by Jonathan Rosenblum
July 21, 2004
Every once and a while, I experience a flicker of optimism about Israel’s future. Those moments are usually associated with conversations with non-religious Jews, either in a group setting or individually, and often involve nothing more than the recognition that dialogue is possible. That feeling is particularly strong when the conversation goes beyond superficial pleasantries, and we find matters of common concern to bind us together.
One such moment occurred a few years ago at a conference of non-religious and religious Jews devoted to a discussion of Shabbos observance in Israel. I was surprised by how many of the non-observant participants in the roundtable discussions expressed deep anxiety about the loss of any sense of Shabbos from the Israeli public square, as well a desire for a deeper experience of Shabbos in their private lives. One non-religious speaker, explaining his desire for a ban on commercial activity on Shabbos, emphasized, "This has nothing to do with concessions to the religious; this is for me."
This past week I participated in a parlor meeting in Kfar Saba at which a group of secular parents invited SHUVU representatives – besheiteled women and men with black kippot and their tzitzis out – to describe the secular and Torah education offered by SHUVU so that they can consider whether they are interested in such an education for their children. And a number of similar meetings have taken place around Israel in recent weeks. Nor are such connections between the secular and religious confined solely to religious issues. Over the past couple of years, I have been actively involved in several non-profit organizations, made up of secular, national religious, and chareidi Jews concerned about the anti-democratic drift of the Israeli Supreme Court.
Over the years, I have come to believe that one of the fundamental fault lines in Israeli society is between the haters and those who feel a genuine sense of connection to all their fellow Jews and are determined to find ways to live together in peace. That fault line cuts through both secular and religious society, though I like to think religious Jews are immunized to hatred by our sense of the spiritual unity of all Jews. The haters, like Shinui, get most of the attention, and they are not in short supply. But we must not make the mistake of thinking that they speak for the whole secular world, or even most of it.
Rarely have I been as inspired as I was last week when a friend, who once served as the director-general of the Absorption Ministry and has headed some of the largest Jewish foundation active in Israel, invited me to meet her for coffee. I did not know the purpose for this meeting, but I knew that my friend has emerged in recent years as one of the most effective advocates in government and with foundations for the charedi community in general, and for particular organizations.
It turned out that she was outraged by recent announcement by Minister of Education Limor Livnat that she intends to cut 15% across the board from the budgets of all non-public nursery schools and kindergartens and wanted my help organizing all the affected groups. In announcing the cut, Livnat made no attempt to justify the fairness of the cuts other than to say that her first responsibility is to children in the state system. My friend showed me a Supreme Court decision from a few months ago in which Justice Michael Cheshin wrote basically the same thing: the state has no obligation to the non-state school systems in the country, and they have to be content with whatever crumbs they receive from the table.
What is taking place here, said my friend, involves an attempt to destroy the chareidi community. If the state feels free to make even more drastic cuts in the chareidi education budget, without even attempting to justify its discrimination against chareidi schools, it can create untold misery within the chareidi community.
My friend explained why she views this as such a terrible thing. She starts from a very different perspective than I do. She speaks as a proponent of multi-culturalism, not of a Torah way of life. Yet there is nothing superficial about her perspective, and I only hope that I live as faithfully to my beliefs as she does to hers.
From my friend’s multi-cultural perspective, preservation of Israel’s delicate social fabric requires the recognition by the different sub-communities of the great differences between them. No community should use its power to try and destroy another one of the sub-communities making up Israel’s social mosaic. And no community should feel itself living under attack from the majority. She sees the Education Minister’s remarks and Justice Cheshin’s opinion as containing a thinly veiled hint of destruction against the chareidi community.
She, by contrast, is eager to do everything she can to help the chareidi community help itself. Two hours after our coffee, I was surprised to meet her again at a meeting with an American chareidi philanthropist eager to assist charedim looking for work. There she outlined a model of an employment center based on her experience creating similar centers for Russian-speaking immigrants.
When I describe my friend as a multi-culturalist that is not to say that she makes no distinction between Jews and Eskimos in Alaska. She is deeply committed to the Jewish people. Multi-culturalist tolerance is for her a means of allowing Jews to live together long enough to explore the bases of commonality, as well as difference. Expressions of hatred, or even contempt, for chareidi Jews are utterly foreign to her. Woe to anyone who talks about "the chareidim" in her presence. And this is an attitude passed down to all of her children, one of whom is the gifted translator of my articles into Hebrew.
I dwell at length on my friend because she exemplifies for me what is best and most hopeful in Israeli society. As long as Jews can talk to one another, and care for each other as brothers, everything is possible.
Related Topics: Israeli Society
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