Fighting for the right to steal
Instead of embracing reforms meant to cut down on fraud at yeshivas, rabbis are battling it.
Too late, the Education Ministry published a new and strict procedure for oversight of yeshivas. The procedure was decided on after police revealed suspicions of false reporting of student numbers in 37 yeshivas and religious schools. The most serious suspicion resulted from the discovery of more than 1,000 forged identity cards found at the Masmidim educational system in the Jerusalem area.
After the department of Torah institutions was moved from the Religious Affairs Ministry to the Education Ministry in 2003, the number of false reports on yeshivas and yeshiva students seemed to have dropped.
The reason for this, among others, was the fear of stealing from a ministry that is under secular control. The discoveries of the police clearly show that the Education Ministry's deterrence is no more.
Two demands in the new regulations stirred a storm among the ultra-Orthodox political parties, rabbis and the ultra-Orthodox media, which is spearheading the fight to retain the old, inefficient oversight procedure.
The first new regulation: When the oversight visit begins, the yeshiva gates are to be locked and those outside will not be counted and will be considered absent. The second: The students will be required to carry their identity cards, not a photocopy.
The ultra-Orthodox say these demands are humiliating. The ultra-Orthodox website "Kikar Hashabbat" called the procedures and the oversight process "a witch hunt against the world of Torah."
In fact, it is difficult to understand what is so humiliating about it. It seems that the opposition stems more from being drunk with power than for germane reasons.
The new demands developed in response to the two main methods for defrauding the inspectors, which were previously revealed in Haaretz ("Inspection misdirection," December 24, 2010 ).
One method is that when the inspectors come, to conjure up fictitious yeshiva students to come from elsewhere by phone calls and texting.
Another is for the same students to appear a number of times before the inspectors, each time using a different identity, taking advantage of the difficulty non-Haredi inspectors have in telling yeshiva students apart.
No ultra-Orothodox rabbi of significant standing came out following the Masmidim affair with a statement that stealing from the state is prohibited. Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar did do so, but his standing in the Haredi world is limited.
According to the media, the leader of the Degel Hatorah faction, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, told associates that if the suspicions in the Masmidim affair are true, the offenders should be considered as endangering the lives of their fellows.
In other words, the problem is not the stealing, but damaging the image and status of the ultra-Orthodox community.
Particularly embarrassing is the fact that Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman ordered that the new inspection procedures be fought to bring about their repeal.
Shteinman is a leader of Degel Hatorah, and the patron of a number of organizations that bring Jews to Orthodoxy.
Ultra-Orthodox society is disciplined; if Elyashiv, Shteinman and a number of rabbis of the Agudat Yisrael party were to publish a letter prohibiting false reporting, and were to say that support would not be extended to anyone who was caught doing so, the phenomenon would almost disappear. Instead, Shteinman has ordered a fight against the inspectors.
The Haredi public complains frequently that when offenders are discovered among them, aspersions are cast on the entire community.
The struggle to repeal the new inspection procedure illustrates why this happens. Instead of shunning the thieves, the Haredi parties and leading Torah luminaries start a fight whose significance is clear: The cheating will continue, the thieves will celebrate.
For decades since the establishment of the state, the religious establishment and the Haredi parties have done indescribable damage to Judaism and its image, repelling so many. The new fight for the right to steal has broken a shameful new record.
The writer is deputy director of research and information at Hiddush - For Religious Freedom and Equality.