The recent murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh in broad daylight by an Islamist assassin has exacerbated European fears of cultural annihilation and provoked a reexamination of traditional European multiculturalism. The French ban on the chador and other religious insignia in public schools is one example of Europeans efforts to reassert their cultural patrimony.
Such steps, however, are unlikely to do much to spare old Europe from being drowned demographically by an exploding Moslem population, unless Europeans overcome their lassitude and start producing babies again. With too few young workers to pay for the generous package of social benefits promised to any aging population, the only alternative is continued large-scale Moslem immigration, with the new immigrants multiplying at far higher rates than native Europeans.
Doubts about multiculturalism are also being voiced in the context of Israeli policy debates. The Dovrat Commission recommendations, coupled with the Supreme Court’s recent decision banning public funding of chareidi educational institutions that do not teach a core curriculum, pose the greatest threat to chareidi cultural autonomy since the creation of the state. Some have cited the recent European experience with radical Islam to justify efforts to indoctrinate chareidim in the values of the dominant national culture.
The analogy, however, is a weak one. Chareidim are hardly newcomers to Eretz Yisrael, as are Moslems to Europe. Since the destruction of the Second Temple, there were always devout Jews living here. And the first stirrings of modern aliyah began at the beginning of the 19th C. with Chassidic groups and students of the Vilna Gaon.
While chareidi life is no longer the model for the majority of Israeli Jews, neither is that lifestyle something alien, as radical Islam is to Europe. Most of the early Zionist olim came from homes similar to that of present day chareidim.
Most importantly, chareidim do not constitute a mortal threat to the state, as do Islamists in Europe. The latter are inflamed with visions of a reconstituted caliphate imposing Sharia across the earth. That is their political program. In contrast, the ideal Torah state is not on the chareidi political agenda: That state will come with Mashiach, not as a consequence of any efforts by chareidim to impose it. Chareidim wait for the ideal Torah state, as they wait for Mashiach.
The police in Malme, Sweden’s third largest city, acknowledge that large swaths of the city are controlled by violent Moslem gangs. Dutch officials have uncovered at least 15 separate terrorist plots. And the memory of the Madrid train bombing is still fresh in mind. Few chareidim carry arms of any kind, much less bombs.
More importantly, the existence of a chareidi community passionate about Torah study and observance is crucial to Israel’s long-range survival. Faced with the likelihood of at least another generation of conflict with the Palestinians, those Israelis with the means to leave will do so in large numbers, absent a strong sense of connection to the Jewish people and the Land.
The Palestinian’s sense that the future belongs to them is predicated to a large degree on their perception that the Jews have lost any sense of themselves as a people with a connection to the Land. That is why Arafat was so insistent on Israeli renunciation of sovereignty over Har HaBayis. He correctly saw that if Israel’s Jews were to abase themselves by declaring Har Habayis more important to Moslems than to Jews that would represent another dramatic cut in the fraying chords binding us to our past as a people.
Prime Minister Barak’s willingness to entertain that idea provoked Ha’Aretz’s Yair Sheleg, a frequent critic of the chareidi community, to argue that chareidim perform a greater national service hovering over their volumes of Talmud than they would by serving in the army, for they are the last bastion of pure Jewish identity, unadulterated by multiple competing identities.
Finally, a frontal assault on the ability of chareidi parents to raise and educate their children will only be counterproductive from the point of view of the secular majority. Until the emancipation, Jews in Europe participated to a greater or lesser extent in the general economic life, while looking to their own internal community for their values. Chareidi life in Israel is moving in a similar direction – i.e., towards greater economic integration.
But if chareidim perceive themselves as under siege, they will withdraw even in the economic sphere, and changes taking place in chareidi education as a consequence of new economic realities will be brought to a halt.
Chareidi education does change in response to shifting communal needs – e.g., the shift from Yiddish to Hebrew as the primary language of instruction. And today chareidi educators have noted that many more jobs are available to those who speak English. As a consequence, many Bais Yaakov seminaries have strengthened their English instruction.
At the same time, chareidim are raised on a millennia-long martyrology of sacrifice to preserve religious values. Attempts to coerce educational changes or to expedite natural processes already taking place within the community will encounter stiff resistance and reinforce the most conservative forces within chareidi society.