July 29, 2007

Jews Talk

We all know Jews love talking, and there's no better place to talk till you drop than a conference. Israel has been organizing conferences forever. It's not just for tourist bucks.

When I was a student, the Jewish Agency in Israel arranged conferences practically all year round. I'm not sure it actually did anything else. I used to go to the conferences, for several reasons. Firstly, it was subsidized. Almost every term break I could get an all-expense-paid trip to Jerusalem. What cash-strapped student wouldn't have wanted to? Secondly, I was a student activist and I did believe in trying to find out as much as I could about the Jewish world and its principal components and ingredients. Thirdly, it was a wonderful opportunity to meet other young Jews from all round the world.

But my experience was so frustrating and depressing that it almost obliterated the positive ancillary benefits. The price of our free trips was that we had to sit through boring hours of lectures by pompous pen pushers and political has-beens who had been kicked upstairs into meaningless bureaucratic posts that sounded important but were in reality totally empty. Each one held forth about his own experiences and opinions and tried to impress us youngsters with his wisdom and the correctness of his position, when in fact it was such manifest rubbish that one did not know whether to laugh or cry. Important politicians and public figures were rolled out to give us the benefit of their wisdom, which was usually banal self-justification. It reached the point where a group of us used to make clucking chicken noises while yet another worthy was telling us all what the answer to life was. I know, not very mature, but we were bored!

Each one had the solution to the future of the Jewish people. Left-wing secular Zionists said that they were the future. Right-wing secular Zionists said they were so did Religious Zionists. Americans said they were the future. Jewish philosophers, theologians, and rabbis of nearly all description and hue all said they were the future. Israelis said the Diaspora was doomed. There was no real discussion, just set positions haranguing each other. It was boring and meaningless it all was!

This was all why, long ago, I decided to give up going to conferences and indeed not to play the "communal macher" game of deluding myself that importance amounts to achievement, though I confess I have on one rare occasion indulged mainly to confirm my judgment.

Now, forty years on, it is clear that, for whatever other problems they may have, and believe me they have plenty, both social and ideological, the only group that is expanding numerically and is not beset by crises of confidence is the ultra-Orthodox. Yet they weren't invited then and they are still not invited today. The reason, of course, is that no one really wants to hear what one doesn't want to hear.

Nothing has changed over the years. Every now and again the great and the good of world Jewry are invited to yet another meaningful conference that will deal with and solve the future of the Jewish People. Some well meaning sucker is persuaded to cough up sums of money that could be better used elsewhere. Not to mention the money we give to supporting Israel that simply gets swallowed up by placemen and functionaries on all-expense-paid junkets. Yet more speeches are given and resolutions are made, and sometimes the speeches are even published. And then? Nada. It all disappears back into the hot air it came from. Meanwhile, we all get on with our lives and Judaism manages to survive; at least the religiously committed part does. The rest seem to find the future of Katmandu or LA more attractive.

So, wonder of wonders, there has just been another "very important, meaningful gathering" of the great and the good in Jerusalem. Guess who organized it? The Jewish Agency, of course, under its plaything the JPPPI, which stands, dear ones, for the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute. No seriously! It's not a laughing matter. The Chairman was Dennis Ross. Now, Dennis Ross may be a great negotiator and a nice guy and even, a Jew. But he is hardly an expert on Jewish survival. Surprised they didn't invite Bill Clinton.

According to the The Jerusalem Post, many attendees at this three day conference worried about what it would achieve. Mazal tov. Someone was quoted as saying the conference was nothing but hot air unless something was done as a result. Done? Like what? So the conference instructed the new President Shimon Peres (of all people, another expert on Judaism I suppose) to do something! What exactly do they have in mind? Another conference? I'll tell you one thing. We can all think of far, far better things the money could go to, to help the Jewish people, than another talking shop!

Typical of the great and the good who are invited to come and speak are magnates who give lots of money for what they see as their favorite great "fix" for the Jewish People, like giving them free holidays in Israel. That will make them Jews (even if it fails to do that for Israelis) I suppose. What exactly are the qualifications, the expertise or the experience of grown-up trust fund kids or successful traders? So to salve their consciences they throw money at the holy grail of Jewish Survival. All the Jewish "Knights Templar" are busy running around looking into graves and catacombs, when the answer is clear as daylight. If you lead and live a committed Jewish life, of any degree, in your home, you'll have something Jewish to hand on. And if you don't, you won't.

An Israeli American journalist, Jonathan Rosenblum, wrote a telling article in the Orthodox journal Mishpacha in which he pointed out how consistently the Charedi world gets ignored in these ventures. He asked why not one Charedi person was asked to speak. Not one. There were plenty of rabbis there, from all other denominations, but not one major Talmid Chacham of the old school. What a crushing indictment. It doesn't matter if one agrees with them or not. It doesn't matter if their world is intellectually limited. Just look at the facts, numbers on the ground; bottom line, guys. They must be doing something right! At least let their voice be heard. But no, a billionaire fund manager knows more about Judaism than a Talmid Chacham does.

Perhaps we should blame the Israeli organizers for being so anti religious they cannot see beyond their own antipathies. But then bless them Israelis are not very good when it comes to dealing with "others". Do you remember Silvan Shalom, the ex-Israeli foreign minister? He took his wife on an official visit to Egypt and she arrogantly chose to wear the most immodest clothes she could find this side of nudity offending everyone in sight.

Last week Israel was visited by two representatives of the Arab league for the first time. What a fantastic opportunity to reach out to an Arab audience. Al Jazeera gave the meeting lots of prominence. Do you think the Foreign Minister even thought to dress modestly for a Muslim audience (forget about Orthodox Jews)? There she was on Al Jazeera, smiling above her tight fitting trousers that showed more of her crotch than Her Majesty's Lord Chamberlain would have allowed on the English stage. That's how to win religious friends? Of course you won't want to hear what the Charedis have to say about continuity.

Talk by all means. But don't forget, it's action that counts and that's where the money should be going--to doing, not spouting.

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July 22, 2007

Boycott Anglo-Jewry

You may have noticed that that there is a "Boycott Israel" campaign sweeping through the British trade union movement like wildfire.

On one level I should be pleased. After all, it is now so blatantly and unequivocally clear that this movement is motivated by the irrational hatred of a small, if vocal, minority. There is no call to boycott Robert Mugabe, who terrorizes millions of his own and allows thousands to be killed. There is no call to boycott Sudan, which organizes massacres of hundreds of thousands of its own, or of China for annexing Tibet, or India over Kashmir, or Russia for its horrific war in Chechnya, or of slavery or female mutilation in Arab States. It is now so obvious that picking on Israel, alone, is a concerted campaign of unscrupulous, hypocritical villains that the moral high ground has swung back. No, that is not what worries me.

Neither is it the practical threat because, thank goodness, Britain, very much against the will of its population, signed up to the EU and its Bill of Human Rights which will be used to protect Jews just as much as Muslims. There is no danger of the Nuremburg Laws being introduced in a modern European State, no matter who takes control. So comparisons with Germany before the Second World War are fatuous.

Nor am I afraid of the trade union movement. Their power has diminished since Arthur Scargill took on Margaret Thatcher and lost, thankfully. (I never thought I'd be grateful to Margaret Thatcher for anything!) Since Kinnock and Smith began, and Tony Blair finalized the detachment of the TUC tumor from the Labor Party, they have become in essence a nuisance fringe.

The Left in Britain is a spent force, reduced to cobbling together the disaffected and the rejected into an Amen Chorus for anything "against Them"! The same tired old radicals, the has-beens, the wannabes, the secondary actors and politicos. You see them at every "anti" event. You can recognize the old Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament vicars and hippies needing some way to revive their flagging energies rally round the anti-Israel banners of the fundamentalists and fanatics, marching with the hijabs and kefiyahs.

The days of the great struggle for Communism, which provided all those English upper class spies who believed that Stalin was better than Churchill, are over. Now that their god has truly failed in every respect, they desperately look for other false gods to support. There are voices of reason, of course, and Gordon Brown is one of them. But then why does he not step up and ban Hizb Ut Tahrir, that fanatical organization that continues to poison the universities with its fundamentalist hatred and anti-Semitism?

No, I don't give a fig for any of them. What really upsets me is the clear and sad specter of Anglo-Jewry. What a pathetic disaster area. And to think I once devoted every sinew in my body and cell in my brain to trying to breathe new life into it.

On the positive side, there is an effective Community Security Trust (CST), which only came into being because a few rich individuals decided something had to be done. It does raise millions to track anti-Semitism, to advise on security, and to train willing young Jews to get off the couch or away from their video screens and walk around with walky-talkies together to act as a second line police force for the Jewish community. Despite my cynicism about a lot of the so-called security experts and callow youths looking self-important, it is something. It is better than nothing. It is more than anyone else was doing.

But everyone knows fences and walls and walky-talkies are defensive measures. You have to win hearts and minds. You need to work hard at educating people, at combating lies and propaganda. You need an Anti-Defamation League type of organization that shouts and makes a fuss and holds seminars and briefings and kicks up a stink. We need to be on the attack as well on the defensive. And are we? Fuggedaboudit.

Oh, no, we don't do things that way in Britain. Oh, no, we trundle out some Jewish MP or Lord who makes moderating reassuring noises and assures us it is all being handled behind the scenes and we suckers don't want to make a fuss. So we accept this meekly and slink back to our gin and tonics.

The response is so pathetic it is unbelievable. Most of the anti-boycott campaign in Britain has been organized either by non Jews or out of Bar Ilan in Israel! Instead of swamping British society with well written information, instead of flooding city centers and the media with well orchestrated campaigns that would indeed cost millions, we find every excuse not to. And we are happy when someone like Richard Littlejohn makes his own documentary for Channel 4 on the real state of anti-Jewish sentiment in England today.

In our world perception is everything. The medium is the message, as "Saint" McLuhan once said. The internet is crucial not just for terror but for justifying and spreading it. You might have read about the jihadist, Irhabi007, just convicted and jailed. He was living in London (of course) and orchestrating a worldwide network of Muslim anti-Western terror recruitment. The Economist last week quotes Zawahari, number 2 in Al Qaeda, as saying that more than half the battle is taking place over the media. Indeed. And what are the institutions of Anglo-Jewry doing about it? No, don't laugh; it's sad.

Why, the most corrupt politician and the most pathetic of "personalities" hire the very best publicists, public relations and media consultants to turn their excreta into sweet-smelling ambrosia. It's all about money. In our sick society money speaks, however filthy it sounds. But The Jewish Chronicle, itself, reports that there is hardly any funding to fight back, to try to change perceptions and opinions. There is a lot of money in Anglo-Jewry. But it's certainly not going to help defend ourselves. The few hardy and worthy campaigners online get precious little support. Why not?

Anglo-Jewry has a long and ignoble history of failing to support its institutions financially. Most Jewish magnates prefer to give money to buy knighthoods and to other causes they think will wash the dirt off their reputations. To be fair, some do give. But many who really could help have fallen for the lie that throwing their money around outside the Jewish community will make them more loved and appreciated.

You might argue that it's Israel's fault, not ours. You might even argue that Zionism has won for us and lost for us. But the fact is that if we, as a people, are attacked in one place, we end up being attacked in another. It happened two thousand years ago in the Persian Empire and in the Roman. After the campaigns in Judea, Jewish communities all around the Roman Empire were attacked by the local enemies. The fast of the Ninth of Av reminds us! If the wall is breached here it will be breached there. Israel should be doing more about it, but they can't get their act together on most things, certainly not public relations. They are brilliant at getting out of messes but lousy at not falling into them in the first place!

Anyway, there is a big difference between criticizing or defending Israel and allowing our enemies to spread lies. Mud sticks. And if the Neturei Karta apologists in black hats and beards who spend Shabbat walking to Trafalgar Square think that by supporting the enemies of Israel, they will be saved if walls are breached, then they are living in the same cloud-cuckoo land as Anglo-Jewry. It had better start putting its money now into the internet, public relations and serious pro-activity before it is too late.

If Anglo Jewry doesn't wake up, they'll be slaughtered in their beds—metaphorically, I hope.

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July 15, 2007

On Fasting

Let me come clean. I hate mourning and I hate fasting. I had enough of being sad during the Omer period that ran from Pesach to Shavuot. Now we're in the Three Weeks that lead up to Tisha B'Av (the Ninth Day of Av), commemorating the destruction of two Temples and our amazing capacity as a people to self-destruct. Even so we still always rise, Phoenix-like, from the ashes. No weddings, no parties, no wine or meat, no public festivities (and I'll come to the other inconveniences later).

The Bible only has one fast day altogether--Yom Kippur. Even that wasn't a sad day; according to the Mishna it was one of the happiest days of the year, when people streamed out of the Temple confident that they had been forgiven and granted another year of life. It was also one of two official matchmaking days when unmarried girls (all dressed in white so as not embarrass the poor ones) girls went dancing and singing in the vineyards inviting young men to take their pick! Can you imagine that nowadays, in this Jewish world of ours with the ten-foot, solid cast iron mechitza, when men not even allowed to hear the other sex sing, let alone see them dancing? Can it be the same religion? I don't think so (said with New York intonation)!

What went wrong? Well, I guess you might argue that the Romans, defeat, slavery, exile, thousands of years of Christians, Muslims, Marxists, mentally deficient anti-Semites, and anyone else jumping onto the bandwagon to make our life hell.

It wasn't just that we added the 10th of Tevet, the 17th of Tammuz, and the 9th of Av over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. We have had fasts for the Crusades, for Expulsions, for the Cossacks Chmielnicki massacres. (Only for the Holocaust it seems we can't get unanimous agreement on, but then we couldn't agree on getting together beforehand to try to do anything to prevent it when we might have, either.) We have in our sources fasts for bad dreams, wicked thoughts, bad deeds, and for anniversaries of our parents' death! Thank goodness many of then have now fallen by the wayside although I'm prepared to bet in the current mood, most of them will be resurrected soon!

Then there was one-upmanship. If the Christians had Lent, and the Muslims had Ramadan, and if religion is all about self-denial and how lousy this world is, then you can bet we didn't want to be left out of the masochism stakes. OK, so we didn't go in for self-laceration and all that, but we added fasts on the Monday, Thursday, and Monday (BaHaB) following the two major week-long festivals, to counteract levity and the danger of having had too much fun.

Then, in addition to fasting itself, we have added rules that strike me as inappropriate nowadays. I can live with a gap in the wedding season. I can live with a limit to the number of parties or functions one has to go to. But no music at all? No washing in hot water, no laundry, not buying anything new? In this day and age when some of us do not wear the same shirt for a whole month or take a bath once a year (whether we need it or not) doing without a daily shower in heats of 100% and wearing the same sweaty, smelly clothes for a whole week, does not strike me as putting cleanliness anywhere near Godliness! OK I agree some Jews (and other people) I know, do actually do this all year round, but surely I don't have to. After all rabbis in the Talmud could claim they needed a bath even when not supposed to because they were accustomed to it. Should I suffer because the men of Metz, Speyer and Troyes didn't like water?

Why, in my youth, taking deodorant into the mikvah in Meah Shearim would get you thrown out. Nowadays every black-hatted yeshiva bochur has his own $100 bottle of cologne! A laundryman friend of mine in Meah Shearim tells me that the average yeshiva bochur changes his white shirt three times a week! That's progress. In my day it once a month.

Why is it that religions, all religions, seem to be associated with self-denial, fasting and smelling badly? It's one of the least appealing aspects, this holier-than-thou, I'm suffering more than you are, aren't I a good holy boy (or girl), I'll get to heaven before you, ya boo.

Just as we can look at history and see the calamities, so too can we look at history and see things worth rejoicing about. After all, according to the prophet Zechariah (8.19), "God says the fasts of the fourth (month), the fifth, the seventh, and the tenth will become for the House of Judah, joy and gladness, happy festivals." These were the rabbinic fasts introduced to commemorate destruction during the First Temple. Get over it, says Zechariah. Yes, terrible things have happened, but in our religion there are alternative voices. Hassidim rejoice on the anniversary of a dead relative and drink "Lechayim". Most non-Hassidic Ashkenazis on the other hand, fast. You can find ascetic voices in Judaism, but thank goodness you can find those who command us to enjoy life and thank God for all the good things in life. We used to sit bored in synagogue, now we can jump up and down all "happy clappy". In my view ( and Maimonides, and who am I to disagree with him?) it's a matter of balance. And I guess if you feel you are an over indulgent, luxury dependent, spoiled sybarite, then, yes, you need all the fasts you can get.

My father was not a great fan of fasting. He told me that in his yeshiva, Mir in Eastern Europe, the students who found it difficult to fast were told that it was more important to concentrate on study. Of course, this was only on what we call the Minor Fasts. But the idea was that if fasting was simply an endurance test that left you incapable of anything constructive then perhaps there were more valuable things to do with a day. He represented a more relaxed approach to life. And he got this from his teachers.

I 'm a hard case. Sadly, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. I fast on required days and feel lousy and can't think or study properly. So I'm totally useless and I waste a whole day. And for what? For whom? I guess I'm just chicken, but then I do take showers! But you people out there, enough with the masochism!

In huge swathes of Judaism we have become terrified of being flexible. Judaism has become something of an endurance test or an initiation into a select society of secret disciplinarians. Ours is not an ascetic tradition, though there have been attempts to turn into one. There's a famous story about a student asking for his rebbe's approval by telling him that he eats rough grain, rolls in the snow, wears hair shirts, and lashes himself every day. The rebbe looked out the window and pointed to a horse. "He eats oats, rolls in the snow, wears hair next to his skin, and gets lashes. Are you any better than him?"

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July 06, 2007


The more we feel ourselves to be under assault as Jews, the more we are inclined to contrast ourselves favorably with those who come to Britain more recently under benign immigration laws, yet seek to destroy the state and murder its citizens in pursuit of their own ideological goals. Both Britain and the US are currently struggling with the issue of immigration. The history of the Jews in Britain offers some fascinating insights that I think are very relevant, and a lot of what can be said of Jewish immigration into Britain also applies to Jewish immigration into the US.

After Edward I expelled the Jews from England in 1290, they didn't return to England as Jews (rather than Marranos) until the 17th century. Those first Jewish immigrants were harried by the merchants of London who feared for their monopolies and their protected trade and the guilds who wanted to protect their jobs. They were also harassed by the customs and excise officers, who wanted them to pay additional fines and taxes precisely because they were aliens taking advantage of benevolent English trading conditions. The Church attacked the Jews on the grounds that were dangerous heretics determined to replace Christianity with Judaism and corrupt the morals of innocent English women and children. There were, of course, the anti-Semites who wanted England to remain free of Jews, insisting that the expulsion had never formally been rescinded.

Despite all this, the Jews stayed and increased under the protection of Charles II, William and Mary, Queen Anne, and then the Hanoverians. They were granted the right to stay, "denizenship" rather than citizenship. The Jews were regarded as a harmless enough and an exotic small community, visited in their synagogues by aristocrats and royals (Queen Anne donated a large wooden construction beam to the Bevis Marks synagogue), made fun of and yet tolerated to the point where they could and did rise up through the ranks to very prominent positions amongst the upper classes.

In April 1753 the House of Lords overwhelmingly passed the Jew Bill "that any person professing the Jewish religion whom it may in future be thought proper to Naturalize, shall in Lieu of taking the Holy Sacrament, take oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance etc," which would both grant Jews the right to become citizens and allow then to take a Jewish rather than a Christian oath. The bill passed the first hearing the Commons with no difficulty, but somewhere between the second and the third reading opposition emerged, was orchestrated and swelled mainly against "poor beggarly foreigners". Nevertheless, with the support of major politicians such as Walpole, the bill was passed.

But then the London Press began to whip up opposition with articles entitled "No Judaism, Christianity for Ever", "Jews wish to circumcise Christians", "Jews to replace bible with the Talmud". Jews were described as fences, criminals, and crooks. The Blood Libel was revived by a curate in Northumberland who claimed that Jews had killed one of his parishioners to drink his blood on Passover. Jews were accused of dual loyalties, being traitors and revolutionaries in the pay of the French. The campaign grew so loud and popular that the government feared for its majority. As a result, Lord Newcastle moved to repeal the bill in November 1753, and it was indeed overturned by royal assent in December 1753. The liberating contents of the bill would take more than another 100 years to achieve.

What really went on here? The fact was that the first Jews were all Sephardim who came mainly via Holland. They were usually well educated, well adapted to European polite society, and more often than not, comfortable financially. But by the middle of the eighteenth century, upheavals on the continent meant there was a huge influx of foreigners, amongst them rich Ashkenazi Jews, but in the main poor, uneducated ones. Cross Channel shipping used to take anyone onboard for ballast for free. And the natives began to get restless. Just as in our day there was dismay at large numbers of foreigners waiting in Calais to hang on to a Eurostar train in our day (or sneaking over the Mexican border). The problem then was so great that even Jews themselves eventually encouraged legislation against the poor arrivals and also ensured the shipping companies stopped offering freebies.

Amongst these poor refugees, not a few of them turned to crime to make a living. According to the Newgate Chronicle, "The Jews are the most notorious receivers of stolen plate and therefore the greatest encouragers of housebreakers in the kingdom." In 1747 an illiterate Jew from Holland, Hosea Youell, was hanged at Tyburn for murder. And in 1771 a gang of eight Jews was convicted of the notorious Chelsea Murders. Although they were "anathemized by the London synagogues" their hanging brought odium to the whole of the Jewish community. According to one observer, "A Jew could not walk down the street without being upbraided with the words 'Chelsea' or 'Hutchens' [the name of the victim] and having his beard pulled." The public mood was so antagonistic that many Jews actually left England at the time.

Slowly over time measures were taken to restrict poor immigration. The mood settled and most Jews got on with their main business of settling into the host country in a law abiding productive and thoroughly patriotic way.

The huge immigration from Eastern Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century repeated almost identically this pattern. The poor Jews who arrived into the East End of London included criminals and gave rise to the Shylock character of Dickens' Oliver Twist. Jews from Russia played a very prominent role in the Communist Party, in Union agitation, and Left Wing politics (as well as crime). In some ways you might say their critique of their host society was not that different to the Radical Muslim critique of the West today.

Agitation against "communist Jews" combined with working class antagonism to new arrivals also spurred Oswald Mosley, the fascist English aristocrat, to take his Black Shirt toughs right into the Jewish area of the East End of London with police protection and encouragement. Fortunately the Jews then, unlike many Anglos today, actually fought back in the notorious Cable Street Riots of 1936.

New waves of immigration have always stirred up enmity and created problems, even in Israel. But whether it is from Eastern Europe or further east or south, immigrants overwhelmingly simply want to make a better life for themselves and their families. But any group will also contain troublemakers, criminals, and revolutionaries. And if there are criminals or bombers amongst them, they must be dealt with, but you cannot tar everyone with the same brush.

One might argue that the modern Welfare State (even a capitalist one like the US) complicates issues because immigration adds extra burdens on heath, housing, education, and social subsidies. But the fact is that societies which have encouraged immigration have flourished and those which have not have stagnated. The process of adjustment takes time, for any group. The one thing one must not do and here the United States has the edge, just, over Britain, is to pander to them to the point of making non integration a viable option. On the other hand anti-immigration hysteria is a sick and ugly response.

My brother informs me that first generation Latin American immigrants to the US tend to have negative attitudes toward Jews. This is a result of the sort of education they get back home. But slowly and by the third generation they have adopted more tolerant and positive attitudes. Let us hope the same will apply to Muslims.

As Jews, we have every historical reason, let alone moral, to be sympathetic. After all, people whose grandparents and great-grandparents lived in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

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July 01, 2007

Education in Israel

There are internal challenges to Israel’s existence nearly as pressing as the external ones. The tension and gulf between the secular and the religious is one of them. At least in a democracy the issue is out in the open, but the ill feeling that exists between the two camps is palpable. One of the battlegrounds is Education.

Everyone agrees that Israel’s educational system is a mess. Over the past generation Israel has dropped in international rankings from 12th to 35th. Classes are overcrowded. Teachers are uninspiring, weak on discipline, and particularly ill trained to teach technical and scientific subjects. The school day is too short. Buildings and equipment have deteriorated badly. Morale is low and standards continue to drop. Since we all agree that a country’s future economic, not to say physical, wellbeing depends on the quality of its education, the current situation is very depressing. The prognosis is alarming.

Education is at the very core of our tradition. It is emphasized in the Shema, the most familiar component of our liturgy. I believe most strongly in both secular and religious education. The secular involves two elements. One element consists of ideas and evaluation, that any idea can be challenged fairly and honestly. This is essential to create a thinking person, someone who is not brain dead. The other element is the acquisition of the tools to earn a living, which is essential for providing a practical insight into life. Sometimes you can manage one without the other, but in general if one element is missing, a person is in danger of being lame.

In addition to the secular elements, I believe a human being is missing something without a religious dimension. Exposure to a profound culture that values study as a religious pursuit, not just an academic one, adds immeasurably to a person’s skills. This is the point I want to labor here.

According to an article in last week's Haaretz by Meirav Arlosoroff, it is the fault of the very religious that Israeli education is in a mess. She writes:

"The ultra-Orthodox schools do not educate toward good citizenship, nor do they equip their students for the job market, so funding these schools is clearly a waste of public money. And this is especially true when these moneys are being deducted from the budgets allocated to state schools, which do teach democracy and promote the acquisition of knowledge."
The state system is divided into state-secular and state-religious (which you might like to call moderate, or at any rate moderately religious.) Then there are the independent schools; some are non-Jewish, but mostly they are ultra-Orthodox, either essentially Ashkenazi (Chinuch Atsmai) or Sephardi (Shas). It is true the last two are not ideologically Zionist. But they produce socially concerned graduates (at least in their terms of reference) who have a thorough grounding in basic Jewish sources and have been trained to memorize, analyze, discuss, and master far more than is required by the lowest common denominator pap that passes for modern methodology. They will be taught in overwhelmingly drug-free, crime-free, bully-free communities, for longer hours and with more extracurricular activities than state schools, and be trained in religious values such as sick visiting, charity, and communal service. Their teachers, though poorly paid, are dedicated, loyal idealists.

After many years as a headmaster I have a great deal against schools. I am a fan of Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society. Schools are a pretty ineffective way of educating children to fulfill their individual potential, largely because, as nineteenth century creations to babysit large numbers of kids, they were never really designed to deal with individuals. But that’s another story. Similarly, I have grave reservations about Charedi schools for their lack of educational breadth and intellectual honesty. That, too, is another story. I do not wish to defend them as educational institutions. I only want to assert that they are not as destructive as Arlosoroff and the secular camp one-sidedly claim.

Isn't it little wonder that more and many parents would rather their children be taught in religious schools, even if they have reservations about much of the ideology, rather than in often discredited secular schools with precious few values, no Jewish content at all, and where the training equips one to visit nightclubs and strip bars in a higher proportion than universities?

As for citizenship, all the evidence is that many graduates of secular schools care little for Israel or the army, and less for Judaism. The sooner they can get to Katmandu or Los Angeles, avoiding their civic obligations, the better. It's not all like that, of course. I exaggerate--but not much! No wonder the article goes on to talk about the relative decline of the awful state system. Thank goodness for these facts she mentions:

"According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, one in seven school-age children were ultra-Orthodox in 2006 - 205,000 out of 1.4 million. In 2011, that figure is expected to rise to 254,000 - a 24 percent increase - while enrollment in state schools is expected to decline by 2.4 percent (the state-religious education system is expected to grow by 5 percent). This means that one in six pupils will be ultra-Orthodox. And by 2016, the ratio will be one in five. . .The ultra-Orthodox education system is grooming the next generation of Israel's poor - uneducated in democracy and lacking the skills to integrate into the job market. This means that the state is allocating ever larger budgets only to ensure that Israel's poor population continues to grow at an impressive rate."
I will concede that there is a fundamental fault in the Israeli system that militates against young ultra-Orthodox graduates going out to earn a living, whereas in the USA, after marriage and a brief stint in Kollel, their ultra-Orthodox do go out into the American job market and in fact do surprisingly well. Any intellectual discipline in school is far better preparation for life than none.

But in Israel if you do not serve in the army you cannot get a legitimate job. Other countries with compulsory military service recognize "conscientious objectors". I do not believe most Yeshiva students should be excused military service. That is yet another issue. But if they are excused, then the system ought not to trap these young people in forced unemployment. Many of them at a later stage (or, sadly, illegally) succeed when given the chance. You will find ultra-Orthodox in most areas of Israeli commercial life, doing pretty well; just as, by way of contrast, you will find legions of unemployed, sex-preoccupied, pop-cultured, drugged layabouts corroding the fabric of Israeli society, who went only to secular schools.

Ms. Arlosoroff declares:

"In Israel, [unlike the US] ultra-Orthodox schools not only enjoy virtually full public funding - which they should not; they are also unsupervised and do not meet minimal educational requirements. Israel freely funnels money to them, yet grants them almost full autonomy."
It's the "should not" I disagree with. Why should not a state founded on the tradition of a specific religion support its continuity? Britain supports its Christian schools! Indeed, it also supports Jewish ones as well and both of varying degrees of religiosity and intensity. The issue of supervision is another matter where, frankly, I agree. But this antipathy to anything religious clouds judgments and turns specific legitimate complaints into destructive generalizations and cliches.

"The ultra-Orthodox schools use this autonomy to make themselves more attractive than the state schools. . .This means that in Israel, the undemocratic religious education systems are flourishing at the expense of the national, democratic systems."
Well, if they use their funding to make themselves more attractive, are they not responding to what parents want? As for democratic values, I'd prefer a law-abiding voter who challenges many of the assumptions of society to a law-breaking democrat who doesn’t give a damn.

The ultra-Orthodox are making use of government funds to produce young men and women who will contribute to life in Israel and Judaism far more readily than those who have no loyalties on any level whatsoever. Of course the money could be used more honestly, fairly, and professionally but do try not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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