The battle raging in Israel is not primarily about the definition of democracy, but rather about demography
MY guess is that judicial reform in Israel is largely dead, at least for the time being. But the fallout from that reform effort — one that I wholeheartedly supported — will long be with us. And that fallout will likely be radioactive for the Torah community.
As many have noted, the battle raging in Israel is not primarily about the definition of democracy, but rather about demography — in particular, the rapidly growing percentage of the Israeli population that is chareidi. Most of those demonstrating against the reforms, when questioned about their opposition, quickly reveal that they know almost nothing about the substance of those reforms. They are blissfully unaware of all the ways that the Israeli judicial/governmental legal system is sui generis in the developed world, and are unprepared to defend those departures from accepted judicial norms.
Rather, they are likely to say something to the effect: "I want to live in a normal Western country, not in one in which women are required to wear hijabs or sheitels." The expression of such fears may strike us as wild, but they are real, and the opposition warnings of all the religious legislation that the Likud and its allied religious parties want to foist upon the entire population have been enormously effective.
The questions we as a community ought to be asking ourselves are: Where did we fail? And what can we do now? Have we, for instance, ever tried to explain to the secular public that we do not seek to impose a theocracy as a political goal, and are content to wait for that day when Hashem will fill the entire world with knowledge of Him? Iran is not our model.
Or have we rather cut ourselves off to such a degree from the larger Israeli society that it never occurred to us that there is a need to explain anything, or, conversely, to listen to their concerns? What besides a self-willed isolation could have possessed United Torah Jewry representatives to introduce, suddenly, in the middle of the heated debate about limiting the High Court's ability to apply a "reasonableness" test to government actions, a Basic Law equating Torah study with military service? What can explain such complete tone-deafness? Did no one realize that such a proposal at that moment could only add fuel to the fire and provide opponents of judicial reform with new talking points?
Last week, a video went around of a chareidi family on a train shouting insults at a group of women soldiers. "Shiksa" was but one of the epithets used, but it captures what is most disturbing about the video — the feeling of the kids hurling insults at their fellow Jews that they bear no connection to those female soldiers. That is obviously an attitude they have imbibed in their homes: They were traveling with their parents.
Now, I'm well aware that the behavior of those kids in the video is generally confined to a very small percentage of the community. But the underlying attitude is more widespread. And it is wrong on multiple grounds. First, as a matter of Torah hashkafah, we are bound, for better or worse, to all our fellow Jews. We received Torah together as one, and we have an obligation, as both individuals and as a people, to reflect that Torah to the world.
IN ADDITION, an attitude of complete alienation from other Jews is dangerous: K'mayim panim l'panim. If we feel alienated from them, so will they feel alienated from us, and as such, they will be far more closed to Torah and far more capable of acting against us both physically and politically.
Isolation was once the chosen path of the Torah community. And that made eminently good sense when we were a tiny, embattled minority. But we are no longer a small community. Nor is our very existence under threat. At this point in time, if we want our voices to be heard, we have to be at the table. That was the premise upon which Mishpacha publisher Eli Paley formed the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs over seven years ago: The Torah community has much to offer with regard to issues of direct impact on its own future — such as housing — but also with respect to the larger society.
Above all, there needs to be a societal dialogue between all sectors of Israeli society as to how we can live here together, without various subgroups feeling threatened by one another. Part of that discussion will require each of the various groups to express its own fears of the other.
Such discussions can — and are — taking place, and wherever they happen, stereotypes of the "other" are broken down; and along with the breaking of the stereotypes, so too do fears of the "other" as a threat to one's existence dissipate. Moreover, face-to-face conversations reinforce the fact that we bear a fundamental connection to one another as Jews.
Let us not salve our consciences on this score and tell ourselves that there is no one out there with whom to conduct a dialogue, no one who wishes to engage. I have never known of any Torah Jew who went out to connect to fellow Jews who discovered there was no interest in what they were offering. Consider this remarkable statistic: Amid all the expressions of antipathy toward observant Jews expressed over the past eight months, the Shuvu school system, originally created at the urging of Rav Avrohom Pam for children of Russian-speaking immigrants but subsequently opened to children from Israeli families, has experienced a 20 percent increase in enrollment for next year.
Kesher Yehudi's program with the post-high-school pre-induction academies, in which some of Israel's most idealistic youth are enlisted, has grown from the original three mechinot to thirty for the coming year, with approximately 1,600 mechinah participants. Each mechinah member is assigned a chareidi partner for the year, with whom they meet face-to-face at least ten times and in whose home they will experience a Shabbos. At the end of the current year, 1,275 mechinah participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire, on which one of the questions was whether they wanted to continue their learning together with their chavrusa during the coming year. Twelve hundred, or 94 percent, answered in the affirmative.
No less impressive were the kind of year-end remarks from both the mechinah members and their chareidi mentors. I will quote just a few of hundreds, but they capture the impact of the one-to-one relationships.
Avia wrote to her chareidi study partner Gila: "I'm summarizing this year of connection with tears in my eyes. Who would believe that precisely you, so far from my world, would be my angel this year?... During my mother's illness, when I was overwhelmed and confused, you surrounded me with tremendous support. You taught me to believe in and lean on our G-d in Heaven, to pray to Him. It was a huge source of strength to me. I simply don't have enough words to express my gratitude for the opportunity to get to know you and to be welcomed into your family. Love you tons (who would believe I would say that to a religious woman?)"
Feigy wrote to her study partner Dafna: "You are a special girl, deep, always smiling and a pleasure to be around, I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on the different subjects we discussed. I learned to appreciate your contribution to Am Yisrael. And I have a lot of hakarat hatov for your devotion to helping our nation."
Chaim told his chavruta that the hours they spent together every month were the high point of his month. When he asked himself why, he came to the conclusion: "Through you, I discovered what it means to be a beloved son of G-d. I discovered that all Jews are His children and close to Him, regardless of what they look like or how they live their lives. Because Hashem chose you and me to be His children."
Does anyone think that if more such relationships had been created that the fear and loathing of recent months would have reached the point it did? If we can only learn from past mistakes, perhaps something can yet be salvaged from the pain that we have all experienced as talk of civil war fills the air.