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Jewish Ethics

A recent survey shows that the majority of religious and ultra-Orthodox support expulsion of children of foreign workers, while the secular community is split. Why has the religious community abandoned the movement for civil rights when there is a rich infrastructure for it in Jewish tradition? Dr. Zvi Mark and Dr. Ishay Rosen-Zvi discuss the issue from opposing points of view but reach a similar conclusion: this is a fundamental argument over the character of the State

A recent survey by the Gesher organization shows that an absolute majority of the religious and ultra-Orthodox community supports the expulsion of the children of foreign workers while the secular community is split on the issue. The survey also shows that the religious community prefers the commandment “the poor of your city first” over the commandment of helping the stranger and the orphan. Why has the religious community abandoned the movement for civil rights when there is a rich infrastructure in Jewish tradition to provide a framework for movements of this type? Dr. Zvi Mark and Dr. Ishay Rosen-Zvi discuss the issue from opposing points of view but reach a similar and surprising conclusion: that this is a fundamental argument over the character of the State.
 
Dr. Zvi Mark: The survey results strengthen the feeling that there is a deep cultural rift in the State of Israel. While the energies of the left are channeled into any struggle that attempts to reduce the Jewish character of the state, the right and the religious right are interested in preserving and emphasizing the unique Jewish character of the State.
 
The expulsion of the children of foreign workers is a clear example of this. The headlines in the media and the public campaign are all based on misleading the public. This is not a case of a few children being expelled or their painful removal from their families but the return of the families of illegal foreign workers to their homeland – parents together with children. The hypocrisy and lack of credibility is particularly evident from the fact that the Jewish people not long ago endured the expulsion of thousands of families that had lived in Gush Katif for several decades and had settled there legally and according to a government decision and with the support and encouragement of the state. That is, until a decision was made that this is an area prohibited to Jews, and the army expelled second and third generations of children who had grown up there. Their homes were destroyed, their fields were uprooted and their life’s work vanished.
 
Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King
in the March for Peace, 1968
 
As you know, there were thousands of children in Gush Katif. Thus, the hypocrisy in this case is particularly evident. If the problem is the attitude of the state to children, where were the organizations of the left when the situation involved thousands of Jewish children in Gush Katif who were uprooted from their homes, many of them still without an appropriate solution to their situation?
 
Another good example is what happened during the pogrom in Amona: most of the citizens there were children and youth who were beaten by mounted policemen, arrested and injured in unnecessary violence. Where were their human rights? Which leftist organization stood up to speak on their behalf?
 
One might claim that the youth in Amona had violated the law, which justifies the silence on the left; but what about the flagrant violation of the law every week in Bil’in? And where is the respect for the law when the situation involves illegal foreign workers? The answer is simple: they speak out on behalf of the rule of law when an illegal outpost of the right is involved but are silent in the case of a violation of the law involving violence against soldiers. The positions on these issues are not related to the law, per se, or a concern for the welfare of children per se, but to different perspectives regarding the desired character of the state. The shock at the expulsion of children is only present when they belong to foreign workers – it is alright to expel the children of settlers. This is a distorted debate and only the control of the principal media by the left makes it possible.
 
Whoever attributes value to the existence of the state must ask themselves how the issue of illegal immigration is to be dealt with. For a religious Jew, this is a fundamental question. The thousands of individuals who arrive each year in Israel by way of Egypt are referred to as ‘refugees’ in the media, but research by Professor Arnon Sopher has revealed that these are migrant workers whose exclusive destination is Israel – not because they are persecuted in other countries, but because this is an affluent country. And although Israel has a clear and unambiguous immigration policy, there is a coalition of leftist organizations that automatically take the side of the immigrants.
 
The flow of immigration is creating huge problems in areas where the immigrants settle. The situation in Eilat and the area of the old bus station in Tel Aviv are well known. In the long run, this represents a demographic threat to the Jewish character of the state, and there is the possibility of a state-within-a-state being created. However, the feeling is that it is easier to mobilize the activists on the left to rescue sick whales on a remote beach than to organize a group of young couples who will strengthen the Jewish population in the city of Eilat or in south Tel Aviv. Furthermore, there is a suspicion that there are those on the left who are interested in these immigrants as a counterweight to the natural increase of the religious right and the ultra-Orthodox. For them, the immigrants are the demographic answer to the natural increase of the religious and traditional populations.
 
The opposition of the parties on the left to everything Jewish prevents them from becoming a real social force. The left is pictured – and rightly so – as willing to fight for the sick in Africa or a non-Jewish immigrant but will not lift a finger for the Jewish people. Why is it that Shas can take upon itself to deal with social challenges and to be a social welfare party with many non-ultra-Orthodox voters while Meretz is incapable of doing so, even if in principle these ideas appear in its platform? One of the answers lies in the impression that the energies of the left are totally channeled into struggles against the Jewish character of the state, against the government and against the army.
 
This situation discourages the religious and rightist communities from joining the struggles led by the Left and perhaps this is the reason for the results of the survey quoted above. The religious community is afraid of getting involved with an agenda of a “state for all its citizens” or in campaigns led by the New Israel Fund. It is easier for a religious person to take part in a human rights activity outside the borders of Israel, which is untainted by politics. Moreover, in the religious community, greater attention is paid to the fate of the Jewish People while the left’s system of values, which is alienated from the idea of national cohesion, causes the religious individual to recoil. Metaphorically, one can say that when the religious individual hears that there are mothers in distress he will be the first to offer help to his own mother and the very question of why he is helping his own mother when all mothers are in distress will be viewed by him as morally repugnant.
 
Of course, these are generalization and even sweeping ones, but the question was asked on the level of generalizations and surveys. There is no doubt that on a personal level, there are people who are more ethical and those who are less ethical in both camps; however, the root of the matter is the difference in values and moral discourse. In the specific case of the children of foreign workers with which we began, this is not even a difference in the moral discourse but a deliberate distortion of the public discourse in a way that prevents a fundamental issue from being clearly debated – that is, the immigration of non-Jews to the State of the Jews.”
 
Dr. Ishay Rosen-Zvi: In theory, there is no connection between level of religiosity and the denial of rights to immigrants. What is the connection between keeping the commandments and the expulsion of the children of foreign workers (i.e., children who were born here and have no other language or culture, but were unlucky enough to be born to migrant workers rather than to immigrants by the Law of Return)? Isn’t the Jewish State a national principle rather than a religious one? A religious way of life should lead to greater human sensitivity, such as the Judaism of “tikkun olam” (which is commonly found abroad but is virtually unknown here). However, if one takes an in-depth look, this finding is not so surprising.
 
“The patronizing and discriminatory attitude towards the non-Jew is indeed planted rather deep within the religious Jewish consciousness as well as within religious education. The consciousness that ‘You chose us from all the peoples’ is one of the foundations of Jewish identity and has far-reaching implications. This is nothing new. Post-Biblical Judaism took shape as a religio-ethnic system in which religion and people exist in an inseparable symbiosis. ‘Your people is my people and your god is my god’ says Ruth. Rabbinic literature created an ethos at the focus of which was the people, and the main differentiation was between Jew and gentile. In fact the critical stage in this regard is not the discrimination against gentiles but the very formation of the category of the goy, the creation of a unified name for anyone who isn’t a Jew. Thus, a binary and dichotomist structure is created: Jew vs. gentile. Natural as it may sound to us, this is not a universal concept. For a Frenchman, an Englishman or an American, there is no single, all-encompassing name for those who are not of your nationality.
 
This differentiation is manifested not only in Jewish thought and liturgy but also in Halakha and the Jewish way of life, which more than anything are responsible for anchoring and reinforcing the religious ethos. And this is no secret, beginning with laws to keep one away from gentiles to restricting the laws between man and man as applying to Jews only. Here is just one example: one is not allowed to transgress the laws of Shabbat to save a the life of a gentile according to every opinion in the classic halakha. Even in modern halakhic decisions, which have shown more flexibility on this issue, the reasons given are “because of hatred” or the “ways of peace” but not because of the value of a man’s life because he is a man.
 
One of the major effects of this ethos among the religious community is the complete lack of non Jews in the religious education system. True, there aren’t that many in the secular education system either, but nonetheless it contains more than a few of the immigrants who arrived by the Law of Return and who aren’t Jews according to halakha, Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, children of migrant workers and even refugees. In contrast, their admittance wouldn’t even be considered, and is indeed inconceivable, in the religious schools. Why? Doesn’t the cultural differences exist also in secular schools? But it isn’t that – it is the seclusion and ethnic chauvinism that is to be found deep within the religious ethos, both that of the ultra-Orthodox and that of the national religious community.
 
However, all this is only one part of the story – the simple part. What is easier than accusing the religious, the ultra-Orthodox and their political emissary, Eli Yishai, of an appalling attitude to foreigners? It is very easy to forget that the expulsion of the children was approved by a wholly secular government. This was the decision of a secular Prime Minister who justified it with a secular justification: demography – the struggle to preserve the Jewish majority. This was also the justification used by most of the respondents to the Gesher survey, who felt that the children should be expelled.
 
The presentation of religion and secular Zionism as if they are at two opposite poles is sleight of hand, an illusion that is convenient for all. The state uses religion as its border keeper in the areas of marriage and conversion – and there, and only there, religion is indeed given ultimate authority. But the boundaries of the ethos and its privileges are determined by the secular Jewish State, and the appointment of religion in these matters serves the nation’s interests, not those of religion. It is worth remembering that it is not the religious who invented the “demographic problem,” the Law of Return, Keren Kayemet and the "Judaization" of the Negev and the Galilee.
 
Therefore, a clear differentiation must be made between sensitivity and policy, and care must be taken not to fall into the trap of viewing the first category as all-inclusive. Those same people who are shocked by the expulsion of children live in peace and tranquility, and in general in complete identification, with a systematically discriminatory policy against non-Jewish citizens in the name of that same demographic logic. Basing itself on this principle, the state discriminates against its Palestinian citizens in all areas of life – from the allocation of resources, land and budget, to the right to marry and the denial of all collective rights. In the name of this logic, the state has no citizenship laws but only ethnic "laws of return." And this is the crux of the matter: the question of the expulsion of the children of migrant workers is only a small fraction of the overall immigration policy, which is totally dictated by the "secular" demographic struggle.
 
An example of this inherent blurring of issues (which is far less innocent than one might think) can be seen in the reaction of Ilan Geal-Dor of the Gesher organization to the survey of religiosity and the attitude towards the children of foreigners. He says, and I quote, “Israeli society is in a trap between its obligation to take care of every person, whoever he is, and the desire to maintain the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. We at Gesher welcome the desire of most of the residents of Israel to view the state as having a Jewish character, together with the need to solve the problem of the foreign workers.” This is a good example of the manipulation of language in general. First, "Israeli society" refers of course to Jews only (“a representative sample of the adult Jewish population”), to whom the survey has given the exclusive right to determine the character of the Jewish State. Second, the trap is not a result of the desire that the State of Israel remain a Jewish state but rather "Jewish and democratic." And here one may ask: How does the expulsion of children hurt the state’s democracy? Finally, it isn’t the desire to preserve a Jewish majority but rather the state’s "Jewish character." The main thing is not to mention the matter itself – i.e., the demographic genie, which we are constantly trying to keep in the bottle. And it is this effort which brings us – both the religious and the secular – to the edge of the abyss.”
 
Dr. Zvi Mark is a lecturer in Jewish Literature at Bar Ilan University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
 
Dr. Ishay Rosen-Zvi is the head of Talmud Section in the Department for Hebrew Culture Studies at Tel Aviv University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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The End of Policy Substance in Israel Politics