For more than a decade, Israeli high school students have been at or near the bottom of international tests for math and reading comprehension. The current round of "social justice" protests demonstrates that the failure to read or to comprehend what one reads can have real world consequences. About a month ago, university students began pitching their tents on Tel Aviv's upscale Rothschild Street and demanding that the government somehow provide housing at rents they deem adequate in their favorite North Tel Aviv neighborhoods.
Since then the "social justice" protests, fanned by the media, have grown precipitously, and so has the "wish list" of demands – which now includes such things as free day care and state provided housing. Oh, and they also want the government to do this while dramatically lowering taxes. Perhaps the protestors forgot that Israel does not have the luxury of Western Europe of foregoing defense spending, unless the students wish to trust to the tender mercies of Ahmadinejad and our immediate neighbors.
Apparently, Israel's best and brightest have not read about the demise of European social welfare model or about the United States's recent flirtation with bankruptcy. The process of transforming "goods" – medical care, education, day care, housing, six-week vacations – into "rights" has left the European euro on the verge of extinction.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has long pushed reforms that would free more land for building and which dramatically expedite the permit process, thus alleviating the excess of demand for housing over supply. But the students – some of them presumably pursuing economic degrees – reject that legislation on the grounds that contractors will make profits.
The protestors and their media accomplices are not interested in facts. Interviewing Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, Channel Two's Yonit Levy told him not to waste her time with statistics about Israel's low unemployment, one of the developed world's fastest rates of growth, and insulation from the financial crisis that has engulfed the rest of the Western world. On a flight back from Toronto last week, I read the subtitles of an interview with Stanley Fischer, the Governor of the Bank of Israel. "Were you surprised by the protests?" the interviewer (perhaps the same Yonit Levy) asked. "Yes," Fischer replied. "Do you understand them?" she continued. "Not really," he answered, before allowing that, of course, there are things that need to be improved in the Israeli economy.
Among the economic problems: too little competition in many crucial consumer goods, too much economic power in the hands of 20 or so oligarchical families, and very high taxes, especially regressive indirect taxes. The lack of price competition led to a successful consumer boycott of cottage cheese last month. But the "social justice" demonstrators have focused less on the lack of capitalist competition than on their wish list of goodies that they demand the government supply forthwith.
THE MEDIA HAS GIVEN extensive coverage to the protests. By and large, that coverage has been emotional – i.e., interviews with those "not making it." We've been done this road before. First, with the Four Mothers Movement that brought about the IDF withdrawal from South Lebanon, and then the Free Gilad Shalit campaign, with its demand that the government give Hamas whatever it wants to secure his release. The former brought Hizbullah to power in southern Lebanon and has placed every square inch of Israel within range of Hizbullah's missiles.
In part, the saturation media coverage is motivated by the media's love of "action"; in part, by its own Left-leaning agenda; and, in part, by its loathing of Prime Minister Netanyahu and the desire to bring down his government.
THE DEMANDS FOR CHEAPER HOUSING resonate with the chareidi public. And the fact that the cottage cheese boycott was started on Facebook by a 25-year-old Bnei Brak resident has created as certain sympathy for the protestors in the chareidi world. But these protests will not end well for us.
At a July 23, Tel Aviv rally, 21 of the 27 speakers came from Hadash (the Israeli Communist Party), Meretz, or groups affiliated with the New Israel Fund, which constantly pushes a "religious pluralism" agenda. Yair Lapid, who seeks to follow in his father Tommy's footsteps and start a new anti-chareidi party, has emphasized his support for the protestors. When asked, "Where will the money come from?" the inevitable answer is, "From the settlers and the chareidim." Channel Two's senior economic commentator Nechemiah Strassler, for instance, argued that the government must stop giving away money to the charedim and settlers in order to address the protestors' demands. Chareidim are able to buy apartments for one-quarter of the price for secular Israelis, he claims, without noting that he is comparing Beitar and Kiryat Sefer to North Tel Aviv.
"These protests are necessary to ensure that 'the right kind of people' stay in Israel," I heard one radio commentator say. He did not define whom he meant by the "right kind." But it wasn't you or me. ______________________________________________________________________________
I recently spoke to a group of professionals from Jewish Federation of Cleveland on the chareidi community in Israel. The talk took place at one of the Jerusalem campuses of the Jewish College of Technology, which caters to the various religious communities in Israel. Approximately, 1,100 chareidim are currently pursuing B.A.s at one of JCT's numerous campuses, over 60% women. Hearing a different perspective on the charedi community has always proven eye-opening for different American Jewish groups, and the presentation to the Cleveland Federation was no exception.
This time, however, I also had my eyes opened. At the end of my talk, five chareidi men in their mid-to-late twenties, studying at the Machon Lev campus, shared their stories. Four out of the five, were married, with children, and had learned in kollel before entering the program. The single bochur was already in his late twenties, and had learned in yeshiva until he was 25. One was a Stoliner Chassid; another the scion of one of the most famous Yerushalmi families of talmidei chachamim; and the others products of mainstream yeshivos. Only one had a high school matriculation degree.
In their broken English, they described the familial situations that led them to seek a degree that would allow them to secure a well-paying job. But what struck me most was how staunchly chareidi they remained in both their appearance and hashkafa. At one point, the vice-president of the Cleveland federation, formerly a top officer in the IDF, asked them whether they regretted having such a minimal secular education. They each pointed out that with a one-year preparatory course, they had been able to enter a rigorous degree program in technical subjects. Each, in his own words, stressed that the essence of a chareidi life is not material wealth, but closeness to Hashem, which requires the firm base in Torah learning they acquired from bar mitzvah through their years in kollel. In short, no regrets.
Their evident sincerity made an obvious impression on their audience. I, for one, couldn't help thinking, "Kiddush Hashem."
A few weeks back, I wrote about my friend Bill Kolbrener's unsuccessful attempts to find a local cheder for his son Shmuel, who was born with Down Syndrome. One principal, originally inclined to accept Shmuel, ultimately changed his mind because of his fears that the cheder would be stigmatized both in the eyes of the present parent body and those considering enrolling in the cheder. Bill labeled that the alma d'shikra defense.
Shortly after the piece appeared, friends contacted me to tell me about their exact opposite experience. Not only did the local cheder accept their son with Down Syndrome, but when they decided, after much thought, to send him to an excellent school for children with special needs instead, the cheder called several times to tell my friends that the offer was still open. As further proof, that those were not mere words, during the summer when their son has no program on Fridays in his own school, he happily joins with the boys from the local cheder in their summer program.
One thing I learned from my friends' story is how careful we must be never to extrapolate from a story involving one individual or one Torah institution to every Torah Jew or all Torah institutions.