Meretz MK Chaim Oron introduced a bill last week in the Knesset that would impose an automatic six month jail sentence on anyone attempting to influence, directly or indirectly, a minor to be chozer b’teshuva, under the auspicies of any organization that has as one of its purposes bringing Jews back to religious observance. For the time being, at least, the proposed legislation is going nowhere. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is still ardently courting United Torah Judaism in the hopes of bringing the chareidi party into his coalition, and he is not about to let such an incendiary piece of legislation make any headway in the Knesset.
Oron, it would seem, is interested primarily in generating a little publicity for himself by stirring up a religious tension. With Tommy Lapid and his Shinui party now just a bitter memory, Oron hopes to win over some of Lapid’s former supporters. The introduction of the law remains a painful reminder that religion-baiting still has a constituency in Israel today.
In his written materials in support of the legislation, Oron compares his bill to existing anti-missionary legislation. Yet his bill is, in fact, much further reaching than the anti-missionary legislation now on the books. The latter outlaws primarily financial inducements to change one’s religion from Judaism. And the government has never made any serious attempt to enforce laws against missionaries. In any confrontation between missionaries and anti-missionary groups such as Yad L’Achim and Lev L’Achim, the latter are far more likely to be arrested by the police than are the missionaries.
Unlike the anti-missionary statutes, Oron’s proposed bill contains no clause limiting its application to the use of financial inducements to convince minors to adopt religious observance. It is so broadly and unclearly worded that the teaching of Torah, mitzvot and Jewish holidays could easily be interpreted to fall within the ambit of the statute. In the terms of American first amendment jurisprudence, the proposed statute would exercise a "chilling effect" on all teaching of Torah to minors not from religious homes. It would return us to the days of the Romans.
ADMITTEDLY, there is the tiniest germ of a legitimate idea in Oron’s proposal. Parents do not own their children. But they have been entrusted with responsibility for their education. Only totalitarian states refuse to recognize any parental rights to educate their children. In a series of cases nearly a century ago, the United States Supreme Court struck down state statutes denying parents’ the right to provide their children foreign language instruction or a parochial school education. More recently, the Court recognized an exemption for the Amish to state truancy laws that would have required them to keep their children in school until the age of 16.
Parental rights to guide their children’s education are not absolute, but they are far from negligible. Certainly, the Torah community can be counted upon to resist with full force government regulation that limits our ability to provide our children with a chinuch designed to produce yeraim ve’shleimim.
BUT ON THIS SCORE, ORON IS A COMPLETE HYPOCRITE. There are groups in Israel devoted to luring children from religious homes into the secular world. They advertise in the media, and prawl malls and other places where disaffected teenagers from Torah homes are likely to be found, offering them housing, a family to help them make the transition to a secular lifestyle, and other inducements. Oron’s Meretz party has always been a strong supporter of such groups.
INDEED THE HISTORY OF THE JEWISH AGENCY and the State of Israel is that of one concerted effort to destroy the Yiddishkeit of children from Torah homes. Between 1939 and 1942, approximately 1,000 Polish Jewish orphans found their way to Teheran.
Over 80 percent of these children came from religious homes. In Teheran, the children were prevented from saying Kaddish for their parents and punished when they persisted. Refugee rabbis in Teheran were denied access to the children. The Jewish Agency informed the Polish government- in-exile, which was paying for the camp in Teheran, that it would forgo all funding if the Polish government insisted that the children be provided with religious instruction.
When the head of the camp, a member of Hashomer Hatza'ir, was told that the children were refusing to eat non-kosher food, he replied, 'Let one or two die of starvation and they will soon forget about kosher food."
Once in Israel, few children were placed in religious institutions, despite the promise of Youth Aliya head Henrietta Szold that placement would be in accord with family background.
Agudas Yisrael, the party to which the parents of over 60 percent of the children had belonged in Poland, prepared hundreds of places for them in Israel. Yet only 30 out of 1,000 children were placed in Agudah institutions. In one camp, Szold herself did the selection. Though 21 of the 29 children had learned in chadorim or Bais Yaakov schools, not one was placed in an Agudah institution.
The "soul-snatching" of the Children of Teheran, in the words of a contemporary columnist in Ha'aretz, was just a prelude to the deliberate efforts to extirpate Judaism from the younger generation of immigrants from Arab lands.
A government commission established in the '50s to study the absorption of the Yemenite community found that the prime objective of the government's absorption policy was "adaptation of the child to the mode of living expressed in the community at large," a euphemism for uprooting their religious identity.
That same commission found that the shaving of peyos, an important symbol of religious identity for Yemenite Jews, was a "methodical practice." So too, the commission found, was "the disturbance of traditional religious study." The tents for prayer were locked to keep children from gathering for religious instruction and holy books removed and strewn on the ground.
Yemenite teachers were forbidden to teach the children. Anyone religious was barred from the refugee camps. When the Yemenite Jews protested this policy in the Ein Shemer camp, one was shot dead by the authorities.
The children were forced to live apart from their families in central children's houses, where the guides told them, "Shabbat does not exist in Eretz Yisrael," and took them on Shabbos hikes, during which they were encouraged to pick oranges in imitation of their counselors.
Parents who wanted to send their children to religious schools were threatened with eviction from their homes and the loss of their Histadrut work permits - a virtual sentence of starvation in those days.
All this was possible because the Yemenite Jews were subhuman primitives in the eyes of those charged with their absorption. Their fervent religious belief was simply one more proof. The absorption authorities considered it an act of mercy to remove the children from their parents.
The focus of the North African aliya, too, was on separating children from parents. Parents were encouraged to send their children to Israel alone, and those who refused remained stranded in transit camps for much longer periods.
To encourage parents to allow their children to go alone, Youth Aliya promised that they would be placed in religious institutions. Most were sent instead to secular kibbutzim.
A 1956 counselor's manual from one such kibbutz emphasizes that the children are to be taught that "belief in G-d is a reactionary doctrine that has no place among mankind's progressive fighters."
The bright thread running through all Israeli absorption efforts is the arrogant contempt for Jewish religion. Those who complain loudest of religious coercion today were themselves perpetrators of deliberate and systematic coercion of hundreds of thousands of children to shed their religious upbringing.
Nor are the attitudes of the early days of the State something of the past. After the massive airlift from Ethiopia in Operation Solomon , Jerusalem's Kol Ha'ir wrote: "So it was with the Jews of Yemen, so too with those of North Africa. So that the young at least would have some chance, the tradition had to be destroyed, the family had to be destroyed.... Better the salvation of the young so that at least they can integrate."
The late editor of Ma’ariv editor Shmuel Schnitzer hit the nail on the head, when he wrote, in response to calls for a Knesset Commission of Inquiry to study the burgeoning ba’al teshuva movement in Israel: Where were the calls for such a commission of inquiry in the early days of the state, when there was not a house in Meah Shearim sh’ein bo meis? When did the Knesset concern itself with the cries of religious mothers whose children had left their homes and their ways? Far from demanding investigations of the matter, the Zionist movement celebrated the destruction of traditional religious homes, as proclaimed itself the wave of the future.
Today the wave is headed in the other direction.