In the weeks before the first Gulf War, Noah Efron, a young American graduate student at Tel Aviv University was standing in the cafeteria line when he overheard the conversation of two female students in front of him. One said to her friend, "The best thing for the country would be if there was a chemical attack in Bnei Brak now, before they get new gas masks." Her friend replied that it would be "amusing" to forcibly shave the beards of all the "little Jews."
That conversation inspired Efron, today a Bar Ilan University professor of history and philosophy, to conduct a decade long inquiry into the question: "[W]hy – beset by bombs, hunger and hopelessness – do so many Israelis see as our primary enemy, as the real cause of all our problems, the great mass of men in black." The resulting book, Real Jews: Secular vs. Orthodox and the Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, will give scant solace to haredi readers. Efron copiously details the familiar critique of the haredi community, and shares it in large part.
Yet he concludes that no matter how compelling the critique it cannot fully explain the visceral hatred directed at the haredi community and that a large element of irrationality infects all discussion of haredim. While doing a postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, Efron was warned by an Israeli professor of art history not to return to Israel because his young daughters might end up in concentration camps being prepared by haredim. When he scoffed at her concerns, the woman, whom he describes as the "gentlest Israeli I know," grew enraged. Her fantasies typify the irrational thinking about haredim.
The haredim have inherited the traditional Jewish role in Christian Europe as the "Other" against whom one’s own identity is defined, and the critique of haredi life borrows heavily from traditional anti-Semitic critique of Jewish life.
No matter how exposed one is to the hatred described by Efron, its full fury can still take one aback. A Maariv story yesterday on the search for an American yeshiva student who has been missing for days, elicited a torrent of ugliness. With the fate of this young boy still unknown, a number of Internet readers seized the opportunity to spew forth their venom against haredim. One offered that he would not be any sadder with the yeshiva student’s loss than that of any Palestinian. Others complained that they have to work all day to support "idiots who instead of working go from one gravesite to another to pray." Another reminded the chat group that haredim "cause all the hatred and troubles."
The different media treatment of certain issues when haredim are involved and when they are not furnishes additional evidence of the irrational element of discussions touching haredim. Consider the differential treatment of religious councils and local authorities, both of which are hangouts for political hacks.
Ever since Shas began to wrest control of the religious councils from the NRP in the late ‘80s, criticism of the religious councils has been a hardy perennial of the Israeli media. And promises to disband the religious councils have featured prominently on the platforms of virtually every secular politician.
In truth, much of the criticism of religious councils is fully justified. Positions on the councils are often rewards for political service rendered. And many of the religious councils do a lousy job of distributing religious services. Though former Chief Rabbi Eliyahu Bakshi-Doron and an occasional haredi MK have called in the past for transferring the distribution of religious services to the municipalities, it is regrettable that the haredi political leadership did not take the lead in pushing for dissolution of the religious councils.
Nevertheless, the savings from dissolution would have been relatively minor. When Justice Minister Yossi Beilin issued an administrative order in 2000 that salaries would no longer be paid to the heads and deputy heads of religious councils, the estimated savings came to only 65 million shekels. The total budget for the religious councils never exceeded 400-500 million shekels, and most of those costs would have been picked up by the municipalities.
These sums are minor compared to the waste resulting from a failure to merge smaller local authorities into larger ones as recommended by the 1998 Shahar Commission. The estimated savings from merging all local authorities serving less than 10,000 people come to more than two billion shekels a year. Such smaller authorities constitute nearly 80% of all local authorities – 140 serve less than 5,000 people and 66 less than 10,000.
Yet despite the far vaster sums involved, the issue of excessive local authorities has never been the subject of the same sustained media attention as the religious councils.
Even today, when the newspapers are filled daily with tragic stories of individual hardship caused by budgetary cuts, the success of local authorities heads in gutting the Finance Ministry’s merger proposal occasioned little of the vitriol that follows each new allocation to haredi institutions.
True, sharp editorials in this paper and by Ha’aretz’s Nehemiah Strassler noted the sordid political deal involved. Positions on local authorities, which pay hefty salaries and entail little work, are the preferred sinecures for the party hacks who make up the Likud Central Committee, which selects the party’s Knesset slate. And few Likud MKs wanted to cross their selectors.
Still, the general attitude was more on the lines of a shrug of the shoulder "that’s politics." That venality is part of the human condition and that most people do not go through life with the commonweal uppermost in their thoughts is common knowledge. No need to dwell on that.
But when the venality involves haredim, then it serves as proof of something much more nefarious, of the depraved nature of an entire community. Now we are no longer in the realm of normal human greed, but of a whole community of bloodsuckers seeking to drain the very lifeblood from the secular community.
Billions of shekels spent to bail out the kibbutzim from failed stockmarket speculations and lucrative land grants worth billions more occasion none of the same anger as allocations to haredi educational institutions. No recent headlines blasted the news, "Billions for local authority heads, less for starving children."
A few weeks ago, Tommy Lapid dispensed 123 million shekels from the public coffers as if it were his personal largesse. In doing so, he voluntarily chose to emulate the corrupt system of special allocations, which was once forced on haredi MKs. And he did so, in apparent violation of the Budget Law, which requires prior disclosure of all coalition agreements.
No paper juxtaposed a photograph of well-heeled Ramat Aviv society matrons watching a performance of the Batsheva Dance Company to one of an empty refrigerator in Kiryat Gat, with the caption, "Rich enjoy new subsidies for theater courtesy of Tommy Lapid while the poor starve."
Precisely such juxtapositioned images are employed frequently to encourage secular Israelis to spend in their mind’s eye every allocation to haredi institutions many times over and to imagine every national need taken care of if only the haredim would disappear.
Our Sages tell us that the Temple was destroyed because of the internal enmity and hatred of the Jewish people. If we want to understand why we did not merit to celebrate Tisha B’Av yesterday in a rebuilt Temple, we do not have far to look.