Fighting Back Against Fundamentalism

The Polymath

Fighting Mad: Ultra-Orthodox Jews are pushing back against efforts to fight gender segregation and harassment. Secular Jews must not allow fundamentalists to hijack Judaism.
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Fighting Mad: Ultra-Orthodox Jews are pushing back against efforts to fight gender segregation and harassment. Secular Jews must not allow fundamentalists to hijack Judaism.

By Jay Michaelson

Published January 06, 2012, issue of January 13, 2012.
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We do not have to sit by passively while the Jewish people devolves. There is much we can do to welcome Haredi Jews into the Jewish family, precisely by actively opposing Haredi values and culture.

First, it is obviously true that not everyone who wears a sheitel or black hat has the same set of views about the world. Rather than assume that the farthest-right fringe speaks for all Haredi Jews, mainstream Jewish communal leaders should promote alternatives to it. I know many thoughtful Haredi Jews — and not just Chabadniks, who are something of a special case. If only their leaders would be willing to stand up to the farthest-right fringe, instead of worrying that they’d be seen as less frum for doing so. We in the non-Haredi world can set standards for which Haredi leaders we will support — and the first of those standards should be a categorical refusal of the sort of violence we’ve seen lately in Brooklyn and in Israel.

Second, those of us who support Israel financially, either individually, through federations or through other organizations, should insist that none of our support be used to support Haredi institutions. Of course, doing so is practically impossible, since those institutions are supported at every level of the Israeli government and Israeli civic organizations, which are in turn supported by American philanthropic and governmental aid. But isn’t this why we have large umbrella groups such as federations and federations of federations? To act in a unified way and exert meaningful pressure? Individual donors and family foundations should target their giving away from Haredim, and large conglomerations should demand changes to the way Israeli society subsidizes radical fundamentalism.

Such as? They should demand an absolute end to the Haredi exemption from Israeli military service, to the funding of schools that do not teach a full secular curriculum in addition to a Jewish one, to any public subsidy of gender-segregated public accommodations and to any Israeli rabbinate — including the Chief Rabbinate — controlled by Haredim. And if these demands are not met, our umbrella organizations should refuse to cut the checks — or at least target them more specifically away from fundamentalist institutions.

We need to understand that fundamentalism is not Israel’s friend. By providing blank checks for the Iran-ization of Israel, Israel’s friends are hurting the state itself.

Third, Jewish communal funding agencies should prioritize the support of organizations that help Haredim leave the fundamentalist fold. These organizations, such as Hillel in Israel and Footsteps in the U.S., are tiny shoestring operations. They, or organizations like them, should be enhanced, empowered and developed into serious social service agencies. Even without the social, familial and institutional pressures that confront individuals seeking to leave, it is very difficult to emigrate from the Haredi world. Young adults often are barely literate in English or modern Hebrew, and often lack basic job skills. In addition to cutting familial and communal ties, they risk financial ruin by leaving the Haredi bubble. The wider Jewish community needs to make that transition as easy as possible.

This could be a boon for klal yisrael. In both Israel and the U.S., ex-Haredim are some of our most creative artists and dynamic educators. Steeped in tradition, yet courageous enough to have radically questioned it, they are treasures to the community. We should make it as easy as possible for them to enrich all of us with their gifts.

I would go even further. I think we need to proselytize for non-fundamentalist Jewish culture within the Haredi world. Nothing should be non-consensual; if people want to live a fundamentalist lifestyle, it is their right to do so. But let’s not pretend they’re making an informed choice — they aren’t. We can and should make the case, by whatever means are available, that a life of engagement with the modern world is better than the ghetto.

Some will say that all this amounts to a kind of internecine culture war — some Haredim clearly do, as evidenced by the recent Jerusalem protest featuring Haredi adults and children wearing gold stars and concentration camp pinstripes to demonstrate their persecution amidst the “Zionist exile.” But the Kulturkampf already has been started by the other side. Haredim are not like the Amish, simply wishing to be left alone. In Israel, where they have sufficient power, they demand more and more government resources, they demand women get to the back of the bus (literally) and they demand separate schools in which to propagate fundamentalist ideology. This is true even in American enclaves such as New Square, where the line between governmental and religious authority is blurred. The “war” has already started.

But we don’t need to be seduced by the rhetoric of conflict. This isn’t a war, and it isn’t between us and them. “They” are part of us, and “they” are often facing the brunt of oppression themselves, particularly if they are women or children. Moreover, “they” are actually quite dependent on “us” — on Israel’s tax dollars, on the lack of discernment among American donors and on all of our complacency around the threat posed by fundamentalism to the values of the Jewish majority. We don’t have to fight a war against our sisters and brothers. We just have to stop subsidizing an ideology that threatens us all.


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