Time to Get Tough With Israel's ultra-Orthodox, Says Stanley Gold

The veteran businessman and chairman of an advocacy group for religious freedom and equality is furious with Israel for destroying itself.

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Coalition members may be squabbling these days about sanctions that could be imposed on ultra-Orthodox men who do not enlist in the Israeli army, but Stanley Gold, chairman of the advocacy group Hiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality, and CEO of the investment company Shamrock Holdings, is unimpressed by all the talk of equal sharing of the economic and military burden.

These days, American-born Gold, 71, says he is furious with Israel for destroying itself, and with its government for being afraid to confront the ultra-Orthodox over what he considers to be the most important issues. He is also angry at the so-called new politicians, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, for not implementing measures they were elected to push through.

Gold, formerly a Walt Disney Company board member, is one of the most veteran foreign investors in Israel, if not the most veteran. He has invested over $1 billion here over the years, in companies such as Pelephone, Ahava and Koor, which was purchased by Shamrock in 1996, only to be sold the following year. Five years ago, he founded Hiddush along with Reform Rabbi Uri Regev.

The link between state and religion seems to bother you more than anything else about Israel. Why is that?

“Too big a proportion of the Israeli population is unwilling or unable to participate in its economy. No one prepares them in terms of education or acquisition of required skills. The productive sector in Israel is shrinking, while the nonproductive one is growing. This cannot go on forever. Ultimately, the only two working people here will be you and me.”

What should be done to resolve this issue?

“Enforce the study of core subjects at school. The law already stipulates this requirement, but it’s no secret that the law is not enforced. When a child has no skills, he has no chance of having a good life. No more money should be given to institutions that don’t teach the core curriculum.”

It’s easy to say this, but harder to implement it.

“Governments can’t be fearful of their citizens forever. If Israel doesn’t do this now, it will have a sick society. If you don’t enforce the law, people will start ignoring and disdaining it and civil society will collapse. The burden on productive sectors will grow so much that people will leave the country, and those who leave tend to be professors at Columbia and Chicago [Universities]. These people are needed here.”

Perhaps dialogue is better than coercion?

“I’m for dialogue as well, but the law is the law. The study of core subjects must be enforced. Any other solution only amounts to putting a Band-Aid on the problem. If there were a lot of oil here, it would be a different matter, but Israel must compete in the modern world. To achieve this, you have to ensure that anyone who can work will work, pay taxes and contribute to society.

“I’m not against the ultra-Orthodox, but why should they have a monopoly on Judaism? I’m just as Jewish as they are.”

Why do you care so much? After all, you live in Los Angeles.

“Because I’m convinced that the quality of my life in the Diaspora depends on Israel’s strength and health. When Israel was established and became an exemplary state, the situation of Jews in the Diaspora improved. We were more respected and there was less anti-Semitism. If Israel fails, my life and that of my children and grandchildren will deteriorate. We’re partners in this thing called the Jewish people. We’re dependent on each other.”

One can’t separate state and religion overnight. It’s an explosive subject.

“So don’t change a thing. Maintain the status quo and no one will stay here except the ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs. Everyone will leave and I’ll stop investing here.”

Is that what you think will happen?

“Does it seem to you that I’m quitting? I’m still here investing, fighting. I’m not going anywhere.”

Hasidic men celebrating Bnei Brak weddingCredit: Alon Ron
Stanley Gold. “Ultimately, the only two working people here will be you and me.”Credit: Dan Keinan

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