Friday May 19, 2023 – כ״ח אִיָיר תשפ”ג
אַךְ אֶת־מַטֵּה לֵוִי לֹא תִפְקֹד וְאֶת־רֹאשָׁם לֹא תִשָּׂא בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל׃ וְאַתָּה הַפְקֵד אֶת־הַלְוִיִּם עַל־מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת וְעַל כׇּל־כֵּלָיו וְעַל כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר־לוֹ הֵמָּה יִשְׂאוּ אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּן וְאֶת־כׇּל־כֵּלָיו וְהֵם יְשָׁרְתֻהוּ וְסָבִיב לַמִּשְׁכָּן יַחֲנוּ׃ (במבדר א:מ”ט-נ’)
“Do not on any account enroll the tribe of Levi or take a census of them with the Israelites.
You shall put the Levites in charge of the Tabernacle of the Pact, all its furnishings, and everything that pertains to it: they shall carry the Tabernacle and all its furnishings, and they shall tend it, and they shall camp around the Tabernacle.”
Are the Haredim in Israeli society the modern-day Levites?
We are taught in this week’s Torah portion, in beginning the Book of Numbers, that the Levites, or descendants of the Tribe of Levi, were not accounted as part of the general census and were kept separate from the rest of the tribes of Israel.
The Levites fulfilled particular religious duties and functions for the whole of Israel and carried political responsibilities as well. In return, the other 11 tribes gave tithes to the Kohanim, the priests working in the Temple in Jerusalem, particularly the tithe known as the Maaser Rishon. The Levites, who were not Kohanim, served in other ways (such as playing music in the Temple or serving as Temple guards). In other words, the Levites performed duties and functions that served the common good of the entire people and, in exchange, they were economically supported by the people.
Sound like a good system?
Of course, there was corruption. Of course, the Levites were not democratically elected – one could only become a Levite by being born into the tribe.
In many ways, the modern State of Israel sees itself as a continuation of the ancient and biblical kingdoms. Some say that Israel is a tribal society (see former President Rivlin’s 4 Tribes Speech). If so, have the ultra-Orthodox communities assumed the same role as the Levites? And if they have, are they performing duties and functions that serve the common good of the entire people – thus being deserving of the people’s economic support?
I pose this question now because Israel is 10 days away from the most fateful deadline it currently faces: the budget. If Israel does not pass the national budget by May 29th the government will fall. So, this is the opportunity for the Coalition partners to use their leverage and get as much out of the budget as possible. We are witnessing the irony of the ultra-Orthodox pushing for as much “pork” as they can get.
For instance, this past Wednesday night, a faction within the Ashkenazi Haredi party United Torah Judaism (UTJ) threatened to withhold its support for the budget, or actively oppose it, unless the government funds full-time religious scholars to the tune of NIS 600 million ($164 million), in addition to the billions already pledged to the ultra-Orthodox.
This late addition came days after the government approved NIS 13.7 billion ($3.7 billion) worth of discretionary funds to meet coalition commitments, largely to support ultra-Orthodox institutions and programs.
The Haredim have every right to advocate for their communities. Every political party and politician advocates for its constituency. The problem, however, is threefold:
- Within the larger segment of Israeli society, the Haredim are perceived differently than the Levites. Their behavior is not perceived as performing duties and functions that serve the common good. Rather, they are perceived as takers and not givers. Of course, that is not how they characterize themselves. But the critique from the larger segment of Israeli society is that the Haredim largely exempt themselves from military and national service while demanding a level of economic support that is, per capita, significantly higher than what is provided to the rest of Israelis.
- The funding coming to them is designed to perpetuate their dependence on the State for handouts paid for by taxpayer shekels. There are Haredi communities living in dozens of other countries around the world (see “Rough Diamonds”) who are self-sustaining. Israel is unique in that the government not only supports the Haredi communities but also treats them as the “Levites” who are tasked with the responsibility for religion and ritual. It is no shock that with monopolies comes corruption.
- The Haredim operate as a minority while they increasingly move into majority status. As of January, of this year according to the 2022 annual statistical report, Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population has risen to 1.28 million, 13.5 percent of the 9.45 million total national population,. The CBS data showed that with the ultra-Orthodox population’s current growth rate of 4% — the highest of any group in Israel — by the end of the decade, they will constitute 16% of the total population and will increase in their political power. This growth will require a significant shift in attitude for Haredi leaders. What will it look like if Haredim bear responsibility for the general population beyond their insular boundaries? Will they seek to turn Israel into a Haredi-State in which the entire country looks and feels like Bnei Brak or Meah Shearim? Past and current behavior suggests that they will. If they do, it will have detrimental consequences for the Zionist enterprise that gave them free license to rebuild and grow.
Haredi life was largely decimated during the Holocaust, and the rabbinic leadership that arrived in Israel (or were already there) adopted their laser-focused goal to build back their way of life.
That meant two things: expanding education by building yeshivot and having children, lots and lots of children. They also regarded anything that was an obstacle to those two supreme and sacred goals as a threat and anything that could support their goals as an asset. So, IDF service, which serves as the great melting pot of the Jewish State, is a threat and should be opposed, while Governmental/Parliamentary representation – which could unlock purse strings and support their communities – was considered, for practical purposes, as a positive, despite the Haredim not being Zionists nor ideologically endorsing the notion of a Jewish State.
This strategy came with a huge societal price tag. Many in the Haredi world are terribly resented and are definitely not regarded by the vast majority of Israelis as Levites, but rather as parasites who refuse to accept the Zionist ideal of service and being productive and contributing members of society.
The most recent example of the Haredi strategy that is self-serving and not in service of the common good is the latest scandal of the “Arnona Fund.” The proposal is to create a new fund that would amass percentages of property taxes from local businesses in financially successful cities and allocate them to lower-income cities around the country. The proposal is widely seen as a Haredi (and Settler) attempt to pillage the collective coffers in order to support their own institutions. While appearing to prioritize wealth equity, this is no Robin Hood take-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor initiative.
As Raoul Wootliff explains: “It disproportionately impacts cities with thriving business sectors and industrial parks, penalizing communities that have diligently worked to attract employers and diverting much-needed funds from improving essential services. Rather than benefitting the intended municipalities, the plan is likely to serve sector-specific demands. Furthermore, the structure of the fund hampers its effectiveness for Arab municipalities, while West Bank settlements are conveniently exempt from contributing.”
This is why local civil servants are striking and over 4,000 protesters marched through the streets of Bnei Brak (Israel’s most easily recognizable Haredi city). Beneath the innocuous (if flawed) veil of financial redistribution and social justice lies a disturbing truth: as Wootliff explains:
“The Arnona Fund plan represents a brazen power grab by the ruling coalition. By diverting municipal tax revenues to a centralized resource, it consolidates control in the hands of a distant authority. This move undermines the investments made by communities to bolster their local economies and enhance citizen services, effectively eroding the autonomy of local governments. It places citizens at the mercy of faceless bureaucrats, directly challenging the very essence of democracy and diminishing local empowerment and citizen representation.”
Leading the opposition to this move is Likud Mayor of Modiin, Haim Bibas, who serves as Chair of the Federation of Local Authorities. Bibas launched a fierce broadside attack against his longtime ally Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in comments published Wednesday, saying that this could bring down the Likud, and with it the Haredi parties.
There is no question that the Haredi communities play an integral role in the Jewish State. They also offer a great deal from which the rest of us might benefit. Their system of care for one another, tzedakah, serious Jewish education, religious fervor, and commitment to a life of Torah and Mitzvot are admirable. However, there is a very dangerous power grab –in Israel and North America – through which Haredi leaders and communities are capitalizing on their power and influence to implement their way of life AND to radically diminish the resources available for others to live their lives according to their understanding of Judaism.
We, as religiously liberal Jews, must understand the seriousness of this deliberate attempt to control the budgets and policies of Israel’s and the Jewish people’s National and communal institutions.
Theoretically, the Haredim could act as the Levites performing duties and functions that serve the common good of the entire people. But, by focusing on lining their pockets and serving only their own interests they have created an economically unsustainable model and provoked a great deal of resentment among Israelis generally and Jews around the world.
It is high time for us to say: “Enough!” Instead of disproportionate financial support from the state, let the Haredim be allotted a fair share and only a proportionate level of public support in exchange for a proportionate contribution to the common good of Israeli society.