This week's victory in the Israeli Supreme Court by BeTzedek, a legal advocacy organization for Israel's chareidi community, will not only benefit Torah institutions to the tune of 50 million shekels, but marks an entirely new approach to chareidi askonus in Eretz Yisrael.
As is so often the case, necessity has proven to be the mother of invention. Since Menachem Begin's first victory in 1977 until the current Sharon government, at least one chareidi party was a member of every governing coalition. It became axiomatic in Israeli politics that no coalition without the chareidi parties would remain stable. That perception was reinforced by the collapse of Ehud Barak's government not long after the departure of Shas.
The current Sharon government, however, was initially formed without any chareidi parties, and was quite stable until deep cracks began to appear within Likud over the Gaza withdrawal. The old axioms about the necessity of chareidi parties no longer pertain, and, in recent years, the possibility of a broad secular coalition composed of Likud, Shinui, and Labor has become much more real.
Government policies over the last two years have clearly reflected the loss of chareidi political clout. Child allowance payments, which particularly benefited large chareidi families, have been sharply reduced, and the traditional Israeli welfare state dismantled. Though there may be some play in the depth of future cuts of child allowances, there is little hope that the cuts to date will ever be restored. Those dramatic reductions in social transfer payments by the Israeli government are consistent with worldwide trends.
Even as the average chareidi family has experienced a major contraction of family income, funding of Torah institutions has also declined markedly. That lost funding results in higher tuitions, and an additional squeeze on the average chareidi family.
With chareidi political power reduced to virtually nill (at least until the recent entry of United Torah Judaism into the government), an alternative had to be found to the traditional methods of protecting the interests of the chareidi community. Enter Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, Executive Vice-President of Agudath Israel of America and co-chairman of World Agudath Israel.
Rabbi Bloom recognized that the Israeli chareidi community needs a professional organization modeled on that of Agudath Israel of America to supplement the traditional efforts of chareidi Knesset members. In America, the chareidi community has little political power at the national level, and therefore has to work within the legal system, lobby legislators at both the state and national level, and promote its message through the media. All these require a highly professional staff. No parallel professional organization ever developed in Israel so long as political pressure via Knesset members proved successful.
Agudath Israel of America's efforts in Israel began on a small scale with the creation of Am Echad (the organization which I head) in 1998 to deal with the image of Torah Judaism and Torah Jews in the media. The creation of BeTzedek less than two years ago, represented a quantum leap forward in terms of Agudath Israel of America's involvement. BeTzedek is headed by Rabbi Mordechai Green, one of the first chareidi Jews to ever clerk for the Israeli Supreme Court.
This week's victory was BeTzedek's most dramatic achievement to date. Over four years ago, the since dismantled Religious Affairs Ministry hired an outside company to computerize student databases for all Torah institutions and to route payments to the institutions through the same computer system. Unfortunately, due to glitches in the system, yeshivos did not receive the payments due them for nearly six months. And even after the error was discovered, the government did not refund the missed payments.
In the old days, the problem would have been solved by chareidi MKs exerting political pressure – e.g., threatening to hold up the state budget in the Knesset Finance Committee. It would never have occurred to chareidi institutions to sue for their money, either individually or collectively. (Over the past four years, many national religious Torah institutions successfully sued the government for back monies owed. But no chareidi institutions did so until BeTzedek entered the picture.)
Even when successful, political pressure always exacted a cost. The threats by chareidi MKs made it appear that the chareidi community was exhorting money from the state coffers, rather than simply receiving what was coming to it, and fueled secular outrage at perceived religious coercion. But when the money is wrested out of the government via a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court, which has never been known for its solicitude to the chareidi community, then it is clear that nothing more has been done than rectifying an obvious case of discrimination.
BeTzedek came into existence at a particularly propitious moment. For it serves the interests of Court President Aharon Barak, Israel's wiliest politician, to grant the chareidi community some victories in the Supreme Court. In a series of speeches, Barak has sought to deflect criticism of the Court as reflecting only the values of a narrow, secular elite within Israeli society. He has argued that the chareidi community should stifle its criticism of the Court, and claims that someday that community will recognize the Court as its last protector. Granting the chareidi community victories in cases of blatant discrimination or clear administrative impropriety buttresses Barak's claim.
Even before BeTzedek, the Movement for Fairness in Government, headed by chareidi law student Mordechai Eisenberg, won a number of victories in the Supreme Court. But the connections and resources of Agudath Israel of America gave BeTzedek a much higher profile as the place for chareidi institutions to turn for redress from government discrimination. And chareidi MKs have increasingly referred issues to BeTzedek, where once they might have tried to handle them in the Knesset.
The Supreme Court can be counted on to continue to whittle away the Jewish content of the state of Israel. And on larger structural issues, such as the recent decision that as of 2007 all chareidi institutions that do not teach the mandated core curriculum will no longer be eligible for government funding, the Court will continue to be a major thorn in the side of the chareidi community. The latter type of issue can only be resolved through legislation in the Knesset.
But at least government ministries and administrative agencies have been put on notice that the routine discrimination against the chareidi public will no longer go unchallenged. For instance, BeTzedek successfully ended a Catch-22 situation under which Torah institutions could be denied funding for months at a time. Periodically, the Registrar of Non-Profit Organizations undertakes a thoroughgoing review of non-profit organizations such as yeshivos. During that period of review, the Registrar issued temporary certificates of compliance. But the Finance Ministry took the position that temporary certification was inadequate to receive government funds, even when the in-depth review was routine, and not based on any suspicion of impropriety. BeTzedek petitioned the Supreme Court to either order the Registrar to stop issuing temporary certificates of compliance, where there were no grounds of suspicion, or, alternatively, order the Finance Ministry to issue funds based on the temporary certificates.
Other BeTzedek victories include forcing the Ministry of Industry and Trade to provide a list of those businesses officially authorized to remain open on Shabbos and ending the imposition of draconian back payments on roshei yeshiva if problems were found during government inspection. Currently, Rabbi Green is challenging the Interior Ministry's decision to include child allowances in the calculation of family income for purposes of municipal property tax reductions, a change that affects tens of thousands of families of bnei Torah.
BeTzedek proves that there is a crucial role for a professional organization to supplement the traditional forms of askonus in the political sphere. The next frontier for the Israeli chareidi community will be to create a parallel organization to address in a systematic fashion the grinding poverty that is sapping the strength of the Torah community. That discussion, however, will have to wait another day.