Saturday, April 23, 2011
That is the punch line of a joke told in Israel about a yeshiva student in a new suit who met his rabbi on the street. Non-Israelis and those unfamiliar with the Hassidic community never quite get it.
Hassidic couple and 9.5 children
I don’t have a dog in this fight. If Israel wants to pay welfare to the Hassidic men for studying that is Israel’s business. I will tell you however, that the secular Israelis are not happy with the fact that most Hassidic men do not serve in the military and most do not work.
They know it is a drag on the nation’s finances, and they know that they are required to serve either in the military or national service of some kind.
The article is lengthy, but it will teach you some fact you might not know about the issue.
Thou shalt not work
The Haredi press is one of the main barriers to the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into the job market.
By Nati Tucker
Dudi (not his real name ) is in the middle of his fifth year in the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, one of Israel's most famous and important yeshivas. When he and his classmates are 22, he says, they study a little less and are preoccupied mainly with finding the perfect shidduch: a girl who is pretty, good-hearted, smart and rich.
Why rich? Mainly so girls' parents can support them as they continue studying in a yeshiva for married men after they're married, instead of working.
Every day Dudi gets up at 8 A.M. and goes to the nearby synagogue for the morning service. After that, he reads his daily newspaper, Yated Neeman, with breakfast. In these moments, it's not just the carbohydrates and proteins that nourish him. The articles and commentaries shape his ambitions and way of thinking.
Here he understands that on one side are the Haredim, and that the sole purpose of his life is to study Torah, even at the price of a life of poverty and reliance on others. On the other side are all the others, savages who would destroy the world of Torah. One way to destroy this world is to make the Haredim work.
Coverage of the ultra-Orthodox community in the general media includes penetrating criticism of their failure to do military service, their low employment rate, and religious coercion. The Haredi press presents the opposite picture: firm defense of the community's principles and a strict preservation of its lifestyle.
The ultra-Orthodox press is in effect the Haredi tribal campfire that fervently fulfills its role - to block reform and changes in the community's way of life.
"The Haredi press, mainly the establishment press, was instituted to serve as an ideological mouthpiece for the rabbis, and it has a strong influence," says Prof. Yoel Cohen, head of the School of Mass Communications at the Ariel University Center. "The objective was to create a closed society. We saw that in the campaign they conducted in 2010 against the Internet, every day there were articles and commentaries against surfing the Internet."
There's a good reason why the Haredi press has such tremendous influence. The ultra-Orthodox put great importance on the written word. They place far more trust in every fact in their newspapers than other people do. There is also great exposure to the press, mainly due to the slow penetration of the Internet. Well, never mind. Officially, the Internet isn't found in any Haredi home.
'The despotic rule of errant brothers'
Of all the Haredi newspapers, Yated Neeman, the organ of the United Torah Judaism party, has the clearest agenda - and the largest circulation. According to a 2010 Target Group Index survey, Yated Neeman is the most widely read newspaper in the Haredi community on weekdays, at 42.4%. This is mainly because of the Tuesday edition, which is distributed free in all Haredi communities in Israel.
In this paper, any questioning of stipends for yeshiva students is "incitement." It's an attempt to destroy ultra-Orthodox Jewry.
"The wave of incitement sweeping the Torah world due to the so-called Yeshiva Students' Law is not essentially different from the periodic waves of incitement that have swept the Haredi community and the Torah world from time to time," said an editorial about two months ago.
"Just as in the pogroms that swept over the Jews during the generations, in the harsh exile in which we are immersed under the despotic rule of errant brothers, we are fated to suffer the campaigns of persecution .... They have abandoned all the irrelevant arguments and openly revealed the plot: to send the kollel [yeshiva for married men] students an unequivocal message - work liberates .... We knew that they didn't have any concept of Jewish values, but to think that a yeshiva student who was able to build a home of Torah values will change his lifestyle because the Arrangements Law includes a paragraph that calls on him to join the workforce? What, are you crazy? Are you so alienated? ... There were times when the slogan 'work liberates' would have been shocking. Today 'work liberates' has become an absurd campaign." (Yated Neeman, October 27, 2010 ).
Yated Neeman is not alone. Hamodia, the organ of the Agudat Yisrael party, sharply criticized students' demonstrations against the attempt to legislate income supplements for yeshiva students:
"Let's not leave the arena of the public space to those pathetic, disturbed and inferior students .... We must wave placards saying that we do not wish to fund the institutions in which hardcore criminals are growing." (Hamodia, September 3, 2010 )
The same style exists in other newspapers as well. Bakehila defined the obligation to teach a core curriculum as an "edict." (July 18, 2010 ) And allocating budgets to the Israel Defense Forces for expanding the special tracks for Haredim led to the following headline in Haedah - the newspaper of the most extreme group, the Eda Haredit: "NIS 100 million was allocated to draft thousands of Haredim to the taref [religiously impure] army." (January 14, 2010 )
Torah study moves the tanks
The Haredi community's low employment rate is actually a serious threat to Israel's economic future. Many men in that community study throughout their lives, and by doing so drag their families into a life of poverty and privation.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, employment among Haredi men is just 39%, and among women about 58%. In recent years Haredi society has been gradually changing: Thousands of young men are studying academic subjects and joining the workforce. But the numbers are still low.
A key barrier to Haredim joining the workforce is image: A man who does not study Torah as a profession has lower social status than his neighbor the yeshiva student.
It can mean that his children won't be accepted to Haredi institutions of study; it can even harm his chances of making a good shidduch. This image is created mainly in the ultra-Orthodox media, and each newspaper has a spiritual committee - a team of rabbis that supervises the newspaper's contents.
"The Haredi media depict the struggle to get yeshiva students to work as anti-Haredi. Yated Neeman presents the struggle to get Haredim into the workforce as a 'disgraceful plot' and as 'incitement' designed to undermine the Haredi lifestyle," says Shahar Ilan, vice president of research and information for Hiddush - For Religious Freedom and Equality.
"Those who favor Haredi employment are portrayed as collaborators and false Haredim who are causing the destruction of Haredi society. The Haredi media contain almost no discussion of refraining from work as something negative. They rarely provide data, present them very selectively and choose the data that conform to Haredi propaganda."
Yated Neeman is very familiar with Ilan's arguments. But there, armed with ideological weapons, they reject them all.
"In a normal situation among the Jewish people, everyone except for the tribe of Levi worked for a living and devoted designated times to Torah. The entire nation was in the army too," says Israel Friedman, the editor of the newspaper's religious supplement.
"But when most of the Jewish people shirk their Jewish obligation and turn their backs on Torah study, the only ones who must engage in Torah study are the few who don't shirk the obligation - the yeshiva students. We fully believe that Torah study moves the wheels of the tanks and safeguards the planes. But today, most of the nation avoids this obligation."
So is the newspaper opposed to Haredim working?
"The subject of Haredi employment is complicated. Employment is not something taref. We have no problem with work. Every type of work dignifies the person doing it, and a person has to make a living," Friedman says.
"There's another point: The most exalted value toward which Haredi Judaism educates is study, and we know that the highest achievements in Torah study have to come out of poverty. Anyone who wants to study has to be willing to do without and to sacrifice.
"If someone finds himself in a situation in which he can't support himself and has no supporter and helper, the alternative is not to be a thief but to work."
The war of the dailies and weeklies
One person who deals with the media's stance on Haredi employment is Simcha Margaliot, a Haredi high-tech entrepreneur and owner of interactive click firm Linguistic Agents, which works with Haredi institutions.
"Encouraging people to go out to work is a sensitive point in the Haredi media," he says. "If there's a call to encourage people to do something - it's to study Torah. Work is not an end but a means.
"But I don't think that my status is inferior. I admire those who study Torah, but I know that just as in the army there are many units, I'm proud to be in my unit, in which I help those who study Torah."
Margaliot adds: "There has been a significant change in the attitude of part of the Haredi media to employment. Once there was a veto against the subject, but now they advertise study centers positively, and the issue has attained legitimacy."
Margaliot is referring mainly to the new spirit in the ultra-Orthodox weeklies. While the daily Haredi press is completely loyal to the most conservative line, the commercial weeklies are trying to present an alternative. They target the more modern readership and discuss broader issues that are not on the agenda of the party newspapers.
The leading weekly in terms of readership is Mishpacha. There is a long-standing war between the party-sponsored dailies and the weeklies. Overtly the battle is of course over advertising space from Israel's large companies, yet the daily press vigorously condemns the weeklies and even calls for boycotts on them because they are not considered sufficiently loyal to the conservative values of the Haredim.
One of the harshest battles between the weeklies and dailies took place about six months ago, when Mishpacha published a special supplement on Haredi employment. The supplement included data from a large survey requested by the newspaper on the community's employment rate, as well as interviews with the governor of the Bank of Israel, ministers and MKs.
The discussion on employment was revolutionary; for the first time the Haredi press addressed the problem of poverty caused by the low employment rate.
The response was not long in coming.
The conservative Haredim were very unhappy about the "provocative" supplement. Immediately after it was published the party organs attacked the weeklies, mainly Mishpacha, claiming that the paper was "upsetting the order" and introducing "foreign ideas" to Haredi society.
Not satisfied with that, the Haredi machers launched a boycott of the commercial weeklies via a letter signed by all the directors of Haredi educational institutions. It sent a clear message: Anyone who brings the weeklies into his home will find it very difficult to send his children to the most prestigious institutions.
The reason to publish the supplement was informative, says Eli Paley, the publisher of Mishpacha. "It was at attempt once and for all to draw a more realistic picture of what is happening in Haredi society and to understand all the barriers facing the people in that society," he says.
"It was done without diminishing the value of those who are involved in Torah, but there's a large mass of Haredim who want to work - larger than the data that are usually published. There was a need to understand what barriers they are facing."
It's everyone else's fault
Paley feels the newspaper did a good job reflecting the real problem behind low employment among Haredim.
"We showed that the economy is not really prepared to provide solutions for this community, and is not adapting. The economic establishment is not prepared to find a solution for the community," he says.
"For example, the entire tax system is suited to single people and families with two children, and it's impossible for a tax system designed for single people to be the same for families with 10 children. That's why even those who join the workforce are below the poverty line, because the tax rate leaves them there."
Do does Paley's paper position itself on the other side of Yated Neeman and encourage employment in the community?
"The main value of every Haredi, even those who go out to work, is that Torah study is paramount .... We wanted to show the other side that working is a necessity and that many people who devoted years to Torah study now need solutions that enable them to live a Jewish life and earn a living," he says. "The newspaper describes itself as more responsible and more attentive to the needs of the community, and doesn't conduct an agenda of battles. Nor does it intervene in processes in the Haredi community."
The Mishpacha initiative fell on a few attentive ears. "It's not that the supplement really came out with an emphatic statement in favor of going out to work. The supplement was presented as a Haredi information blitz against the secular community," says Hiddush's Shahar Ilan.
"The supplement 'Haredim 2010' stressed the claim that in 81% of Haredi families, at least one person works. That's ostensibly a positive figure, but it ignores the following facts. The really important figure is that in 19% of Haredi families, not even one person is working, and they are poor by definition. In addition, a very large percentage of the women work in part-time jobs."
The barrier of fear has been broken
Even if the newspapers present differing opinions about how to handle the issue of earning a livelihood, all agree on one thing: The core curriculum - subjects such as English, mathematics and Hebrew grammar - must not be introduced into Haredi educational institutions.
"[High school] matriculation is a waste of time," says Rabbi Yakov B. Friedman?, a leading columnist for Bakehila. "There are colleges that can prepare students for matriculation within a year to a year and a half. In addition, the High Court of Justice has already discussed Torah studies as an alternative to mathematics and English, and we hope the decision will be positive. All this mathematics and English is to serve as a filter for the best students, so why shouldn't this filter be Talmud studies?"
All the newspapers also toe the line in cases where the rabbinical courts have put pressure on them to express unanimity.
For example, in the Haredi community there is a fund called the Kemach Foundation, which every year spends about NIS 15 million earmarked for stipends for yeshiva students who want to acquire an academic degree (much of the money is donated by British businessman Leo Noe ). But the association's name hardly ever appears in the Haredi press, which frowns on its "negative" activity.
"The association is totally boycotted in the Haredi press," says a Haredi public relations man. "The members of the association do holy work and enable yeshiva students to earn a living, but somehow they are seen as people who are causing yeshiva students to leave the study halls, so they're not allowed to advertise in the Haredi press at all." The Kemach Foundation declined to discuss the issue.
Will the Haredi press succeed in forcibly keeping young Haredim loyal to the traditional path of Torah study? Prof. Amiram Gonen of the Hebrew University geography department, who for years has worked to encourage academic studies in the community, believes that as with the protests in the Arab world, the "barrier of fear" has been breached among the Haredim as well.
"The barking of the dogs is certainly doing something," says Gonen. "The caravan that is passing is small and sparse. We don't see Haredim going out to work en masse. The Haredi public is still not ready to take a chance by plunging into a life of professional training, and they are still afraid that their children will pay the price. But I think that the leaders have already lost control. There's a significant dropout rate among yeshiva students in the Haredi sector, in favor of academic studies and work."
Gonen believes that the Haredi community's greatest challenge is to continue to maintain the world of Torah - established after the destruction of the European communities - while maintaining a productive, self-supporting society. Gonen notes the famous rabbinical saying to the effect that for every 1,000 who study Torah, only one attains the profound Torah knowledge that enables him to teach.
"It's true that according to the saying, 1,000 begin to study Torah and only one succeeds, but at the same time we have to organize the entry of all the other 999 into the workforce," says Gonen. "The post-Holocaust Haredi revolution has come to an end. They were more successful than any other revolution - without violence and weapons they reestablished the yeshiva world, even though in 1950 so few Haredim remained. But now the revolution has come to an end, as happens with revolutions."
So far no leader has arisen in ultra-Orthodox society to call for an end to the battles, says Gonen. "But the Haredi community realizes that change is happening, and even in the absence of the rabbis' blessing, they're taking on the challenge."