I was disturbed this morning by a BBC news report on the behaviour of ultra-orthodox Jews, or Haredim, in Israel. Of course I don’t trust everything I hear on the BBC, and I discount for its instinctive anti-Israeli bias. But a quick check of Google shows similar stories elsewhere, and they seem to be credible.
I have always been an instinctive, though not uncritical, supporter of Israel. We in the UK have a certain historic responsibility for the existence of the State of Israel. The country is an oasis of freedom and democracy in a region otherwise controlled by despotic governments, and it remains to be seen whether the “Arab Spring” will make any long-term difference. On that basis alone, Israel deserves our support. But the BBC report this morning tends to undermine that positive view.
I should perhaps add that I went to Jerusalem earlier this year, and visited the Holy Sites. On that visit, I heard to my surprise that there were large numbers in Israel of ultra-orthodox Jews who don’t work, but spend all their time studying the Torah, and contemplating the numinous and the ineffable.
These Haredim, as they are known, amount to some half million or more in Israel, from a total population of around 7.5 million — a significant minority. And it is reported that 60% of Haredi men choose not to work, as a result of which 55% of them are below the poverty line. Women can work, but only under very limited and restrictive conditions.
I find this astonishing. Most religions seem to expect that the “good life” entails contributing in some way to society, and seeking as far as possible to provide for one’s family. Perhaps if these Haredim spent a little more time on the book of Exodus, they would read in the Ten Commandments: “Six days shalt thou labour and do all thy work”. Somehow I don’t think that study and contemplation would have fulfilled Moses’ idea of “work”. Saint Paul, who of course was a zealous and observant Jew before he converted to Christianity, wrote: “Neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you” (2 Thessalonians 3:8).
Choosing to live on welfare, leaving your family in poverty, so that you can spend all your time pursuing your personal interests, seems to me the height of irresponsibility and selfishness. It is no different, in principle, from the British layabout who spends all day on the sofa watching television with cans of lager and a packet of crisps. Both have rejected work, and elected to live on benefits as a lifestyle choice. They are parasites on society and a dead-weight on the economy.
I applaud the efforts here at home of Iain Duncan Smith to limit welfare benefits for the able-bodied to those who are genuinely looking for work, and to ensure that idleness is no longer available as a lifestyle choice. If I were a parliamentarian in the Knesset, rather than the European parliament, I should be seeking to bring in similar measures to ensure that a life on welfare, for whatever reason, ceased to be available. Religion is no excuse.
But it gets worse. According to reports, some of these Haredim are harassing and persecuting other pious and observant Jews, simply because they fail to live up to the extremist standards embraced by the ultra-orthodox. This applies, for example, to women whose dress is insufficiently “modest” for ultra-orthodox tastes.
Of course we believe in freedom of religion, and if you want to wear religious dress, that’s fine with me (leaving aside the question of veils in public). But it’s not fine to seek to impose those same standards, by violence and intimidation, on others who interpret the rules differently. The parallels with Muslim extremists and the Taliban are all too clear.
Israel’s international legitimacy depends on its status as a free, liberal and democratic country. The rise of an ultra-orthodox Jewish Taliban, seeking to enforce extreme religious observance through harassment, violence and intimidation, undermines that legitimacy, just as the non-working ethos of the Haredim tends to undermine the Israeli economy.