Carmel fire scapegoats, part I: The Ultra-Orthodox

In a series of three posts, I will examine arguments, which have resurfaced following the Carmel fire, that assign the blame for Israel’s problems to the ultra-orthodox or the settlements. In this first post, I argue that the ultra-orthodox play a marginal role both in Israel’s economic and social problems, and in the shaping of government policy, aside from freedom of religion issues. They are, in fact, a convenient scapegoat which allows major interests to avoid discussions that could jeopardize their privileges. In the second post  of the series, I will examine how a similar dynamic unfolds in regards to the settlements, and in the third, I will try to point to those who actually benefit from these tactics of distraction.

The Carmel Fire is triggering some familiar-sounding arguments about Israel’s predicament. Some of them are worth repeating: a tragically myopic economic and social policy and misplaced government priorities are certainly a major part of the problem. Others, however, may be misleading, even dangerous.

Bernard Avishai, for example, writes (emphases mine):

… rightist coalitions have insisted the money was simply not there, and so Western standards for “quality of life” remained out of reach; the country’s most responsible citizens have shrugged, more or less, and returned to work, knowing that rates of participation in Israel’s workforce is actually among the lowest in OECD nations, around 57%, because of the amount of money supporting ultra-orthodox “learning.”

He also adds:

All in all, the fires have awakened Israel’s silent, slim majority to the paradox of their lives; that regional cooperation is not a myth, and that they are rich enough–global enough–to expect to live better than they do; yet their governments keep propping up settlement projects costing up to $20 billion over the years…

This rhetoric, pitting Israel’s “silent, slim majority” composed of “the country’s most responsible citizens” against “ultra-orthodox learning” and “settlement projects” is a favorite hobbyhorse of the Israeli left. Certainly, Israeli policies regarding the ultra-orthodox and the settlements have had disastrous consequences, morally and practically. But are they the disease, or merely its symptom? And are the “most responsible citizens” really so responsible? Do they truly oppose the settlements and subsidies for ultra-orthodox learning, or do they like to use these issues as scapegoats, to avoid some real discussions? Is this group truly the majority, slim, silent or otherwise?

In a series of three posts, I will try to provide some tentative answers to these questions. This first post will deal with the ultra-orthodox; the second will cover the settlements project; and the third post will look at the people of whom Avishai is presumably thinking when he talks of “responsible citizens”.

Are Western standards of living denied to Israelis “because of the amount of money supporting ultra-orthodox “learning””? The underemployment in this sector is certainly a serious economic and social problem. However, since the ultra-orthodox compose no more than about a tenth of Israel’s population, and their labor participation rates are about two-thirds of those of the rest of the population, it is quite difficult to argue that this is what is stopping other Israelis from achieving higher living standards. Nor are budgets allocated to ultra-orthodox communities the cause of underfunding of Israel’s public services. This has much more to do with a series of huge tax cuts for the rich over the past decade, as well as the ever-expanding security budget.

Ultra-orthodox politicians play a major, though not exclusive, role in the restriction of religious and other individual freedoms in Israel. Other than that, even if they do have a negative impact (e.g. in encouraging xenophobia), they are rather marginal in the policy making process. Most of ultra-orthodox live in extreme poverty. They would love to work, but are prevented from doing so by the edicts of their leaders, who deem jobs less worthy than learning the scriptures, and deny their followers an education that would equip them with the necessary skills. These leaders benefit from this situation, which increases their hold and authority within ultra-orthodox community. But even ultra-orthodox leaders, while probably just as corrupt as any other Israeli elite, receive only a meager part of the spoils.

The most negative role that can be assigned to the ultra-orthodox in Israeli society and politics is a passive one. They are the ultimate scapegoats and the best distraction when truly major interests are threatened. Hate-mongering against them even briefly created the country’s third largest party. Actual and aspiring prime ministers often turn to similar tactics when their back is to the wall. Ehud Barak, in one of the many zigzags of his brief premiership, once famously proclaimed a “Civic Revolution”, by which he meant a secular restoration. Tzipi Livni, the current Israeli opposition leader, turned to ultra-orthodox bashing when coalition negotiations with their parties fell apart.

All of these initiatives have dissipated because the ultra-orthodox are not the true cause of Israel’s problems. Nor are the settlements, as the next post in this series will argue.

Read more about the Carmel Forest Fire:

The Carmel Disaster: My forest is on fire, by Ami Kaufman

Israel’s deadliest fire: Eli Yishai must go, by Noam Sheizaf

Carmel fire: the price of the treasury’s policy, by Yossi Gurvitz

What are Israel’s priorities in time of natural disaster?, by Joseph Dana