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We need to look at the big picture

There are rumblings that Charedi Jews need to start taking more responsibility for community affairs. But recent events in Israel show just what a double-edged sword that could turn out to be.

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    Charedi children will form a majority of the community by 2031, and Charedim will dominate Anglo-Jewry before the 21st century is out, according to a 2015 report by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

    That’s why, periodically, there are rumblings that Charedi Jews need to start taking more responsibility for community affairs. If they’re going to dominate numerically — the argument goes — they need to shoulder their fair share of communal decision-making and lobbying.

    Recent events in Israel, however, show just what a double-edged sword that could turn out to be.

    In Israel, Charedi political parties are very active, and usually form part of the coalition government. Charedim also control the religious services provided by the state, including marriage services, burial, conversion and the chief rabbinate.

    Last week, they caused a serious and dangerous breach to the unity of the Jewish people, when they sabotaged an agreement to create a mixed-gender area for Progressive Jews at the Western Wall. They also pushed for a conversion bill that would stop the state from recognising conversions in Israel that were not carried out by the Charedi rabbinate.

    America’s Jewish leaders, who are largely Progressive (unlike in the UK), were furious at these exclusions.

    Charedim may argue that they were acting honourably to defend Jewish law. And they were, as they understand it.

    The issue is that when you represent a community as a whole, you need to see the big picture, and act in the interests of the many, not the few. (With apologies to Jeremy Corbyn.)

    This is a responsibility that applies to those in government, and certainly applies to anyone taking decisions which affect the entire Jewish people.

    Unfortunately, this is not what happened at the Kotel or with the conversion bill. In both cases, the needs, beliefs and wishes of a significant part of the Jewish nation — the Progressives — were simply wiped away.

    Why? Because, sadly, the priority of Israel’s Charedi leadership is taking care of their own. They are not concerned with the needs of the Jewish nation as a whole because, by definition, they are an insular group. In addition, religious tolerance, pluralism and civic responsibilities are not widely understood or accepted by Charedim. These are integral features of the modern world and in that sense at least, Charedim are pre-modern. They do not believe that Reform, Conservative, secular and even Modern Orthodox Jews have equal rights that need to be respected. Nor, in many cases, do Israel’s Charedi leaders even have the secular education to appreciate these concepts.

    The real tragedy is that this is not the first time these attitudes have resulted in division and conflict, and the main victims are the Charedim. For many years, they have been widely resented by other Israelis because of the perception that their behaviour is selfish. They are regarded as draft-dodgers who allow other people’s sons to die in the army, and — increasingly unjustly — as “parasites” who draw benefits from the state but do not contribute economically. Many Israelis are angry that the religious services dominated by the Charedim are insensitive to their needs, while the Charedim cling on to these “jobs for the boys”.

    Charedim are, of course, welcome to conduct their internal affairs as they wish, within the law. When they are in charge of decisions that affect all Israelis and all Jews, however, they need to remember the second part of Hillel’s famous maxim: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I?”

    As for us here in the UK, the Charedim are so far still resistant to taking on wider communal responsibility. Those who wish for it should heed the Israeli example and step carefully.

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