Trends worth watching
by Jonathan Rosenblum
September 15, 2005
We in the chareidi world often imagine that we are unaffected by events taking place around the world, and sometimes even in our backyard. Our community, however, is not an island unto itself. And the failure to recognize that can prevent us from being sufficiently attentive to trends that may have immense implications for our lives.
Take the Gaza withdrawal as an example. Even those in the chareidi world who followed the Gaza withdrawal closely tend to assume that only the withdrawal's security implications were of direct consequence to the chareidi community.
But the matter is not so clear. One consequence of the withdrawal is that the old fault lines in Israeli politics between Left and Right are disappearing and a new consensus emerging. On the one hand, the entire Oslo process is now perceived by the majority of the Jewish population as misbegotten. The last five years have popped the balloon of those who believe in the existence of a Palestinian peace partner.
At the same time, the vision of a Greater Israel exercises increasingly little appeal outside the national religious world. The so-called "unilateral" withdrawal from Gaza reflects both poles of this emerging consensus.
Polls show that Prime Minister Sharon, the author of the Gaza withdrawal, remains the first choice of most of the public for prime minister. He is free of any taint of Oslo and its illusions, and has, at the same time, dealt a fatal blow to the dreams of Greater Israel.
While it is possible that Binyamin Netanyahu will defeat Sharon in an internal Likud election, few expect that Sharon would then simply retire to his Sycamore Ranch. Rather he would likely form a new centrist party with elements of Shinui and Labor, at whose head he would almost surely be reelected.
Why do I dwell on this point? Because it has immense implications for the chareidi community. As long as Left and Right were in rough equipoise, the chareidi parties often held the balance of power in the Knesset, a fact which magnified their power far beyond their numbers.
Already in the present Knesset, Prime Minister Sharon's initial coalition was built without the chareidi parties. And during the coalition negotiations leading up to the formation of the government, a broad secular coalition of Likud-Shinui-Labor was a distinct possibility. The Gaza withdrawal has only increased that possibility by placing Sharon clearly at the center of the Israeli consensus. If the Likud implodes, such a secular coalition may come into being in the form of a single political party.
The decline of chareidi political power only exacerbates the most important trend affecting the chareidi community – the rapid decline in support payments to poor families, a group in which chareidim are disproportionately represented. Those cuts are part of a world-wide trend. Even the social democracies of Western Europe are increasingly finding that their current levels of social services and support payments are unsustainable. And budget constraints imposed by the global economy have made it impossible, even for the most developed economies, not to drastically cut back on welfare spending.
That is not to say that there is no flexibility in social spending. But even if Finance Minister Olmert opens up the government purse more generously than his predecessor, in anticipation of elections, the major thrust of that spending is likely to be towards encouraging a higher rate of labor force participation – e.g., a negative income tax, the Wisconsin Plan. Such initiatives will provide little solace for kollel families.
At times the interests of the chareidi community have been advanced by intellectual trends around the world of which we are only dimly aware, and of which we would not approve if we were. One of those is multiculturalism, the view that all cultures must be equally respected. Many of the consequences of multiculturalism have been noxious – i.e., the tendency of Western intellectuals to avoid passing judgment on the behavior of other societies, in particular Islamic ones. Multiculturalism is a subset of a moral relativism that is anathema to the Torah worldview.
Yet multiculturalism has also been a powerful force for granting educational autonomy to different groups within society, such as chareidim. Recent events, such as the July 7 bombings in London, however, have provoked many to reconsider the virtues of multiculturalism. European countries have awakened to the fact that enemies of Western democracy are being nurtured on the taxpayers' dollar. Suddenly older notions like that of the "melting pot" in ethnically diverse America or a distinct national culture in what were once ethnically homogenous European nation states are regaining intellectual currency. The French decision last year to ban wearing of the hijab in state schools was one example of the recoil from multiculturalism in favor of the imposition of a uniform national culture.
The London bombings would seemingly have nothing to do with the chareidi community in Israel. Even the community's most virulent enemies do not suggest that yeshivos are producing terrorists. Yet the decline of the multiculturalist bias will make it harder to defend the autonomy of the chareidi educational system in terms that can gain widespread support from those who are not chareidi.
Closer to home, the Gaza withdrawal has also caused questions to be raised about multiculturalism in the educational system. The behavior of the "hilltop youth" and the perceived fanaticism of young opponents of withdrawal has lead many in the secular community to wonder what these youngsters are being taught and who is supervising their education.
Here too events seemingly far removed from our community may end up having profound implications for us.
Related Topics: Chareidim and Their Critics
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