Monday, October 22, 2012

Don’t Blame the [Orthodox] Jews…

Before the state of Israel existed, the majority of Jewish people lived in the diaspora. For centuries they served as “scapegoats” for their gentile neighbors.  Famine? Plague? Financial crisis? War? Simply blame the Jews. Clearly they have done “something” to bring that disaster about. But these were the “dark ages”, when antisemitism was the popular thing to do. Thankfully we are in the 21st century - the Jews have a state of their own, and “blaming Jews” is a thing of the past. Not quite…
Leaders of the Jewish Orthodox party - 'Shas'

Israel is the one and only “Jewish state”; yet there are Jews and there are “Jews”. The division line has evolved from separating Jews and Gentiles, to separating secular Jews (“חילוני”) and ultra-orthodox Jews (“חרדי”). It is quite often that I hear secular Jews “blame” orthodox Jews for their woes.

Housing prices are skyrocketing - it’s because the orthodox Jews receive most of the subsidies for affordable housing. The national deficit is spinning out of control? It’s because orthodox Jews are studying the Torah, receive stipends and don’t pay taxes. Schools are underfunded? It’s because orthodox Jewish schools are funded at the expense of the public school system. And so on…

Granted, some of these “accusations” touch on real issues that should be rectified. But I get the feeling the secular majority has carried this “blame the orthodox Jews” theme a bit too far.

Good, bad or otherwise - we have a democratic system in Israel. Political parties participate in the general elections to the Israeli parliament (“Knesset”); each party gets a number of parliament seats based on its percentage of voters. Last I checked there are 16 parliament members who represent ultra-orthodox Jewish parties: 'Shas' and 'Yahadut HaTorah'. That’s 13% out of a total of 120 seats – a small minority.

The ultra-orthodox Jewish parties are doing their best to promote the interests of their constituents. That’s the name of the political game, and they certainly shouldn't be “blamed” for it. If anyone is to blame, it is the other 87% of parliament members who fail to represent the interests of their constituents.

This “anomaly”, where the orthodox Jewish minority yields influence way beyond its electoral power is typically explained by the high degree of fragmentation within the secular parties. None of them is large enough to attain a majority on its own. Since some of them refuse to form a coalition with “competing” parties – they are driven to negotiate a narrow coalition with the Jewish orthodox parties. In the process the “ruling party” must cave in to the demands of the Jewish orthodox parties. 

But the real “blame” lies with the voters: if one feels strongly that his/her interests are compromised by the party he/she voted for - they should vote for another party... Or join a protest that will send a clear message to party leaders that their voters are going to defect if their interests aren't protected.

We could put this thesis to test soon. On January 22nd 2013 Israel will hold general elections for its parliament. Previous political campaigns typically revolved around national security and foreign affairs. However the distinction between “left wing” and “right wing” parties when it comes to these important issues has blurred lately. Maybe it’s time to focus the campaigns on domestic issues and make sure the interests of 87% of the citizens are cared for.

I hope the secular parties will get the message that “selling out” their constituents in exchange for a narrow coalition is something the voters will not put up with anymore.

As for ultra-orthodox Jewish parties - I hope they will continue to promote the best interests of their voters. This is part of democracy, and a privilege orthodox Jews should have in a Jewish state.

Rather than “blame the [orthodox] Jews”, we should focus on voting for the parties that will best represent our domestic interests. Let's get out and vote - it's our privilege and duty!

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