The most serious internal problem facing Israel is the political clout exerted by the Charedim (ultra-Orthodox), which threatens the future unity, economic development and military readiness of the state.
This is the firm conviction of Rabbi Uri Regev, who recently spent a week in Los Angeles to garner support for Hiddush, a year-old organization whose motto calls for “religious freedom and equality in Israel.”
Regev, a native-born Israeli, Reform leader and president/CEO of Hiddush (Hebrew for innovation or renewal), co-founded the movement with Los Angeles business executive Stanley Gold, who serves as chairman.
In an interview with The Jewish Journal, Regev, 59, argued with characteristic intensity and passion that “the Israeli public will no longer tolerate selling Israel’s future to the Charedi parties ... and a Charedi-dominated Chief Rabbinate which controls its life from birth to death and almost everything in between.”
As backup, he cited a poll taken last summer asking which internal confrontation most threatened Israel’s social cohesion.
Some 73 percent considered Charedi versus secular as the most serious split, trailed by the political left versus right, rich versus poor, Ashkenazi versus Sephardi, and new immigrants versus settled residents, Regev said.
Conventional wisdom has it that while most non-Charedim Israelis chafe under religious controls, they feel powerless or are too wrapped up in more immediate problems to exert much effort to change the situation.
Regev maintained that such alleged passivity no longer holds true, as shown by two mass demonstrations last year.
One protested a government attempt to circumvent a Supreme Court decision that would have eliminated 135 million shekels (about $38 million) in public funds to subsidize 11,000 married yeshiva students.
The second protest was aimed at Charedi government officials who ruled that an emergency medical station could not be built adjoining the Barzilai Medical Center in rocket-rattled Ashkelon because the building site contained ancient Jewish bones, despite archaeological evidence to the contrary, Regev said.
But what riles Hiddush and most of the non-Charedi population the most is the exemption of full-time yeshiva students from military service, mandatory for all other Israeli men and women.
The exemption goes back to the founding of the state, when then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to exempt 400 yeshiva students from military service.
The number now has grown to 65,000, after almost doubling during the past decade, and, given the high birthrate in Charedi families, will dangerously cut into the country’s future military manpower, Regev argued.
A parallel danger, he said, is to the state’s economic future, since many Charedim do not enter the work force or are not prepared to do so because they lack the necessary education and skills.
Underlying much of the problem is the disproportionate power held by Charedi political parties, which represent a minority of the population but frequently hold the balance of power in Israel’s multiparty coalition governments.
The solution, however, does not lie in the efforts of the Citizens’ Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI), founded in Los Angeles, and of other advocates to reform the Israeli electoral system to resemble those of the United States or Britain.
“We need not wait for a fundamental government reform,” Regev said. “Israel will always have at least three parties, so the religious will always be the swing vote.”
However, Hiddush’s platfom does not impress Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, adjunct chair for Jewish Law and Ethics at Loyola University Law School and a frequent Orthodox spokesman.
He disputed that the Israeli population is primarily secular. Rather, he said, “Most Israelis are neither Orthodox nor Reform nor secular, but traditional. They make kiddush on Friday night, keep kosher, attend synagogue and in general maintain a level of observance far exceeding that of the American Jewish community.”
Adlerstein said that among American Jews, the strongest support for aliyah and financial contributions to Israel comes from the Orthodox sector.
If support for Israel is declining among young American Jews, it is because “they are not into their Jewishness,” not because they fear Orthodox domination, Adlerstein said.
If the Chief Rabbinate seems at times out of touch with present realities, he added, the answer is not to hit them over the head with a mallet.
During its current start-up year, Hiddush has been operating on a $500,000 budget and skeleton staff, both incentives for Regev’s recent fundraising trip, his first, to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York.
Hiddush obtained its nonprofit tax status from the IRS quite recently, and, without the support network of more established Israeli organizations, Regev relied mainly on contributions from Gold’s L.A. friends.
However, Hiddush’s brochure outlines a series of long-range projects, including use of social media in Israel and the Diaspora, alliances with like-minded groups, legal challenges, investigative media reports, special outreach to Russian immigrants in Israel and “report cards” on the votes of Knesset members.
For additional information, visit www.hiddush.org.