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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Haredim also have a birthright

My uncle Avigdor, a respected rabbi who lives in New Jersey, fathered 11 sons. All went on to high-level Torah study. They could have studied close to home, at America’s prestigious Lakewood Yeshiva, but instead they took the Zionist step of coming to learn in the Brisk and Mir yeshivas in Jerusalem.

Had they come to Israel on a fun-filled Taglit-Birthright trip, my cousins would have been heartily embraced: Young American Jews who have chosen to learn about their roots in Israel, connect to Zionism and then return to the United States as loyal Israeli ambassadors who will put political pressure on Secretary of State John Kerry at the right moment. Had they come via Taglit-Birthright, they would also have received generous government funding. In 2012, the state spent NIS 119 million to subsidize this project.

Nor is Birthright the only project bringing Diaspora Jews here that is funded by the state. Last week, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry signed a contract with the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project to bring 1,200 women to Israel on an eight-day trip. The condition for participation is simple: They must be women who don’t observe Shabbat. The idea is that these women will tour the country, imbibe Jewish values and inculcate them in their children overseas. The cost to the taxpayer: NIS 3 million.

The state also funds Masa, a Jewish Agency project that finances year-long study programs in Israel. Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu honored project participants with his presence. They, of course, don’t pay taxes in Israel, but abroad. The 2013 budget allocates NIS 31 million to fund this hobby.

But my cousins didn’t choose to come to Israel via these programs. They came to study Torah. And therefore, in the eyes of Finance Minister Yair Lapid, they’re of no account. As part of the broader cuts to yeshiva budgets, the minister boasted, funding for yeshiva students from overseas will be canceled. After pressure was applied, an agreement was reached under which funding would continue, but only if the students participate in Zionist activities like touring Israel Defense Forces bases. That agreement has yet to take effect.

Lapid’s main victim is the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. This yeshiva is a flourishing Zionist enterprise: It moved from Europe to Japan during World War II, before being rebuilt in Jerusalem. Some 6,000 students study there, a sizable majority of them from overseas. They live in the yeshiva dormitories or rent apartments in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood. Thanks to this experience, some later immigrate to Israel.

Even before the budget cuts, funding for a yeshiva student from abroad amounted to only two-thirds of the sum allotted an Israeli student. In 2012, the yeshiva received NIS 43 million from the state. Now, it will receive only a few million. The Mir Yeshiva, unlike the Jewish Agency, has no executives earning inflated salaries and it does not hold extravaganzas at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center. It makes ends meet only with difficulty, and now, this difficulty will increase. Thus to survive, it has embarked on a fund-raising campaign overseas.

When he entered politics, Lapid declared that he doesn’t hate the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox). It may be true that he doesn’t hate them, but it’s clear that he also doesn’t understand, and has never bothered to try to understand, the justification for the existence of Haredi culture. Lapid doesn’t understand why Israel should finance the yeshiva studies of a teenager from New Jersey, but he wouldn’t dare raise the same question about participants in Taglit-Birthright and its ilk. He ignores the fact that for these young men, studying at a yeshiva in Israel is an important value that reflects their connection to the state.

If the state doesn’t want to fund people who aren’t its citizens, that’s fine. There will always be a Sheldon Adelson to do so in its stead. But as long as it’s giving money to secular Jews from abroad, the Haredim deserve it, too.

By Chaim Levinson *

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