Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Teves 5760 - December 29, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Opinion & Comment
Self-Imposed Poverty or Secular Arbitrariness?

by Rabbi Nosson Zeev Grossman

The disturbing statistics recently publicized about poverty in Israel should have shaken every Jewish heart. Instead, after being disguised as "professional economic considerations", they again serve as a means to lash out at lomdei Torah.

In the middle of December, Israeli newspapers published an interview with Dr. Mumi Dahan, an economist and advisor to the Treasury's General Manager. He is one person who in the past aired "scholarly arguments" advocating discontinuing support for chareidi children whose parents devote their lives to studying Torah. Dr. Dahan remarked in a recent interview that we should note that the percentage of chareidi and Arab children in Israel living under the poverty line is dramatically different from the population's general makeup: 26% are children from chareidi families and 36% are Arab children, together a striking 62%. "I suggest we differentiate between these different groups and refer to each one separately. A uniform welfare policy is inappropriate," commented Dr. Dahan.

After relating to each specific group, Dr. Dahan displayed immense pity and consideration for the destitute Arabs. He explained that their poverty was caused by the continual negligence over many years of the underprivileged Arab population. What is needed to rectify this situation is "positive discrimination." This will, however, take many years for results to show, he said.

On the other hand, as far as the chareidi population is concerned, Dr. Dahan warns against any policy of awarding grants and support for families whose children live in poverty and hardship. "These children are growing up in self- imposed poverty because of their parents' free choice," he explained. "The children growing up in poverty-stricken chareidi families are not suffering from a lack of education; they are suffering from the type of education they receive. In most cases their poverty is caused by their parents' decision, mainly that of the family heads, who prefer Torah studies over work that would provide them with a livelihood."

It should be pointed out that Dr. Mumi Dahan is well aware that the poverty of Torah-observant families does not cause social problems. Later in the interview, he emphasizes that the main social problem of children growing up in deprived secular families is not hunger or need, but their being exposed to violence, crime and neglect. "Poor children are harmed by their deteriorating environment." The solution he finds for them is investing in their education.

He does recognize the social achievements of chareidi education, but despite the vast difference between a chareidi child living in poverty and a secular child in a similar condition, Dr. Dahan is not prepared to change his conclusions that no policy of support for chareidi families should be followed. His stand is based on his assertion that their poverty is self-imposed.

This view has been stated many times in newspaper columns dealing with economy. Globus, an Israeli daily newspaper that emphasizes economic news, recently published an article under the title "More Births -- Less Work." Yoram Gabai, the author of the article, chairman of the Pe'ilim Company and in the past an official in the Treasury, complains about the rise in governmental allowances to large families that are enjoyed mainly by chareidim. He urges the policy of allowances be altered: Small families should be encouraged since "Israel has created a massive incentive for increasing the number of children in families and a negative motivation to work." He repeatedly underscores in that article that he refers to the condition that mainly characterizes chareidi families: "Gradually the relationship between poverty and the size of a family has dissipated, and has become the relationship between being a chareidi and the size of one's family. This is an interesting sociological process that has appeared simultaneously with allowance increases."

In the same newspaper, Yitzchak Tishler warns that the "weight of the mature population in Israel's working force is low because more people are sitting in yeshiva." He publicizes findings that show "irregular occurrences," and that "the number of those sitting in yeshivos above forty years old is increasing, and the number of children in chareidi families is escalating."

Incidentally, the author admits to another problem with the chareidim working. "Although it is possible that enlisting yeshiva students [to the labor market] would intensify the ceaseless problem of unemployment, nonetheless, someone who sits in a yeshiva decreases the growth of the labor market." This fact, however, does not change his conclusions that "the chareidi population who have decided to live in poverty so they can remain in yeshiva" must revise their priorities.

@BIG LET BODY = We suffer from demagogic arguments in periodic verbal attacks. Such arguments are standard ammunition for anyone wanting to attack the Torah-observant. Our being bombarded by such outlandish accusations requires us to check carefully every "professional argument." Such pseudo "objective reasoning" aired in public debates about the relationship of religion to the state must be examined thoroughly.

A logical analysis, uncompromising and without any preconceptions and prejudices, would peel off layer after layer of the "objective arguments" and soon reveal that many of these arguments whatever their type -- economic, security, or social -- are really based on the ideological argument between the Torah-true and those trying to disseminate heresy. In the long run all of these arguments attempt to accomplish one thing: To totally obliterate Torah observance and to delegitimize the Torah lifestyle.

We have, in the past, quoted from the series of articles by Prof. Amnon Rubinstein of Meretz published in Ha'aretz. They reached the conclusion that we should prevent, or at least diminish, the support and welfare directed to families where the father studies in a kollel. This idea repeats itself in articles published recently by economists, politicians, and secular writers, who harp constantly on the concept of self-imposed poverty.

Rubinstein wants to develop a theory redefining poverty in Israeli society. A destitute family is one which wants to provide for its own livelihood but is unsuccessful in doing so. The elderly, broken families, children of drug addicts, and the like, are considered deserving poor. The State should support them. On the other hand, he characterizes lomdei Torah as those living in self-imposed poverty because of a decision not to work. Rubinstein writes: "The family heads of a great many poor families are chareidi. The family head chooses not to work because he studies Torah. These are large families, so their economic -- although not social -- poverty is especially drastic."

The National Insurance Institute (NII -- Bituach Leumi), claims Rubinstein, misleads the public when it includes the chareidi sector in its annual report on poverty. "The main mistake is overlooking the fact that among these poor families there are only a few [whose family heads] want to make a living, who want to work . . . The NII report on poverty ignores the problem of those who do not want to make a living and includes the educated chareidi public, who do not have any characteristics of the poverty culture with the real poor."

His conclusion is that the NII allowances for children should be terminated for a sector that prefers out of free choice to study Torah and not to labor for their livelihood. What must be done is "to encourage chareidim to enter the circle of those seeking employment."

Rubinstein concludes his article: "The idea is simple: The State is responsible for the health, education, housing, and welfare of all its citizens. A citizen is given free choice how to divide his time: to work, to study, to spend his time as he wishes. He, however, does not have the same right to receive compensation if he decides to work less or not at all. The country's last budget handed over money of those who work to those who do not want to work. If this process will not change an inevitable explosion will follow."

Rubinstein and his colleagues are seem to present a razor- sharp logical argument, one rooted in pure economic and social principles, without any connection to the current ideological argument in Israel. They try not to appear to be examining the topic from the secular heretical viewpoint that degrades those who study Torah but rather as professional economic analysts. They claim that each person has the privilege to study Torah or to use his time to realize his ideology as he wishes, but the State must examine its budget from an economic angle. It must encourage only those interested in contributing to the national product and trying to make a living. All budget decisions must be guided by economic and productive considerations, and it is only lomdei Torah who disrupt the economic setup when they induce their own poverty because of ideological motives.

In the past we pointed out that on closer examination we discover these experts are deceiving us when they emphasize that the State's budget is composed of pure economic considerations, of unadulterated evaluations of loss and gain. If they had a minimum of public decency they would ask themselves: Does the State really only interest itself with productive channels of activity? Are only lomdei Torah the exceptions to the rule? Do only kollel students upset the social order? When we request support for families of kollel students are we mixing ideological considerations into the makeup of the country's budget?

If the country's budget were given over to an economic consultant, a shrewd businessman or cynical western investor, who truly weighs only economic considerations and overlooks any unproductive elements, all the sections in the budget that finance "culture" would immediately be erased.

"Why do we need to subsidize theaters, museums, and artists?" the uncompromising economic expert would ask? What do we gain from them? They do not add one red cent to our economy and only milk the budget of the taxpayers who labor for their livelihood.

He would continue to leaf through the many pages of the country's budget and find, for example, numerous sections that are mainly premiums and incentives intended to assist unsuccessful enterprises in developing cities. "Why should we throw away money?" the economic pundit would rhetorically ask. "Move the factory to the country's center and you will have no need to subsidize it. Anyone who stubbornly wants to realize the vision of `conquering the Negev,' of living and looking for livelihood in developing cities, is his own personal problem. He is living in self- imposed poverty."

At such a stage Dr. Mumi Dahan and Prof. Amnon Rubinstein would jump up and shake the shoulders of the economic expert who is tearing handfuls of pages out of the country's budget, and scream at him: "Are you out of your mind? Can there be a country without culture, without a circle for drama and art? How dare you talk about an `economic consideration' when you are dealing with developing cities? Have you never heard of realizing Zionism's aims, about settling the desolate areas?"

The cold economic advisor, who has already headed several successful commercial projects in his life, would smile in confusion: "Gentlemen, please listen to me. It seems you have found the wrong man. Realizing pioneer and cultural ideologies is simply not my specialty. I know how to read balances and financial forecasts, to reduce expenses, to increase income, to invest only in areas yielding profits, and to free ourselves from any unproductive elements. Ideology is another thing altogether. Excuse me, it's not my cup of tea."

This imaginary scenario never happened since Rubinstein and his colleagues never put it to the test -- and never will. Their objective economic viewpoint comes into play only when it deals with lomdei Torah. The country's entire budget is built on various ideological considerations promoted by different groups. Each one tries to finance his pet ideologies. The deliberations over the annual budget result in various settlements and compromises that recognize the ideological needs of the different groups -- which are usually unfavorable to the chareidi public.

All who are jealous of the flourishing Torah world and pretend to be "objective economic authorities," warp the picture when they point the floodlights on one corner of the budget and scream: "Where are the economic considerations? Where is productivity? Send those kollel students to work!"

If they were sincere and not motivated by any ideology they would demand an end to financing secular culture too. They would send all the artists and sculptors to sweat on the scaffolds of new buildings or to work on the assembly lines of industry.

We, however, see that Rubinstein and the Leftists encourage those clearly nonproductive people and do all they can to finance them from the State's budget, while demanding economic justification only from lomdei Torah.

Those who claim the poverty of kollel students is self- imposed, that they live uneconomical lives of ideological choice and should starve because of their decision to choose such a way of living, are mistaken and purposely delude others. These families are poor because the State decided that studying Torah is not of sufficient value to warrant support, unlike the generosity they show for other unproductive areas. If the State of Israel finances higher education so that a professor of ancient Japanese can earn more than ten thousand NIS a month while a kollel student receives only 700 NIS, the State clearly shows its desire to promote secular ideology financially and prefers it to study of Torah.

In a purely economical analysis that discerns financial benefit alone, the professor and the kollel student, lehavdil, are equally nonproductive. What remains is only the ideological question: If the State will operate by a different value scale and swap the salary of this professor with that of the kollel student -- and the kollel student's family would not be poor but the professor of ancient Japanese would need income support from welfare -- we do not know whether the professor would continue to study and teach his subject with mesiras nefesh for such a meager salary. Even were he totally devoted to his profession, surely the Leftists would demand a respectable stipend for him and would not insist his children remain hungry since their father lives in a "self-imposed poverty" and is unproductive.

@BIG LET BODY = These biased articles and "research studies" display a sophisticated method of perverting facts, with half- truths and a veneer of objectivity that is really aimed to serve a decidedly one-sided approach. Demagoguery has many faces and it works overtime against the chareidi community.

Maybe we should not complain, since it will not help. We must remember that the discoverer of the "scholarly economic approach" that ovdei Hashem have no right to exist and all of their demands are baseless belongs to Lovon.

In the chizuk meeting of Tze'irei Agudath Yisroel on Kislev, 5748, HaRav Moshe Shmuel Shapira, the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Beer Yaakov and a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah, mentioned an instructive anecdote which Maran HaRav Yitzchok Zeev Soloveitchik zt'l told over.

The Rov was with Maran the Chofetz Chaim zt'l in Warsaw. Chareidi communal workers met the Chofetz Chaim and complained about the harsh decrees and flagrant discrimination of the Polish government. They suggested organizing a public demonstration for equality and proving with logical arguments, numbers and statistics, how unjust and illogical is the government's treatment toward them. No one would be able to reject their justifiable arguments. Reality speaks for itself, and the wrong being done to them is obvious to all.

Maran the Chofetz Chaim smiled and said: Yaakov came to Lovon and presented him with a list of logical and correct arguments: I worked for you faithfully and devotedly for twenty years, fourteen years for your daughters and six years for your sheep, and you even changed my salary tens of times. "What is my transgression? What is my sin that you have so hotly pursued after me?" (Bereishis 31:36).

What did Lovon answer? "These daughters are my daughters and these children are my children and these cattle are my cattle and all that you see is mine" (v. 43).

This teaches us that no matter how correct and logical, the arguments will only be accepted when the other party accepts you as someone with a basic right to live. When he does not feel that way, all the logical arguments in the world will not help.

This is how the Polish government acts with us. Do its heads think that the taxes we pay give us the right to exist? We are totally unbearable to them. According to their attitude toward us how can we demand equality?

The State of Israel is no different, said the Brisker Rov. We demand equality, and an end to discrimination against us, while they do not consider us as citizens with any rights. They would prefer not to see us at all, that we should disappear from the world -- and you still hope that they will behave decently toward us? All the arguments about our paying taxes, fulfilling our duties, and so on, will be scornfully rejected by them. They will automatically answer what Lovon answered: "All that you see is mine."

It seems to me that there is nothing more to add. When the heads of the government live with the feeling of "All that you see is mine" it is clear that they will want to determine who to enrich and who to starve. They, who are sure that the budget belongs only to them, that the whole country belongs to them, that Torah observers have no right to live here, and that we should thank them for being allowed to breath the air in Israel, will surely try to force lomdei Torah to live lives of "self-imposed poverty" as a punishment for their choosing what they consider the unwanted culture and incorrect education.

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