LOOKING IN THE MIRROR: Excerpts of an Interview of Chareidi Journalists in Maariv Newspaper

Menachem Gesheid
Menachem Gesheid

Yair, Listen Up!

A week after Yair Lapid’s inflammatory speech, three senior chareidi journalists were invited by Maariv newspaper to articulate the chareidi position to the mostly secular Maariv readership. “We are not parasites [“Most of the chareidi public works hard for its livelihood and pays taxes”], we have no need for the core curriculum studies [“Yair Lapid has no matriculation degree and he’s the finance minister”] and we are also doing a cheshbon hanefesh [soul-searching] [“We don’t have a monopoly on wisdom”]

Don’t Put a Gun to Our Heads

Menachem Gesheid was the only chareidi journalist invited to the President’s Residence for a dinner with President Obama. The ceremony required a specific dress code, and Hamodia’s political analyst kept to those rules. “A black suit is my regular dress code in any case,” he smiles. “I just didn’t bring a tie, because what does a Gerrer chassid understand about ties? So they stopped me at the door. I told them I have an invitation. They told me, ‘And we have instructions.’ In the end, Shimon Peres [the President] had mercy on me and donated one of his ties to me. After the dinner I wanted to give it back to him, but Peres said, ‘Forget it, keep it as a memento of the meeting with Obama.’”

The event was given very marginal coverage in the chareidi media. Only this week, when Yair Lapid was skewered there, they recalled Obama all of a sudden. Gesheid’s editorial, entitled “Parasites, Why Do You Insist That They Hate You?” ignited the first match.

“When Lapid came to his victory party on election night, he did it Obama style,” Gesheid says today. “And I was happy, because when someone looks at himself in the mirror and says, ‘I really deserve to go into the shoes of the American president,’ he stops being careful, and because of his fantasies about his fortune, he goes for the maximum, right for the peak. I’ve seen too many such cases in the Knesset. I’ve been working with Rabbi Firer in his holy work [medical referral service, part of Ezra LeMarpeh] for 13 years, and when MK Litzman invited me to work with him in the Health Ministry, I agreed because I thought I’d be able to change the world. I had so many dreams. Only after four years did I discover that you can’t rule reality; reality rules you. Therefore, when I see all of Lapid’s grandiose plans, which require at least 40 years to implement, I say, folks, let’s wait to start seeing them sweat. Soon, everyone will understand that not everything begins and ends with the chareidim.

And until that happens?

Gesheid: “There will be a cut. It will hurt. There will be thousands more hungry chareidi children in the State of Israel. But the spirit is stronger than everything. No one will become secular because their allowances were cut.”

Will you do some soul-searching?

Gesheid: “Even if we will need to do soul-searching, it is not now, not during the war. The chareidi public does soul-searching every single day. I can also understand the secular population’s claims, and I’ve written many articles that include self-criticism. But when someone comes to me with a gun to the head, I’m not going to tell him he is right. Not even a gram. First, take the gun down. You’re trying to erase me off the map and I’m going to negotiate with you? Not a chance.”

Class D Citizens

The past two weeks have been characterized by a virtual civil war. The cry for an equal sharing of the military and work burden has been ramped up a notch and reached a pinnacle during the highly broadcast speech of the chairman of Yesh Atid. While the secular papers gave it full coverage, the chareidi response was more behind the scenes, far from the curious eyes of the general public. In order to get a fuller picture of the new situation, the three senior analysts of the chareidi media were asked to describe how the community is dealing with the changes in the government, the budgets, and the atmosphere in the streets and the Knesset.

Aryeh Zisman, married and a father of five, is a journalist and editor of [Hebrew-language] Yated Ne’eman. Menachem Gesheid, married and a father of two, is the senior analyst for [Hebrew-language] Hamodia. Eliezer Shulman, married and a father of three, is the editor of [Hebrew-language] Mishpacha. Due to technical constraints, the interview with each one was held separately, but just four election cycles ago, the three of them joined together for a joint battle that was led by the United Torah Judaism party, under the ominous slogan, “So that we can live here.” That slogan is very relevant today, Zisman says bitterly, perhaps even more so than in the past.

To such an extent?

Zisman: “I live in Haifa, a mixed city, and I come into contact with the secular public often, and I sense that things are not as they used to be. The harsh articles against chareidim penetrate, as do the inciting speeches and the influential headlines, and recently I find myself constantly taking an apologetic stance. The feeling is that we are being rejected, not because negotiations with Netanyahu failed, but because we are chareidim, class D citizens, parasites, not worthy of coming into contact with the public. When the Finance Ministry talks about economic decrees, the secular public sees only the chareidi cuts. All the rest is marginal. Lapid stands in Knesset and offers a flat joke: “You’re threatening a tax rebellion? Soon you’ll threaten us that you don’t want to enlist in the army.” And I’m telling you that among us, to my regret, there aren’t even 30 percent who learn Torah full time. Most of the chareidi public works hard for its income and pays taxes. Once, we had many more kollel avreichim. Today, the poverty forces even those who hold Torah  closest to their hearts to go out to work. And en route to work, I see in front of me a car with a bumper sticker “I support [financially] a chareidi.” I stop next to the driver, motion to him to roll down his window and shout at him, ‘What I pay in one month’s taxes you don’t earn in half a year.”

Stereotypes and Myths

“The secular person does not really know us,” notes Eliezer Shulman. “For years, he has been fed the old stereotypes and myths that the media or reporters for chareidi affairs have been feeding him about the chareidi public. The secular public knows nothing about me. Ask the average secular person what will happen if he goes into Meah Shearim and the answer will be, ‘They’ll throw stones at me.’ He sees me in the street and is sure that I have ten children, I sway before a sefer all day long and my wife visits the hospital once a year and comes back with a new baby. It’s very easy for the media to present the dark, extremist chareidi because that’s its nature. It’s so not correct.”

Perhaps it would be in place to honestly introspect as to why [the electorate choosing]19 mandates think that way?

Shulman: “On the private plane, when a chareidi sits down for a conversation with a secular person, in the end, two sentences always emerge: ‘If all the chareidim would talk like you things would be different,’ or, ‘My grandfather was also a rav.’ Our problem is the collective. All the individual understandings do not affect the chareidi sector as a sector. And I don’t only blame the secular public. I don’t think that there is one side here that is one hundred percent right or wrong. We don’t have a monopoly on chochmah, on justice or on the right way to act. But if Yair Lapid really wanted to challenge us, he should have said, ‘Rabbosai, I’m the senior partner here. I’m ready for you to sit in the government but I have some terms and conditions. For example, an across the board draft. For example, public transportation on Shabbos in certain places. You accept that, you can be partners. If you don’t, stay out of the coalition.’ But Lapid came and said, I don’t want you in the government, period. And from here we learned that he didn’t want us at all costs. Even if we agreed to draft yeshivah students, he’d demand that we travel on Shabbos. And if we traveled on Shabbos, he’d demand that we eat on Yom Kippur. Lapid wouldn’t bring chareidim into his coalition even if the world turned over. That is hatred.”

Lapid said of himself that he doesn’t hate chareidim, but rather the unfair sharing of the burden.

Shulman: “That’s what he said at first, when he was still able to envelop himself, largely successfully, in a lamb’s coat. But then the Tommy jumped out during that first Knesset speech. As far as we are concerned, this was the best news for us, because we were afraid it would happen much later. It’s easier to face off with someone who says ‘I hate you’ than to a person who says ‘I don’t hate you I just don’t want you in the coalition.’ I meet hundreds of secular people a week who really don’t think like Yesh Atid. Lapid represents a high class, bourgeois, small population in Ramat Hasharon and Ramat Aviv Gimmel. All the people who live up to Netanya and from Rechovot really don’t think like Lapid. The Sephardic community does not think like Lapid. Go to Kiryat Shemoneh. Who cares there what Lapid says? Does Ricky Cohen care what Lapid says?”

But the chareidim are very interested in what Lapid says. “The chareidi street feels under attack,” Shulman stresses. “We aren’t afraid for our lives, for our souls, but we are preparing for difficult days ahead. They’re going to annul the yeshivos ketanos law, cut the child allowances, the Chinuch Atzmai law, the dual tracks in the seminaries, the subsidization of day care for children of avreichim; the afternoon programs for those children—unless both parents are working. The discounts in arnona and funding for talmudei Torah. And in addition, schools that don’t teach core curriculum will lose 75 percent of their funding.

…There are currently 54,000 yeshivah ketanah students in Israel. The funding that the government is going to cut from them totals 500 shekels for each one. A secular student at this age gets free education. We have all of 64,000 avreichim in kollel, and all they get is a measly NIS 820 a month.”

Why should they get NIS 820 when a secular student pays double for his studies?

Shulman: “It’s very easy to attack the stipends for chareidim, but the figures at hand are very different. The secular student gets an entire cultural basket of benefits from the state, such as benefits for theater and soccer games, and academic education and discounts in areas that are irrelevant for chareidim. At the end of the day, the secular “avreich” gets much more.”

Working and Paying Taxes

The simmering fury against the kollel avreichim, who have chosen to stay in the tent of Torah, conceals the tremendous explosion of employment that has taken place in the chareidi community over the past decade. “I pray at one of the most pious shuls in Bnei Brak,” Gesheid said. “There are 140 chareidim there. Of them, 130 work, and the other ten are looking for work.”

“The tired slogans about parasitic chareidim are not relevant today,” Shulman explains. “In my estimate, 80 percent of the chareidim work, and even if there are families who have chosen to live a life of Torah, at least the wife works. The chareidi life cycle alone demands thousands of jobs: teachers, kindergarten teachers, babysitters, sofrim, rabbanim, dayanim, storeowners and business owners of goods and services that cater to chareidi areas. My child is taught by a chareidi teacher who pays income taxes and undergoes pedagogic courses and workshops that are also managed by chareidim. And there are hundreds of chadarim, staffed by chareidi teachers that pay income tax and National Insurance. The cost of living has jumped by such a large rate in the past decade that we all have to get used to it.”

The chareidi labor market is partial, most of it part time, that does not generate taxes.

Shulman: “There is a very famous accountants’ office in Jerusalem that offers women the option of going home during the afternoon hours to be there for their children and then to come back in the evening to make up the hours. A woman who chooses to work part time so she can be there for her children in the afternoon is a concept whose importance is recognized today in the whole world. And the salaries [in that office] are not low. They are generous. I’m not sure they exceed that of Ricky Cohen from Chadera, but they express a set of priorities. It is the right of a chareidi couple to choose the hours they want to work and to pay the price, just as it is their right not to go to a restaurant and to save the money to marry off their children…

Eliezer Shulman
Eliezer Shulman

It’s impossible to argue with facts. The National Bureau of Statistics shows that a majority of chareidim do not work, or worse, work illegally.

Gesheid: “We don’t want to work illegaly but the state is forcing us to do so because it conditions our going out to work on army service… I’m saying, let the chareidim go out to work [regardless] of their army service. You want to put the working person at the center of it all? Release this blockage that is causing them to work illegally.

Shulman thinks otherwise: “There isn’t a lot of off-the-books work because it doesn’t pay for the employers… If a worker slips on the floor and breaks his leg, the boss has to pay him compensation all his life.

The employment in the internal circles supports the community and not the general public.

Shulman: “The general public does not want us.

“When a chareidi or a secular candidate compete for the same position, even if the latter is less qualified, he will get the job… We are sectorial and it makes no difference how excellent we may be in our field. In recent years, the number of chareidim who have completed law studies is tremendous. Very few work in secular offices.”

Gesheid: “I earn a very nice living in the open market. I have no complaints. I earn a comfortable income and pay taxes commensurately. But I cannot even apply to be a tea server in a government office because I don’t have a basic requirement. I’m an intelligent person. In contrast to all those films that the secular public gorges itself on, I studied core curriculum subjects and passed the government tests for a rabbinical certification. If I would have studied harakiri in the University of Latvia [a foreign university that opened a branch in Israel and sold degrees in very questionable fashion, which the government later had to stop, but still recognizes the earlier ones.—Ed. Hamodia], they would recognize that as an academic degree. …People who study for half a year in some shady college—such as many senior officials in the police department who show off their degrees from the abovementioned institution—can attain senior public sector jobs… But anyone who studies Jewish studies and is tested by a government office cannot be accepted for a job without getting another academic accreditation.”

It is inconceivable that everyone should organize a personal study track that suits him and then demand that he be recognized academically.

Gesheid: “Chareidi academics don’t get work either. If a guy with a beard and black hat comes to an office, and he is being considered along with a resident of northern Tel Aviv, it is likely that the employer will select the secular candidate…. The solution is an understanding of the needs and the adjustment of the regulations accordingly. If you really want to worry about work for me, recognize my degree, and let me work even without army service. Chareidim have proven themselves at many different professions even without studying the core curriculum, and when necessary, we can quickly close the gaps, because the study of Gemara sharpens the mind. My child learns English, math and geography in the Gerrer school. When they scream ‘core curriculum,’ no one bothers to check the facts.”

Your son’s core curriculum studies finish after elementary school. When he gets to yeshivah he has no way of studying English, advanced mathematics or computer science, vital subjects for finding proper work.

Gesheid: “Why do people who want to work in government offices need to know English? Eighty percent of the employees in government offices today don’t know English. There are numerous MKs who don’t know how to conduct a basic conversation in English.”

And that’s okay with you?

Gesheid: “For most professions in the free market you don’t need English. Stop nagging about it.”

You encourage ignorance?

Gesheid: “I encourage change. Fifty years ago, some bored committee decided that English should be a conditional stipulation, and that’s how it’s been ever since. Does a real estate agent need to know English? A restaurant owner? A treasury clerk? For fifteen years, I’ve been working on a computer and I don’t need English. Matriculations in English are superfluous….”

Not Afraid to Die

Even if there is an apparent change regarding the work market, regarding army service, the chareidi stance is firm and uncompromising. “They’re always screaming about the Tal Law and the yeshivah bachurim that don’t serve in the army,” said Yaakov Litzman in a weekend interview when he served as Deputy Health Minister. “But according to the figures, there are more secular draft dodgers than chareidi ones. When they want to generate an outcry, they look for us.”

Gesheid: “The chances of a chareidi father sending his son to the army at the age of 18 and getting him back after three years exactly as he sent him are about zero…. I can understand the piercing debate about the issue of the draft, and it’s hard for me to explain to the secular population to what extent the existence of Torah in this context is significant and existential. The claim of the secular person that there’s a difference between blood and blood is not completely illogical, from his point of view. I think that it’s a difficult issue that has not been resolved for 60 years, and is not likely to be resolved in the near future, certainly not by coercion.”

The army does not want draftees who do not see any value in the army service. But why not obligate the chareidim to do national service?

Gesheid: “Tens of thousands of chareidim currently perform national service in Zaka, Ezer Mitzion, Ezra Lemarpeh, Hatzolah and more, but the state doesn’t want to recognize them officially, because if the tremendous volunteerism in the chareidi sector would be official, Yair Lapid would get less mandates. There are people for whom the chareidi sector is the platform on which they can ride to the Knesset. For the past 13 years, not three, I take my own car, fill it up with gas on my account, and each Tuesday, I serve as Rabbi Firer’s driver from morning to night. I don’t work [that day], don’t get paid [that day], just provide service that is 90 percent for the secular public. I pay NIS 1,200 a month from my own pocket for this volunteer work, and there are many other chareidim like me who are performing similar types of national service. Does anyone hear about that in the slogans about draft evasion?”

“There will be no forcible draft, and being that the Finance Minister has forty billion shekels of debt, he will find it hard to build prisons to incarcerate the entire chareidi public.

Aryeh Zisman
Aryeh Zisman

There’s a little difference: Army service, in contrast to volunteerism, endangers lives.

Gesheid: “Do you think we’re afraid to die? We have a mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem, one should be killed and not transgress certain sins, and it has proven itself over the generations. We truly believe that learning Torah guards us and will protect us no less than IDF soldiers.”

An End to the Gevaldt

In the piercing debate about the draft dodging, while justifying it with ideological motivations, there may be a serious struggle, but there is no soul-searching. “The only soul-searching is how we allowed the incitement against us to go so public, and we didn’t succeed in explaining our stance in a positive, articulate manner,” Zisman says regretfully.

What is your part in the solution to the problem?

Zisman: “The public status quo must be preserved because we are a Jewish State, otherwise there is no justification for our existence here. But on the private level, let each person do what he thinks.”

Shulman: “I can say a thousand times that Lapid is to blame and the government is to blame, but after everyone else is guilty, I am also to blame somehow. Because of in the eyes of the secular person I am a bloodsucking parasite that sits on his shoulders all day… Apparently I erred somewhere, otherwise I wouldn’t have this image. The question is why we have reached this situation. My soul-searching is that I didn’t explain myself well enough, and instead of being busy with hasbarah, I shut myself in. I am proud of that insulation, because it helps me raise my family in accordance with my faith, but I should have taken good, secular public relations firms to bring out our real story in the best possible way.

The time of screaming gevaldt is over. That’s not what we’re there for. The minute I explain myself, they’ll begin to understand what I’m talking about.”

And what about taking responsibility? Because what you’re saying is that the chareidi side hasn’t made any mistakes, but the secular people don’t know it, because the chareidi didn’t explain themselves well enough.

Shulman: “I am against drafting yeshivah students, not because I’m a parasite, but because the draft is a collision with my soul, my life. The minute I explain that the lack of core curriculum studies in yeshivos does not prevent me from going out to work later, perhaps the secular people will understand that this is my choice and will respect it. I raise my child to be a Torah giant. Not everyone will emerge Torah giants in the end, but if I begin with core curriculum at a young age, I’m guiding him toward mediocrity from the start. If my direction is that my child will be Rav Elyashiv, the core curriculum might divert him to another direction. For a secular person, who sanctifies a career as his life’s goal, it’s hard to accept this. He doesn’t understand how the Torah is my elixir of life, the liquid from which I derive my life, the model according to which I do everything; even tying my right shoelace first is according to Torah. My entire path in life is built on Torah and halachah. And no one obligates me to this. It’s not an axiom. G-d Himself sent me to check and ask and reach the right answers.

“Somewhere, I expect the secular person also not to accept me as an axiom, and certainly not as a cliché or stereotype. I say, check me out. Ask me. I’m not always against you. And sometimes, even if it’s not quite clear to you, we’re on the same side. And what can we do, we’ve both been destined to live under the same roof, the same sky

Reprinted with permission from Maariv newspaper, courtesy of Elad Tene, Editor.