Thursday, 31 May 2012

Weiji - An Old & New World View for a Community in Crisis

Communities in crisis face many challenges, leaving doubts for their future viability. Those with unsustainable economic structures deal with endemic poverty and unemployment. Crime, abuse, and violence are evident, even if in arguably smaller proportion to other communities, and there is a fundamental disconnect from the broader society. Conversely, a community that is a growing, close knit, respected, well organized unit becomes known for its righteous charity, its education and outreach, its support to the sick, as well as its piety, devotion, and obedience.

The truthful conundrum is that in both Israel and North America both descriptions illustrate – with varying degrees of justification - Chareidi (ultra-orthodox) Jewish communities. In 2012, following the vagaries of the financial crisis and the realities of disruptive social change, Chareidi communities are in a social, ethical, and existential flux they have never before experienced. In Israel, for example, though they make up about 10% of the population (700,000), almost 60% of Chareidim live below the poverty line, and according to a study from Haifa University (Soffer, Bystrov, November 2010), 30% of births among Jewish Israelis are to Chareidi families. The way in which their leadership and adherents respond now to the numerous challenges they face will determine how their future will look.

At a time when many of today’s societal challenges - including economic woes, job loss, and marital breakdown - combined for the first time with increasingly accessible media, are intersecting with the stress points inherent in any insular community, practical guidance has often given way to blanket prohibitions. The internet, most smart phones, vacations, sports and even separate-seating concerts by religious performers have all come under rabbinical ban in recent years. In a fascinating development, many Chareidim have begun to turn to forums and blogs to discuss the crises faced by the community in ways they could never before contemplate, because without the anonymity of the internet, their questions would lead to their shunning in the community. For individuals raised and living within a sheltered lifestyle, this is a very real concern. As one recent commenter on the website wrote, about an Israeli Rabbi who dared to suggest that many of those in Yeshivas should look for work: “When he attacks Torah learning, he removes himself from Klal Yisroel.” Unsurprisingly, it is this very accessibility that has, in recent months, become the epicenter of the crisis.

There is no question that many leaders within the Chareidi community see “the internet” as something that “attacks Torah learning.” Perhaps more critically than that, they see it as a direct, growing, and menacing challenge to the authority of rabbinic leadership – a leadership of intellectual and religious dynasties (both familial and collegial) that has served their communities with guidance and devotion for two thousand years. 

The recent “Internet Asifa” held at Citifield in Queens, New York, in May 2012 was heralded as a demonstration of unity in the face of the “threat”. Over 40,000 Chareidi participants listened to leaders from the US, Canada, and Israel deliver what has been described by a number of attendees as a frankly mixed message, with some Rabbis demanding filtering and getting rid of smart phones, and others condemning any internet use at all in the home, on pain of excluding children from communal Yeshivas.   

What, though, is the threat? Is it access to addictive sites, like gambling or pornography? Is it anonymous internet dating? Social media? Perhaps it more than anything else about power, and the capacity of bloggers and anonymous commenters to publicly doubt or question the authority of the community’s leadership, or, sometimes, their lack of leadership. Indeed, no less a spokesperson than Rabbi Paysach Krohn spoke to a reporter at the Asifa decrying this aspect of the use of the internet as his biggest concern, and his belief that anonymous critics of Torah authorities should be put in cherem (excommunicated). 

Such daring as is demonstrated daily on numerous websites and blogs is a relatively new phenomenon. Members of the Chassidic or Lithuanian (otherwise known as Yeshivish) ultra-Orthodox communities will tell you that they turn to the Mesorah – the inherited wisdom transmitted through an unbroken line of Rabbis reaching back to Sinai - for guidance in trying times. Yet in the last 30 years, with the passing of Torah leaders such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Eliezer Shach and the Satmar Rebbe, among others, the community lost many of its most respected guides. Some current leaders have been described as increasingly more remote from the everyday realities their adherents face. Some consider the advanced age of many leaders to be part of the challenge. Others cite intermediaries, known as “askonim” with their own agendas, who control access and information to the leaders, as the problem. As one puzzled commenter on the news site wrote, “We were all taught to revere our Rabbonim. However, lately I believe many ehrlicher (good, proper) Yidden are scratching their heads at some of the public pronouncements.” 

The growing disdain for blind obedience would seem to be a radical new trend, but it has antecedents in the work of early Chassidic Rebbes, such as Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), who cautioned his fellow Jews that “God does not want yes-men” in an explanation of a passage in Deuteronomy (Sefer Devarim). 

The internet allows for another surprising paradigm shift unheard of in the past. Chareidi men are engaging with women in theological, halachic, and practical discussions. One poster, a Chareidi woman from New York in’s Coffee Room discussion forums, gently chided the mostly male writers who she interacts with almost daily “Everyone has their reasons and everyone is judged by Hashem. No one else should be doing the judging.”

Chareidim have also become involved in social issues they may not have even contemplated in the past. In early 2010, a Jewish man named Martin Grossman was executed in Florida for the murder of wildlife officer Peggy Park in 1984. Many Chareidi leaders called for public action to avert the death penalty, but some, like this poster on, asked if the concern was about the death penalty or the fact that the condemned man was a Jew. “Imagine if it was a irreligious Muslim that killed a Jewish cop, then sat for 26 years and became a ‘born again Muslim’ felt bad for what he did and all that good stuff, will we say the same thing??”

Discussions range across the spectrum of interest on dozens of websites. Of particular debate have been socio-economic issues, with more and more Chareidi individuals questioning the concept of Torah learning exclusive of work, and criticizing the sense of entitlement they perceive among some kollel yungerleit (young scholars). Some cite the words of Maimonides (Rambam) in the Laws of Torah Study declaring the folly of assuming the community should shoulder the responsibility of supporting individuals who learn but do not work. Many others, particularly in the Chassidic communities, have been able to build a happy medium allowing them to support their families while setting aside time for learning. In fact, Haaretz’s The Marker recently reported that the number of Chareidi men in professional training programs had risen exponentially to 6,500, and the number of Chareidi men with jobs had risen 8% in eight years.

Another heated topic of online conversation in Chareidi circles revolves around military service in the IDF in Israel, and the Chareidi community’s historic exemptions from service. In Israel, a lack of army service closes doors to many jobs, so even when many Chareidi men wish to join the workforce, they have been handicapped. Creative solutions have helped, and an IDF unit meeting the needs of the community was formed. The Netzach Yehuda Nachal Chareidi battalion in the IDF has grown from platoon to battalion size in its nearly 10 year history, and it continues to draw Chareidi men who are not suited for the kollel lifestyle. A 2007 study conducted by the Netzach Yehuda Foundation found that 90% of its veterans were employed, compared with only 40% of males among the broader Israeli Chareidi community, as reported by the Van Leer Institute. Nonetheless, the recent unity deal completed by the Netanyahu government with the Kadima party has as its centrepiece the replacement of the Tal law, which has, until now, perpetuated the system of exemptions. The Chareidi community is facing a huge challenge, as the political will to revamp the system has finally been supported by large enough Knesset support to make the leverage that the Religious parties such as Degel HaTorah have had a thing of the past.

Sometimes, the cost of speaking publicly about social ills in Chareidi society can be high. One intellectual, a resident of the Chareidi community in Stamford Hill, UK, wrote about his progressive loss of faith – in both God and his community’s leadership, in the face of corruption, abuse and intolerance. His blog, called The Shaigetz - Doing it Maai Vey, exposed these and other issues for all to see and read – and comment on, a unique experience for some readers. By the time he stopped posting regularly in March, 2008, the site had received over 500,000 page views. He felt forced to quit, though, when his anonymity was threatened, and admitted he still wanted his family to be a part of a community he no longer respected.
“The Shaigetz” left a legacy in his last post, four points he feels that the Chareidi world have only begun to address.
1.      According to the anonymous blogger, materialism has changed the Chareidi world – as it has changed all of western society - and many within it have forgotten the concept of self sacrifice.
2.      To survive and prosper, he feels that Chareidim must make themselves demonstrably useful to society at large, as groups such as ZAKA, Yad Sarah and many others have done.
3.      The Shaigetz is convinced that there is a vacuum of leadership in the Chareidi community. Torah Sages may not address real, practical issues in part because they are not getting or do not have all of the information from their support apparatus they need to impart wisdom. They seem to have become even more insular, distant and reactionary at a time when their followers are searching for critical answers.
4.      He feels that there can be no hiding from the realities of abuse in Chareidi communities. (While Shaigetz focuses on children, the same holds true for emotional, physical, financial, and other abuses which exist in Chareidi communities as they do anywhere else). 

There is no doubt that these and other issues have rocked the foundations of Chareidi communities across the globe. Many in these communities will do as they have done in the past, continuing to build up the many positive elements in their communities, while studiously ignoring the growing problems. Others have taken to the tools of modernity and have begun to address the problems they face in new ways. Still others have left the fold, trying to find fulfillment and community in a secular world they are ill equipped to engage and whose values seem alien. 

Yet despite the undeniable challenges, these communities still serve as a beacon of kindness and righteousness in many respects. For example, despite the broad brush of disdain with which ex-Chareidi author Deborah Feldman painted the Satmar Hasidic community, especially its apparent relegation of women to a subservient, compliant and submissive role, Satmar women have for many years organized and run an incredible network of volunteers who deliver thousands of Kosher meals to patients in New York area hospitals every day. Travelers around the world will describe instant, unquestioning help and kindness, from providing a hot meal to finding a local doctor, dispensed with a smile by local Chabad emissaries.  And who can forget the scenes of ten years ago in Israel, where Chareidi ZAKA volunteers provided the final, unrequitable kindness of bringing the victims of terror attacks, Jews and Arabs alike, to a full and respectful burial? 

The truth is that this growing and fundamentally good element of Jewish society will continue to be the backbone of perpetuating Torah and its values to an increasingly troubled world. The internet, like any mode of communication, presents its users, Chareidi and non Chareidi alike, with the same challenges of discretion, honesty, and morality that we faced in everyday life before it existed. With truth and self reflection like that increasingly demonstrated within online communities, healing, strengthening, and a new approach to new and old problems can and may begin.  Why, you may have wondered, did I title this article with a Chinese word? It may bear suggesting that the Chareidi community recognize the old adage that the Chinese word for crisis, weiji, is made up of two characters, one meaning “danger” and the other often meaning “opportunity”. As they fit together, one shouldn’t be missed because of fear of the other.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Simply Brilliant - The Political Maturity of Benjamin Netanyahu

When I played basketball in high school, my coach taught me how to do a "head fake", which was a slight move of the head, or even the eyes, to convince the opponent that one was going to move or pass the ball in a direction not ultimately taken to draw the opponent away from the ball. 

This evening, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, is in the process of performing a head fake as good as any to be seen in the NBA or the NCAA. It is so good, in fact, that he is  actually moving in at least two directions at once, both towards goals he wants to achieve. 

In a dramatic and politically brilliant move, Netanyahu has co-opted Kadima's new head, former IDF Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, and brought him into a unity government. Early elections planned for September have now been postponed until the term ends in October 2013, making this one of the most stable and long lasting governments in Israel's history. Predictably, the leader of Meretz, Zehava Gal On, is calling the move a "stinking maneuver" as if it is the obligation of a sitting PM to call early elections. 

Why this? Why now? Well, that is an interesting tale. It starts in January of 2011, when Defense Minister & former IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, Einat Wilf, and three other Labour MKs left the party and continued in the Likud government as an independent faction. At the time, most observers saw this as an opportunistic move by Barak, who was threatened from within Labour and was set to lose his leadership. The real opportunist, though, was Netanyahu. With this move, bringing Barak and his faction even closer, the PM cemented his left flank, and kept Barak, who if not loved, is much respected as Defense Minister, in lockstep with his security policies. He also weakened Labour, which would then have to head into a leadership race with almost half its Knesset presence eliminated. 

A few months later,  former Shas leader Aryeh Deri announced in June 2011 that he would participate in the next election. The jockeying for position between him and current Shas head Eli Yishai has not stopped, and the result is a weakened Shas, potentially split in the next election. Both the national religious sector and the Ashkenazi haredi parties are facing their own crises of political and religious leadership. Their leverage, often touted as crucial, has all but disappeared.

Just a month ago, Kadima had its own leadership contest, and former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was ousted from the leadership she had held for almost 3 years in favour of Mofaz. She has since left the political scene. 

If these machinations weren't Byzantine enough, Foreign Minister Avigdor Leiberman, who is no pushover himself, and an important member of Netanyahu's coalition, has begun to feel threatened by the popularity of political neophyte Yair Lapid, whose appeal to secular voters and insistence on drafting haredi yeshiva students has ballooned his stature. Lapid threatens to erode Leiberman's right wing but secular constituency. 

It is in the context of this unprecedented weakness among his political friends and foes alike that Prime Minister Netanyahu came back to the concept of a unity government - one he first suggested immediately after his election victory in 2009. The opportunity to maintain stability, exploit the weakness of his current and potential coalition partners, and serve out an entire four year term as Prime Minister has enormous appeal. Even though his current popularity all but guarantees an election win in September, the prospect of weaving an even stronger government prepared to make tough decisions was and is a goal that Netanyahu has sought from the outset. 

And here we get to the crux of the matter. Many observers rightly see this deal as an opportunity to finally bring in a replacement for the Tal Law that will bring the haredi population into military or national service. Never has broad public sentiment been so positive about this, across the spectrum from the political left,to the secular, the national religious, and even to some of the haredim themselves. The political price to pay for forcing the issue will be much less than if Netanyahu was still beholden to the haredi parties to support his government. Now they will likely find themselves in essentially powerless opposition, unless, like Shas has lately done, they begin to find ways to accommodate themselves and their constituencies to a new reality that demands their participation in national responsibilities. 

These considerations have been important parts of Netanyahu's agenda, but  paying close attention to his recent speeches - at the US Congress last May; at the UN in September 2011, at the  AIPAC conference in early March 2012, and most recently on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day in April 2012 - affords further insight. In these speeches his agenda couldn't be more clear. Netanyahu is utterly consumed with the threat of a nuclear Iran, and he has spent his entire term since his election in February 2009 preparing Israel, its friends in the US and indeed the entire world for the eventuality and necessity of military action to stop Iran from attaining the enrichment and technical capacity to build nuclear weapons. The recent public statements contradicting his views on Iran made by former Intelligence chiefs such as Meir Dagan and others concern him - and thus it is no surprise that he has brought another former IDF Chief of Staff, one born in Tehran, no less, into his cabinet, buttressing the credibility of his national security cabinet.

Creating a strong unity government also sends a clear message to the United States that Israel is politically unified in its awareness of the danger posed by Iran, as well as the hard choices that will have to be made within the next few months. The time horizon has been set - after the US Presidential elections in November, and before the Israeli elections the following October. If Israel is going to strike Iran, that is when Prime Minister Netanyahu has created the political and diplomatic window in which to operate.

Israel's military is prepared; its people, who are never happy to go to war, and who have no illusions about their neighborhood, are resolute; Israel has engendered the strictest international sanctions regime since the end of WW2; and its political landscape has been re-engineered to provide the most stable environment in decades. This is a demonstration of Prime Minister Netanyahu's political maturity. The table has now been set.