You Reap What You Sow (Ideas #8)

(On the Limits of Interest Articulation)

As the elections draw near, I find myself very moved by election posters aimed at me and my religious neighbors. No matter what the party, they seem to have the same impact -- to convince me to do the opposite of what is being touted. When I read the reasons why I am being encouraged to vote against Barak, for example, I feel very motivated to vote for him. Among other things, we are warned of territorial compromise, military service for yeshiva students and (most crucially) reduced funding for religious institutions. Doesn't sound half bad to me.

In a democracy, all interest groups have the right to articulate their wants. They also have the right to use gained political muscle in order to translate those interests into government policy. It is thus legitimate for religious parties to exert their influence for the benefit of the religous sector.


Like with most rights, however, responible behavior dictates limits. To use a crass example, a minority cannot demand the persecution of another minority as the price for its political support.


When I hear the complaints of secular Israelis about the religious, I think we may have exceeded responsible behavior in the past. Irresponsible behavior inevitably leads to a reaction. Rather than using that reaction to motivate introspection, we accuse anyone who takes us to task of anti-semitism.


Imagine our reaction if we were told to subsidize all post-high school Druze men to study their religion into their 30's and 40's. While the Druze might defend this by saying that this study will bring Divine grace to the State of Israel, this would not do much to convince me that I would be getting my money's worth. I would get somewhat more incensed when this study, which I would wind up supprorting, would be used as an excuse for failing to serve in our defense forces.


This, of course, is how many secular Jews look at how the state supports the kollel system with tax dollars, disproportionately originating from them. Quite frankly, it seems like a chutzpah.


Religious Jews point out that they must support university students in esoteric fields with their tax dollars. This is done without their direct consent and against their perceived interests. In other words, this is the price of a pluralistic democracy - one doesn't neccessarily agree with how every shekel is spent. I am not convinced. Without even pointing out that the numbers do not compare, research in esoteric fields bring international recognition which is directly linked to donor support of our universities -- which subsequently supply us with doctors, engineers, architects, etc. In other words, there is clearly defined pragmatic benefit for the common good. If this is not the case, then the proper course of action is not to accept indiscriminate government support for kollelim, but rather to end such funding for esoteric university departments. Both can be supported by private funds that would be freed up by corresponding tax cuts.

I am not sure where lie the limits of legitimate religious demands. Do we have the right to have the state support an official rabbinate (as is actually the case in many European nations where church and state are not completely separate)? Should that rabbinate define and enforce the standards of marriage and divorce?


If one looks carefully at the Meretz and Shinui literature, one doesn't pick up an intrinsic anti-religious tone, which aims at changing all 20th century Jews into modern atheists. Such was in fact the aim of many Labor Zionists of old and forced the religious into a confrontational position. Today's New Left is libertarian in spirit and has a very limited national agenda. While perhaps one of our harshest and inflammatory critics, Shulamit Aloni, I am told, once fought FOR the right of various entirely religious neighborhoods to close down their streets on Shabbat. The emphasis is on the rights of individuals and communities from that which might be imposed from a central authority.


Religious and libertarian Jews have different assumptions as to what is good for themselves and for the 0THER. This is true of most adversaries. That doesn't mean that there is no room for trying to understand the other side. The Maharal posits that the positions of Beit Hillel were better founded in spite of Beit Shammai's intellectual superiority because they were more willing to understand the view of their opponents. Conflict resolution can be brought about by victory of one adversary over the other, or by compromise. While confrontation might have been neccessary fifty years ago, it has long outworn its usefulness. As part of a world where individual rights are becoming more popular, we are less and less likely to positively impact our secular neighbors by coercion. When we come to the table with a readiness to compromise, I think we would see a much different Israeli left -- we would also eventually see a much smaller Israeli liberterian left. While there are exceptions, I think common ground can and must be found. Thus, the best determinant of legitimate minority demands in Israel today is national consensus.


We are commanded to love every Jew except for the Rasha -- and the Chazon Ish pointed out that, even in his generation, most secular Jews did not fit that category It is incumbent upon us to remember this Divine injunction during the election period. Sticking to it may end up helping us in the polls as well.


Finally, the Chafetz Chaim is quoted as saying that too many of us have it reversed - we are supposed to worry about our own souls and our neigbor's pocketbook and not the other way around. We are well advised to heed this each time we go to the polls.