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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Shas - Misunderstanding Compassion.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri is a part of the disconnected mind set within ultra-orthodox society. On the 24th of June 2013 it was reported that he pleaded with the Knesset to have compassion for the sector he claims to represent.  He used the word “rachamim” which translates as mercy.  In fact it is more than that; it is a religious concept that denotes giving for the benefit of one who is less fortunate than oneself.  In the Kabbalah "rachamim is the sense of true empathy with the other's soul in his present life situation”.

He went from pleading to threatening.  He excoriated the Knesset for reducing the stipend of the more extreme, divisive sectors of Israeli society. He associated the withdrawal of money previously provided to the most implacably anti-unity sections of society to a violation of human rights; as if calls to civil disobedience, murder and civil war by some leaders of the Haredi community were not in contravention of the compact between the individual and civil society.

As a member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, MK Aryeh Deri even threatened to take the government of Israel to the International Court of Justice because he does not agree that his sector of Israeli society should share the pain of economic hardship with the rest of Israeli society, as if somehow, they are privileged by the abuse they heap upon us. But then, abusive relationships are characterized by the asymmetrical nature of the relationship, with the abuser insisting, they act by right.

In spite of all the banner headlines referring to Israel ‘the Start Up Nation’ there is widespread poverty in Israel. According to the report released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, in May 2013, Israel is the most impoverished of the world’s thirty-four economically developed countries. Israel has a higher percentage of poor people than Mexico and Turkey. Even economic basket cases such as Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain, at least in the poverty stakes all of these nations do considerably better than Israel where greater than one in five people are living in poverty.

The trend is for an even greater percentage of the world’s poor to be lifted out of poverty.  Across the globe more people are joining the middle classes and leaving poverty behind them.  In part this is due to the globalisation of the international economy but also nations such as China and India are recognizing that in order to maintain stability they need to be able not only to create wealth but to also sustain it across an ever increasing percentage of the total population.  But in Israel the impoverishment of the middle classes is destroying their aspirations without yanking the lower classes out of poverty and into the middle classes. No longer is there shame attached to Yeridah (literally it means descent) or emigration. With no hope for the future there is increasing dissatisfaction with government and a significant brain-drain. For those that have no other choice than to stay put, lack of trust lowers a people’s respect for the rule of law.

Where is the fear that rules the Ultra-Orthodox constituents of MK Deri? It is in the shackles that bind the poor to the parties that benefit most from the maintenance of relative poverty. Let me explain why.  A person without the means to earn a living is inexorably and inextricably bound to their community.   The Ultra orthodox community has an employment take up rate, for its men, of about 48% (2011) - the remainder are financially supported by the state and by their community which is in turn supported by donations from wealthy donors abroad.

Under such circumstances the possibility of leaving the community or changing ones lifestyle in order to improve ones economic situation is limited.  A life of religious coercion is as much of a trap for the Hasid as it is for those people who do not necessarily want to continue to religiously identify to the degree that they currently must in order to qualify for the assistance of their communities.

A faith community that can only survive on government handouts has no ethical right to demand acquiescence to their religious vision because it cannot base its demands on mutual respect. The beggar who demands a wage for standing on a street corner is forever trapped in a cycle of poverty and extortion and that does not create harmony; over time it can only destroy it.

The threats of MK Deri were indicative of his failure to understand that the state could no longer afford the social model that his party helped to create.  It is a model predicated on the belief that increased social hand-outs in exchange for Torah study is sustainable in the long term; that wealth redistribution to an ever widening circle of religious families can be supported by the commensurate productivity gains of those ever fewer secular families who pay taxes.

But Deri’s greatest failure is in his misunderstanding of the mood of the people. Ultra-orthodox pronouncements express ever greater levels of contempt for secular society and blatant disregard for the moral obligations of his constituency towards the society to which they look for financial support.   His constituency is increasing its threats to murder Haredi soldiers, and more focus is now being spotlighted on the escalating violence perpetrated against women; but barely a word has been spoken against either issue, by the ultra orthodox community because guidance has long ceased to be based on ethics. Rival tribal allegiances are a fertile breeding ground for violence by reactionary bigots.  Look at the terror that is a characteristic of the religious intolerance of the Muslim World. The threat to Israel is greatest in its disunity but government has failed to recognize and tackle this issue.

If the most famous slogan of the American Revolutionary War was “no taxation without representation” then in Israel it is time that “no representation without taxation” became part of the Haredi community’s understanding of their responsibilities to society.

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