Rabbi Leigh Lerner’s new book, The Mossad Messiah: A Novel of Israel, envisions a country in the not-too-distant future that is dominated by the ultra-Orthodox.
Rabbi Lerner hopes the thriller will sound the alarm on what he views as the ever-growing influence of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities on government social policy and the very nature of the Jewish state.
He was hosted by the Azrieli Institute of Israel Studies at Concordia University in Montreal on Jan. 18, when he spoke about “The Ultra-Orthodox and Us.”
After serving as the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom in Montreal for 23 years, Rabbi Lerner thinks the ultra-Orthodox are a threat to democracy and contribute little to the country, militarily or economically. He charges that they are a drain on society, as so many of them are being supported by the government.
Forty-five per cent of ultra-Orthodox men are unemployed, compared to 14 per cent nationally, Rabbi Lerner said. That’s because the yeshivot they train in do not provide them with a secular education, or other skills, such as manual labour, that would be useful in the job market, he said.
The problem, in his opinion, is not only that the rabbinate controls civil matters, such as marriage and education, as per the 1947 agreement the Agudat Israel political party made with former prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Today’s ultra-Orthodox leaders are eroding the human rights of all Israelis “bit by bit,” he said.
Rabbi Lerner cited a recent Pew survey, which found that 89 per cent of haredim want Israel to be governed by halakhah, or Jewish law, and that 83 per cent are against compulsory army service. Most of these communities are also anti-Zionist and some are cult-like, he added.
Another statistic Rabbi Lerner offered is that 108,000 Israelis were exempted from the draft in 2015, up from 40,000 a decade earlier.
The suspense in his self-published work of “predictive fiction” is “the race to neutralize Israel’s ultra-Orthodox future,” according to the book’s website.
Due to Israel’s proportional electoral system, the ultra-Orthodox pack a political punch well above their weight, he said. There are about 750,000 ultra-Orthodox in Israel today, but with a projected annual growth rate of five per cent, that number will double in 15 years, and they could constitute the majority by mid-century, he said
Rabbi Lerner has been committed to securing the rights of non-Orthodox Jews in Israel throughout his 45-year rabbinical career. This has meant going as far as the Supreme Court – with varying results.
With Benjamin Netanyahu as prime minister, the situation has deteriorated, as more and more compromises are made with ultra-Orthodox parties in the coalition, he said. These parties now control key cabinet posts, such as the interior and health ministries, he noted.
It’s conceivable that within as little as 10 years, parties representing ultra-Orthodox interests could have a majority in the Knesset, said Rabbi Lerner.
He hopes that his fast-paced story will open people’s eyes to what is happening in Israel.
The Mossad Messiah begins with the Mossad and Shin Bet warning the prime minister of an impending “human rights nightmare,” due to the rapid growth of the ultra-Orthodox, who could soon control the parliament.
The security agencies covertly recruit the secret scion of a hasidic dynasty, the descendant of an illegitimate child born generations earlier in Europe, as a result of a hidden affair. The sect, whose leader is now childless, discovers the unexpected heir. What they don’t know is that he is actually a secular Israeli acting as a mole for the Mossad.
Rabbi Lerner urged non-Orthodox Canadian Jews to support NGOs, such as the Israel Religious Action Centre and the International Federation of Reform and Progressive Religious Jews, as well as the Zionist groups Arza (Reform) and Mercaz (Conservative), which are part of the World Zionist Congress.
All concerned North American Jews, he believes, should ask their local federation where their campaign dollars are going, specifically whether any money is supporting yeshivot whose students evade the draft and don’t work.