Sunday, March 16, 2014

Israel's Haredi Draft Law

It's Not About The Torah

Israel's Parliament passed legislation on Wednesday that paves the way for the military conscription of the country's Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) male population. Immediately following the vote, Haredi politicians and rabbis in Israel and the United States denounced the new law as being "designed to severely limit the growth of Torah in the Holy Land.”
They accused the Israeli government of making a point of stripping ultra-Orthodox Jews of their freedom to study Torah and lead an observant Jewish lifestyle. Moshe Gafni, a member of Parliament from the Haredi Degel HaTorah party, even went so far to say, "The state of Israel has lost the right to call itself a Jewish and democratic state."

Please. Don't let these bearded, pious-looking men fool you. This law is not about the freedom to learn Torah. Learning Torah is still very much encouraged for people who are inclined to do so.
This law is about alleviating the burden shared by the rest of Israeli Jewish society, both religious and secular, to serve in the country's military. Israel has very real security concerns and the Haredi population is genuinely needed.

Before I get trolled by someone who says I hate Haredim, I'd just like to point out that many Haredi people have been huge positive influencers in my life, including this rabbi on the left. 

Currently, every Jewish Israeli man and woman is obligated to serve in the country's military or to perform national service. Except the ultra-Orthodox. Having ultra-Orthodox men (at least) serve will help alleviate the burden shared by the rest of society and make the state of Israel a freer place for all its citizens.

Haredim respond that the Torah learning and prayers of their followers are doing just as much to keep the country safe as those serving in the military. This perspective is first and foremost extremely condescending to the men and women who put their lives on the line. Secondly, there are numerous references in the Torah as well as the Talmud that obligate Jewish men to physically take up arms in order to keep the people of Israel safe from harm.  

Haredi rabbis and politicians are arousing panic over this new law and Israeli society's refusal tolerate their lack of conscription because they are afraid of losing the absolute power and influence they hold over Israel's fastest growing demographic, which now makes up 10% of Israel's population.

Through a combination of political wheeling and dealing over the past few decades, Haredi leaders have managed to build a completely insular society that makes it extremely difficult for people to exercise outside thought or leave.

Most Haredi schools fail to teach secular subjects such as mathematics and English after primary school, leaving Haredim unable to compete in the professional job market later on. Haredim are pressured to marry extremely young and to have large families. When Haredi men reach draft age, they remain in their yeshiva (Jewish study) framework full time and are encouraged to stay there indefinitely rather than work. Today less than 40% of Haredi men have employment of any kind.
The result of this system is that most Haredi families are poverty-stricken and live off government welfare and are entirely dependent on the good graces of their community leaders. 

Without a basic secular education, formal job training, history of military service, non-Haredi personal connections, and with a large family in tow, most Haredim have no choice but to remain in the sub-society to which they were born.

If Haredi men serve in the military, they will be one step closer to getting an education, full-time employment, and, of course, regular interaction with non-Haredi people. The Haredi belief system and lifestyle will be on full display in the marketplace of ideas and Haredi people will be free to choose what and why they believe.

The Israeli government putting priority on Haredi male military conscription is simply one step towards getting Haredim into the workforce and enabling them to fend for themselves, so that the nation's taxpayers (like me) don't have to. It sets forward priorities to ensure that Israel will remain a truly free liberal society where people are able to believe and disbelieve what they choose. It is important to note that the political party that sponsored the legislation, the Jewish Home party, is a religious party.

The Haredi population's fast growth means that if the situation is not rectified in the coming years, it will take a serious toll on Israel's defense capabilities and economy.

The study of Torah and the embrace of Jewish values is core to Israel's identity. However, it is crucial to not give in when Haredi politicians and demagogues manipulate their meaning to serve their own ends. 

Israel's new draft law is an important step towards equality in Israeli society and the advancement of Haredi and non-Haredi people alike.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The King Is Not Alone

Why the Moroccan Parliament’s attempts to outlaw contact with Israel are not the will of the people.   

The Moroccan Parliament is considering two bills that would criminalize any association or business dealings with Israel.

Five political parties including the leading Islamic Justice and Development Party, offered the bills in November 2013.  The bills would ban Israelis from traveling to Morocco and prohibit Moroccans from dealing directly or indirectly with Israeli organizations and business. Failure by Moroccan citizens to comply with the proposed laws could result in heavy fines and even jail time.

Pressure is creeping up on the moderate King Mohammed VI to put an end to the discussion.

If the bills pass, there is a strong likelihood that King Mohammed VI will indeed exercise his veto to prevent them from becoming law. The King has very progressive views on relations with Jews and Israel. He has provided government resources to restore synagogues, recognized Jewish contributions to Moroccan identity, and maintained active relations with Israel.

However, if the King does indeed come to the rescue and prevent a breakdown in Morocco’s relations with Israel and global Jewry, it will likely be viewed as yet another example of a moderate Arab leader overriding the will of his people to maintain strategic diplomatic and military relationships with western states.

This would be a grave mistake in perception. I traveled to Morocco for two weeks in January and was very open about being an Israeli Jew. What I found was more than openness, but true acceptance.  Following this experience, I can attest that I’ve never encountered citizens of an Arab country as welcoming and open to my nationality and religious background as the Moroccan people.

My friend David (who I traveled with) in the Mellah in Sefrou, which is basically one hot mess.

Throughout Morocco, the mellahs, or Jewish quarters, of major cities are some of the most prominent attractions. Synagogues, cemeteries, and old buildings with Hebrew writing inscribed on them are kept in impeccable condition. Unlike other Arab countries with an abundance of Jewish sites (Egypt and Syria for example) tourists need not fear asking locals for help in finding them.  This is because these sites are considered just as Moroccan as they are Jewish.

Me with the Muslim woman and son who takes care of the synagogue in Sefrou, northern Morocco. They pray for peace between Jews and Muslims.

Speaking with everyday Moroccans in shops, cafes, and restaurants, I was surprised by people’s knowledge of Israel and their lack of hostility. Members of a Muslim family that maintain the old synagogue in Sefrou were aware that Israel had experienced a great deal of war, but told me she prayed for peace “speedily in our days.”

In Fez, a young engineering student I met in a shopping mall explained he’d read books about the Jewish religion and people. He said the books he read were widespread. To prove it, he took me to two different bookstores and found the very books he was talking about.

Even amongst people with very little formal education I found a genuine openness.  While camping in the Sahara desert near Merzouga in a Berber tent, I asked a couple of the tour operators where they were from.

Berber tribesmen I met in the Sahara told me they were from Tel Aviv. They were joking.

“Tel Aviv,” they answered jokingly. With a smirk, I asked them where in Tel Aviv they lived. They made up some gibberish answer and started laughing, but then recounted every single Hebrew phrase they knew from working with Israeli tourists, most of which, as expected, were highly inappropriate. 

Furthermore, I learned that Moroccans believe that being Jewish can make it easier to sell as well. A number of shopkeepers who peddled Jewish artifacts claimed to be Jewish in order to prove more authentic and to win my business. After asking a few basic questions about the Jewish religion, it became clear they were not.

One shopkeeper tried to convince me that his mother lived in Tel Aviv. He showed me a picture of himself supposedly with his mother in her Tel Aviv home. After a close look, however, it was clear the woman and her children were European tourists of some kind and that the picture had been taken in that man’s actual shop. Still, it was interesting to see that he thought his being Jewish would be endearing to tourists.

A basic conclusion I drew from my visit was that it’s not just the Moroccan King who favors maintaining relations with Israel and the wider Jewish world. Many ordinary Moroccans have positive views of Jewish people and of Israel, or at the very least are ignorant to both and not overtly hostile. The Moroccan Parliament’s efforts to pass anti-Israel measures are nothing more than an attempt to divert attention away from domestic troubles that Parliament members remain unable to solve.

Morocco suffers tremendous wealth differential between rich and poor, extreme corruption, and high youth unemployment – areas the Moroccan Parliament has failed to make progress on.

If King Mohammed VI does choose to veto the passage of the Parliament’s anti-Israel measures, it should be known that he will be doing so not as an absolute monarch, but as a representative of the people’s will.