In Bnei Brak I Founded the Shtetl State

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We must not allow autonomous Haredi enclave to continue to develop within the State of Israel – it will be to everyone’s detriment.

Photo by Nati Shohat/Flash 90

The agreements currently being finalized for the formation of the new coalition government lay the foundations for the two-state solution: The State of Israel, and the State of the Shtetl. The Haredi enclave that until now has been autonomous for the most part, has grown much larger, and in the wake of the recent elections it is set to go one step further and become an autonomous state—a “shtetel,” if you will.

The ambassadors of the shtetl state have gained positions of power and influence within the political system of the State of Israel, from which they can now rule their new state as they see fit. In addition to the ministerial positions that were specially created for the Haredi and national- religious publics, such as the new “Minister for Jerusalem, Heritage, and Religious Celebrations,” new positions are being created within the existing ministries for the shtetl’s ambassadors. For example, a Knesset member from the United Torah Judaism party is being appointed (in addition to his position as head of the Haredi Administration) as Deputy Minister for Public Transportation-- specifically for the Haredi public.

The shtetl state’s leaders are also worried by the same challenges that concern the leaders of the State of Israel. They can see that there are more and more Haredim who are unable to reach the ideal standard recommended by the Mishna to dedicate one’s life to the study of Torah and to be satisfied living in poverty and sorrow: “Bread and salt you will eat, measured water you will drink, on the ground you will sleep, a life of suffering you will live, and in the Torah you will labor.” These leaders also want to ensure that their citizens have a reasonable standard of living. But it would seem that their preferred solution to this challenge is to change the rules of the game in the State of Israel.

To be accepted into a civil service position, candidates must have an academic degree and meet various criteria. The heads of the shtetl state want to change these rules, so that holding a Torah education will be considered equivalent to holding a bachelor’s degree. When added to the Appropriate Representation Law, which requires that Haredim be employed in government ministries in numbers proportional to the relative size of the Haredi population in Israel, this proposal offers an excellent solution to the economic problem: The State of Israel will simply employ the citizens of the shtetl state en masse.

In parallel, the shtetl state's ambassadors are also demanding that women's' studies at Haredi post-secondary institutions ("seminars") of paramedical subjects such as art therapy, be recognized t as equivalent to academic degrees. It seems that an academic diploma and appropriate training, are just nonsense, meant only for the secular population. For citizens of the shtetl, it is enough that the seminars teach students the proper religious mindset, bring in someone who has a diploma from somewhere, and lo and behold - they have a qualified expert art therapist.

Including Haredim as employees in the state’s public systems is a highly necessary and welcome process, but there is a right way and a wrong way to go about it. Unfortunately, of the two roads that diverge in this wood, the one being chosen is that which leads us over the edge of a cliff. We will all pay the price for instant solutions, and at a very high rate of interest over many years.

Not only will this price be paid by Haredi parents, who will unwittingly send their children for treatment to what are essentially babysitters, who have had no proper training; even more critical is the fact that these solutions will be the death blow for the trend toward Haredi integration which has gained momentum over the last decade and a half.

This change will deal a mortal blow to the efforts to integrate Haredim into Israeli society and its economy, from which it may not be possible to recover.

The future of the State of Israel hangs in the balance. All of us have the responsibility to ensure that the Meron disaster (crowd crush during Lag BaOmer in which 45 men and boys were killed), which happened in the shtetl state, is not repeated on a national scale for Israel as a whole.

First published in The Times of Israel

Eliyahu Berkovits is a research assistant for the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel Program at the Israel Democracy Institute’s Joan and Irwin Jacobs Center for Shared Society, and a doctoral student in Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem