Rabbi Uri Regev is president and CEO of Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel, a group that advocates for religious liberty and equality for all in Israel. He formerly served as president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, an umbrella organization of the worldwide Progressive, Reform, Liberal and Reconstructionist movements. And he was the founding chair and executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy group founded by the Reform movement in Israel. He was in New York recently and spoke with The Jewish Week about the divide between the fervently Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society.
Q: What do you see as the repercussions of the growing number of haredi or fervently Orthodox Jews in Israel?
A: It has triggered a debate over the future of the preparedness of the army. Ten years ago, 7 percent of those subject to the draft were exempted on the basis that they were studying in yeshivas. Now that figure is almost 14 percent, which adds up to 65,000 exemptions. During [David] Ben-Gurion’s time 60 years ago, there were only 400 exemptions.
How will this impact the army?
Currently in Israel, 26 percent of first-graders study in ultra-Orthodox schools. The army is saying that if nothing changes, in 12 years we will be facing a 26 percent exemption rate on the basis of studying in a yeshiva … and that there would not be enough of a draft base to draw from. Even now the declining draft crops has forced the army to cut the number of permits it gives to young Israelis who want to spend a year doing community service before going into the army.
All of those men studying in yeshivas must have an impact on the Israeli economy.
The comptroller general recently launched a website that listed all state grants. It showed that 53 percent of them go to religious institutions and 23 percent to culture and sports. The Mir Yeshiva was at the top of the list in 2009; it got 49.9 million shekels [more than $12 million].
How has it affected the Israeli workforce?
A Taub Center study showed that 30 years ago, 21 percent of the haredi males did not work. Today, 65 percent are not working. A comparative study shows that in the same haredi communities in New York and London, 70 percent of the males were employed compared to 35 percent employed in Israel. That means that they are not working here because they are able to get away with it. They aren’t doing it in New York and London because the government does not subsidize them.
How have Israelis reacted to the release of the grant figures?
Most recently as many as 10,000 students demonstrated in Jerusalem protesting an attempt to legislate the continued payment of 132 million shekels ($33 million) paid to yeshiva students with families — each family receives 1,045 shekels ($260) a month. The demonstrators were saying that the preferential treatment of yeshiva students can’t go on. Israel’s supreme court struck down the grant as of Jan. 1, but the haredi parties would like to legislate it into law.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was finance minister from 2003 to 2005, he cut child subsidies. What is happening now?
In 2006, the Bank of Israel pointed out that there was less poverty in the haredi sector because there was a decrease in the child birthrate and an increase in employment. But as prime minister, Netanyahu is restoring the subsidies and that is why economists are alarmed.
You are also concerned with those from the former Soviet Union whose father or grandfather was Jewish but not their mother, who come to Israel under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish and meet obstacles when they attempt to convert.
Now you are finding in Israel a debate about racist exclusion, and it takes the form of someone being told they are not frum [religious] enough. In the Immanuel School, for example, an Ashkenazi institution, they are excluding Sephardic students. Those who are accepted are being accepted based on a quota.