish identity — of access to public space in Israel, of the just and equitable treatment of fellow Jews — are the rightful domain not only of Jews living in the Jewish state but of Jews throughout the world.

And this, once again, is why it is so crucially important for each and every one of us to work together, to break down the walls that different special interests are so persistently attempting to build between Jews and their fellow Jews. Appearances notwithstanding, theirs is a losing battle; but ours has still to be won.

Natan Sharansky is chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.