This week’s bid by Agudath Israel of America to secure funding for Israeli families from the national network of Jewish charitable federations might appear at first glance to represent a step forward, indicating a new willingness on the part of ultra-Orthodox leaders to establish formal relationships with the rest of American Jewry.
But the outreach should not obscure the substance of the Aguda campaign, which is intended to enlist the institutions of mainstream American Jewry — a sectoral ploy by the ultra-Orthodox community to counteract an Israeli government policy shift that most American Jews ought to be endorsing.
Aguda is seeking to raise $13 million for a so-called Baby Bonus Fund, to compensate for cuts in Israeli government grants to new parents. The grants represent a longstanding policy of encouraging fertility. The current Sharon government, under the prodding of the secularist Shinui party, has set out to reverse course. The reason, ultra-Orthodox Jews here and in Israel complain, is secularist hostility toward the Orthodox community.
There’s truth in the complaint, and to the extent that bigotry or Jewish self-hatred is involved, they are to be deplored. But there’s something larger going on. Ultra-Orthodox, or charedi, Jews are expanding exponentially as a share of the Israeli population, thanks to a high birth rate that’s partially subsidized by government child allowances. To Orthodox Jews, the growth is a blessed sign of Judaism’s rebirth after the Holocaust. To others, however, it’s a mixed blessing. To non-charedi Israelis — including Modern Orthodox as well as secularist — the fast-growing charedi community is an anomaly, mired in poverty that’s in large measure self-imposed due to a cultural norm that eschews work in favor of Torah study. Where charedi Israelis see a revival of Judaism, many others see a fast-growing population — most of whose members don’t work, don’t pay taxes and don’t serve in the army. Many Israelis are nervously asking how the country will survive, pay its bills and defend itself.
Shinui won a startling 15 seats in the last Knesset elections and emerged as the kingmaker in the current government largely because of that nervousness. Cutting child allowances was a central plank in its platform. The cuts that took effect this month are not simply money-savers. They’re part of a battle over the future of Israel’s soul.
It is questionable whether United Jewish Communities should ever agree to spend its limited funds on campaigns to undermine Israeli government policy. Whether or not this particular policy is right or wrong is a fair question. But UJC certainly shouldn’t take such a drastic step without a full and open debate on the fundamental issue at hand.