Plugging Into the Future

Secular Israelis who dream of the day when education and integration will bring about the collapse of Haredi society would do well to observe the Haredim in New York and London, who function well within both a secular state and rigorous Orthodoxy.

Twenty-four hours after approving a budget increase of NIS 1.14 million to provide protection for two former prime ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the chairman of the Knesset Economics Committee, MK Ya'akov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), changed his decision. The Knesset salvaged what remained of its honor, while Litzman won a rare opportunity to act on behalf of the public at large, rather than just represent the interests of yeshivas and ultra-Orthodox functionaries.

Litzman did not change his mind because of the criticism expressed in the secular press. He was under pressure from within his own Knesset faction, which reflected the lack of consensus within the ultra-Orthodox community. The Haredim read private, not party, papers, surf the Web, and meet with secular people and are well-versed in their way of life. People in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak were angry at Litzman on Tuesday. Why is he organizing perks for Bibi and Barak, people asked, at a time when thousands of people are losing their jobs every day and parents don't have money to send their children to school.

True, part of the Haredi public is indifferent - all they care about is for the functionaries to see to their needs - but the thrust toward greater involvement in the life of the country overrides fears and indifference. For example, the activity by MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) in the Interior and Environment Committee - the committee torpedoed the clause in the budget that would have enabled a small committee of ministers to approve the construction of thousands of residential units contrary to planning procedures - drew the applause of environmentalists and advocates of proper planning, but also won wide support from young people and members of the Haredi middle class, who are well-versed in matters of law, economy and public administration.

What on the surface appears to be a difference of style between Litzman and Gafni actually reflects a deep gap between two approaches: the insular and the integrative. Insularity is still the preferred approach in broad circles that are led by certain rabbis, but the tendency toward integration - studies in institutions of higher learning and work in various fields (law, accounting, high-tech and others) - is gaining in intensity and fomenting fascinating changes.

Secular Israelis who dream of the day when education and integration will bring about the collapse of Haredi society would do well to observe the Haredim in New York and London, who function well within both frameworks - a secular state and rigorous Orthodoxy - and also have a look at the new generation of the educated Orthodox that is springing up in Bnei Brak. There is no doubt that change, which is at bottom related to a civil society, is taking place and is making possible greater involvement and openness. If we pit this development against the recently passed Tal Law - which by enshrining exemption from army service for yeshiva students denoted a significant crack in the security-oriented dialectic in the country - and against the allocation of the increased security protection for Netanyahu and Barak, which uses the meat of the sacred cow of security to further governmental corruption, we find that Litzman represents anachronistic trends within society and politics, whereas Gafni represents change and renewal.

Next Monday, the social protest groups that have mounted an ongoing vigil outside the home of the finance minister and elsewhere, will stage a demonstration at the Knesset. The innovative element is that the well-known organizations will be joined by a group of Arab activists and by a group of Haredi women. The organizers are taking care to adjust the conditions of the demonstration and its messages to the limitations imposed by Haredi modesty, but none of the participants view this as a form of religious coercion.

This, then, is the new public territory of social and political organizing in Israel. The new cooperation is a more authentic reflection not only of the different social sectors, but also of their need to forge flexible coalitions based on the foundation of a civil society. Those who are not attentive to this need, and who continue to demarcate the differences between the camps using a political, security, or narrow sectoral map, will (it is to be hoped) be politically marginalized.

This week there were some in United Torah Judaism who said they hoped MK Haim Ramon would win the leadership contest in the Labor Party. Maybe Ramon can bring about a new civil coalition, they said. If these are the voices of the future, it is time for Labor to pay heed and stop the doomed attempt to compete with the anticlerical Shinui party.