Social Engineering

January 30, 2012 by

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Israel is a society which solves its problems piecemeal, blinkered to the broader implications of our actions.

We continually appease sectors of our overly partisan population by lighting small fires which we naively believe will harmlessly smolder on a low flame. We then forget about these fires and only wake up to them when they are raging, out of control, and then we raise our eyes to the skies and ask “how could this happen?”

Our most problematic issues of social engineering are not only due to our negligence, they are often products of our own creation.

We are shocked at the violent, lawless behavior of (a small minority) of religious settlers – having endorsed, even romanticized, the illegal methods their parents used in founding their settlements. We are frustrated at the inability of our Russian immigrants to integrate into “Israeli” society, having passed unprecedented legislation that creates the ability for Russian enclaves to remain isolated. We are angered by our Arabs citizens distaste for the Jewish State, having systematically disenfranchised them from an Israeli identity by choosing ethno-religious symbols instead of values, as the cornerstone of our national identity.

And here we are with a ballooning Haredi population, a growing minority of extremist radicals and a powerful majority for who Democracy, Zionism and Human Rights take second place, at best, to their Rabbis’ interpretations of Torah law. Many in Beit Shemesh have seen the writing on the wall since the influx of extreme Hasidim to the town; but this is something we have been aware of for much longer than we are currently giving credit to.

There have been radical anti-Zionist Hasidim in Israel from the inception of Zionism, long before the State. Even the Haredi tactics that we see today of mass protest, violent rhetoric, religious aestheticism and coercion of broader society originate in the 1930s, with Rabbi Amram Blau and the infamous Netura Karta.

The radical Haredim are not a new phenomenon, neither are the democracy-ambivalent majority who have also been part of our political landscape from the beginning. If anything, the problem has been the lack of change since our early attempts at appeasing this population.

We succeeded in creating a sterile, climate-controlled environment, in which the Haredi community could grow, radicalize, gain political power and move further right in their religiosity. This we perpetuated, through sanctifying a counterproductive status quo, and ultimately using it for our own partisan political success. And now Dr. Frankenstein is fearful of his own creation. Yet unlike the fictional scientist, Israeli society seems unaware of its hand in the Haredi problem and its ability to slowly reverse the trend.

There are three main areas in which we have facilitated the Haredi reality, all of which can be reversed as quickly as they have been established and taken hold. That is to say, slowly.

1. Social Isolation

Israeli society (along with Diaspora Jewish society) is often quick to point an accusatory finger at Haredi non-participation in the Israeli Defense Force. However the Haredi community is not acting illegally and the legal provision of Torato Umanato (Torah study as an occupation) – the brainchild of Ben-Gurion -was an acceptable policy when it affected a few hundred young men a year, rather than the current tens of thousands.

Although this is the most visible case of social isolation, no less important is the tacit agreement by the Education Ministry not to regulate Haredi schools and allow them to jettison the secular requirements, this contributes to an isolation from Israeli values and ultimately the inability, in the rare case of there being a desire, to enter the modern workplace.

Lastly, there is a legal autonomy in many Haredi neighborhoods, which distances police, social workers and courts from the make-up of their communities.

2. Dominion of Religious Affairs

Secular Israel long ago handed the Haredim the keys to religious Judaism. Countless Hiloni (secular) Jews despair about the religious standards coerced upon them when marrying, yet being the majority in a democratic country, if they had a viable alternative it could be changed. The Haredi grip over the definition of Jewish religious practice in the State has been strengthened by Hiloni apathy. It has also led the Haredim to justify their worldview of being the true saviors of Judaism.

3. Political power

While other commentators have suggested that Israeli governments are coerced by Haredi political power, this is not in fact the case.

We have built a political dependency on coalitions with Haredi parties, and there has not been a break for almost 40 years. As the Haredi parties care little for the majority of the issues of Statehood and are generally absorbed with their own sector, and religious issues, governments led by Labor and Likud have found that they can coexist easily with the Haredim and turn a blind eye to the troublesome side-effects.

The State of Israel was created through social engineering on a massive scale. It was bold, brave and sometimes brutal.

Ben-Gurion, who was the central engineer, was known to speak in first person plural when presenting successes and first person singular when discussing failures. Israeli society needs to own the failings which have led to our current Haredi troubles. “We” are to blame as much as “they” are. And together with some of the more liberal elements in their community we need to embark on correcting the mistakes we have made.


The writer is Makom’s Community Shaliach and Israel Engager in Greater Washington

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