Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators confront police in Jerusalem on May 16, 2013, after gathering to protest against newly proposed government legislation that would see them drafted into the military. (Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

There’s an oft-repeated story of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, paying a visit in the 1940s to Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, known as the Chazon Ish, a prominent Haredi rabbi living in Bnei Brak. The Chazon Ish, it is said, took off his glasses so he wouldn’t have to properly see the socialist interloper, after which they got down to the business of figuring out what the role of the ultra-Orthodox would be in the new Jewish state.

The Chazon Ish quoted a story from the Talmud to make his point. When two wagons (or camels, in another version of the story) meet on a narrow mountain pass, who shall give way—the “full” wagon laden with goods, or the “empty” wagon? The rabbi’s point couldn’t have been clearer: He expected the “empty” wagon of secular society to defer to the “full” wagon of a religious tradition spanning millennia.

As is well-known, Ben-Gurion granted the small ultra-Orthodox community in Israel an exemption from army service in order to rehabilitate the Haredi “community of scholars” of Eastern Europe wiped out during the Holocaust. Ben-Gurion, it’s believed, predicted that the ultra-Orthodox community would slowly disappear anyway, melding into the assertively modern Zionist project. The opposite, however, has happened. This “community of scholars” numbered 400 in 1949. Today the figure for exemptions among army-age ultra-Orthodox men is estimated at 50,000.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid and many other Israeli politicians are now intent on reversing Ben-Gurion’s edict, spurred on by a Supreme Court ruling early last year that declared the Haredi draft exemption unconstitutional. Many of Lapid’s campaign slogans, like “Equal Service for Everyone,” squarely targeted Haredi Jews, who comprise 10 percent of the Israeli population, about 800,000 people, and 15 percent of the Israeli Jewish public. In mid-April, in his first speech as finance minister, the charismatic but untried politician entered into a heated exchange from the Knesset podium with the ultra-Orthodox caucus. “You’re pushing yourself into a corner,” Lapid said. “No one hates you. The only thing that happened is that you’re not in the [governing] coalition. It’s called democracy. … I don’t receive orders from you anymore, and the state doesn’t take orders from you anymore. We’re done taking orders from you.”

But with a birth rate of almost 6 percent, more than double the secular Israeli average, Haredi Jews will likely make up a third of the entire Israeli Jewish population within the next 20 years and an even greater percentage of those entering the army and the workforce. Given the economic and social benefits the Haredis currently receive, and the very real burden placed on the Israeli middle class (financially, militarily), the status quo is widely seen as unsustainable.

The burning question is how the ultra-Orthodox will react to the changes that secular politicians like Lapid are currently proposing. According to David Saada, a local community representative in Bnai Brak, the cuts in funding and subsidies that Lapid has proposed would be a blow, but, as he put it, “we’ve overcome a lot worse.” Lapid’s additional plan, to institute basic educational requirements—math, English—in Haredi schools so as to prepare ultra-Orthodox children for the modern workforce, would be resisted. “We’re not willing to give up even one minute of [Torah] study,” David said. “And who exactly decides which part of the tradition and the Torah you give up?”

The biggest issue for Saada was the notion that a law would pass requiring ultra-Orthodox boys to join the army. What if the community refused? What would happen if the authorities started arresting Haredi draft dodgers? As unlikely as this scenario was, I heard from several people in Bnei Brak that any arrests would be viewed as “a red line” by the community at large. They would, as Saada put it, “defend the Torah.” What this meant in practice was unclear, and when pressed, all Saada would say is that “we’ll do whatever Rabbi Shteinman says.”

The Shteinman in question is Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the 98-year-old leader of the Lithuanian Haredi movement, a scholar of great intellect, and an authority on Jewish law. He is viewed as the “greatest of his generation” (Gadol HaDor), a spiritual guide to the faithful. I was told that even prominent Sephardic and Hasidic rabbis came to him for counsel. Most days, long lines snake out of his small apartment in central Bnei Brak, with people from all over the world seeking an audience on matters large (billion-dollar real-estate deals) and small (relationship advice). He is also a key figure who will dictate whether the entire “equality in sharing the burden” (shivyon ba’netel) issue will be resolved peacefully, via compromise, or whether mass popular unrest is now in the in the offing.


Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman at home in Bnei Brak, 2011
Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman at home in Bnei Brak, 2011. (US Embassy Tel Aviv/Flickr)

Rabbi Shteinman’s apartment is located on the ground floor of an old concrete housing block set a few steps up from a busy main road. There is no sign in the apartment entryway and mailbox, nor on the front door, announcing that you’ve arrived at the home of one of Israel’s most powerful men. One utterance from him and tens of thousands would take to the streets without a moment’s hesitation.

Yet the words “modest” or “humble” don’t do justice to the utter asceticism of the rabbi’s digs. Entering the apartment is like a time warp to an Israel of 60 years ago, which is the length of time the rabbi had been living there. The interior, dark and unpainted, was lined with bookshelves containing weathered leather-bound religious texts. Near the front of the apartment was a larger room for meetings and prayers, while to the side was a small bathroom and a simple kitchen. The only allowance for modernity was a laptop sitting on the kitchen counter, where an assistant transcribed the rabbi’s teachings. In the back of the apartment were two narrow bedrooms, each outfitted with two plain metal bed frames: One room was for the rabbi, the other for his assistant.

When I visited, in the late afternoon, I was told that the rabbi was sleeping, but through a crack in his bedroom door I could see Shteinman—at most 4 feet tall, frail, with a prominent nose and haggard white hair that long ago, perhaps, had been blond—propped up on his bed, studying. Despite some hearing and eyesight loss, Shteinman was a marvel of human biology: a man nearing the century figure whose mind was as sharp as a steel trap. I was told he could still summon the details of long-ago conversations and two years before had even made a successful trip to Europe and Latin America. It was, my hosts informed me, “all because of the Torah. The spirit of God moves through him.” At one point the rabbi got up to use the bathroom, after which his assistant, Rabbi Shub, warmed milk on the stove along with what looked like a broth of some kind. “Dinner,” Shub said, as he brought the two glasses into Shteinman’s room.

Rabbi Shub, a short middle-aged man with a bushy black beard, had begun studying under Shteinman when he was a teenager. Back then Shub helped out with the crowds that came to see the great man, but even after Shub himself became a rabbi, he remained one of Shteinman’s closest assistants. Shub was a serious and reticent man, pausing often to consider his answers to my questions. While Shteinman never grants interviews, I found out later that Shub rarely even allows the Haredi press to interview him, let alone a secular journalist working for a foreign outlet.

Standing in the hallway outside Shteinman’s bedroom, speaking to one of his lieutenants, I could tell that the Haredi leadership understood well the immense stakes involved in the “equality in sharing the burden” crisis; my presence there alone indicated how eager they were to get their own message out to the wider world. “There is a certain amount of tension right now,” Shub said in answer to the question about whether he—and by extension Shteinman—was optimistic or pessimistic about what was to come. Their biggest grievance was with Yair Lapid and what they saw as “the hate” directed at the Haredi community. “He’s not even willing to sit with us and discuss the issue. He came out immediately and said he wasn’t willing to sit in the same government as the Haredis.” The new coalition government, formed a few weeks prior to my visit, was indeed established with the express purpose of excluding the Haredi political parties—the Sephardic “Shas” and the Ashkenazi “United Torah Judaism”—a feat achieved only once in the last 30 years.

The major issue, I proposed, was the lack of dialogue and trust between the secular and religious worlds. Why, in Shub’s mind, did the majority of secular Israelis view the ultra-Orthodox as “uncaring” toward the fate of the country, even “anti-Zionist”?

Shub pointed an accusing finger at the media. “You see individual [ultra-Orthodox] guys being interviewed on the street and saying all kinds of things. That’s a small portion of the community that’s not representative. You have small groups that are ‘anti-State,’ but if you look at those demonstrations, how many people are there really?” It was an interesting response rarely heard in, and from, the ultra-Orthodox world. Shub was at pains to show that the portrayal of his community in the media was distorted; that, by extension, the perception of many Israelis toward the ultra-Orthodox was distorted.

This being the case, what did Shub want the outside world to understand about the ultra-Orthodox, especially as it related to the issue of army service?

“Everyone has a role,” Shub posited. “You have the artillery corps, the infantry corps, the air force …  and the Torah corps.” It was a popular sentiment among the Haredis: this notion that through prayer, the ultra-Orthodox were protecting the Jewish state just as much as any number of tanks and F-16s. David Saada took this idea further, telling me that before each war the chief of staff of the Israeli army came to the rabbis, requesting they pray for a successful outcome. (This was, unfortunately, impossible to verify, although the mixed nature of Israel’s recent military campaigns casts doubt on the utility of prayer in matters of war and peace.)


The Haredis I met in Bnei Brak were, without exception, thoughtful and practical men, insofar as they understood the reality of life outside of the ultra-Orthodox world. They weren’t disconnected from the wider national discourse; the problem remains actual physical integration, whether in the army or workforce. The ultra-Orthodox simply have differing priorities. I was told more than once that every Haredi mother wants her son to grow up to be, not a doctor or lawyer or high-tech entrepreneur, but an esteemed rabbi and head of a yeshiva.

Shteinman himself was held up as the classic example. Long ago in the “old country,” Lithuania, the teenage Shteinman was a bit of a rabble-rouser. When he was on the verge of being kicked out of his yeshiva, only the intervention of his uncle secured him a second chance. The “spirit of God,” apparently, had taken care of the rest.

“Who is going to be the next Shteinman?” David Saada asked me with a smile when we left the rabbi’s apartment. “None of us has any idea. You have to give everyone a chance and not force them away from their studies.”

The altruistic protestations of Shteinman’s court notwithstanding, they were complicit as well in the lack of dialogue and trust between the secular and religious worlds. “A government of evil and hate,” one Haredi newspaper announced early on. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual godfather of the Shas party, called Lapid a “demon king,” and stated that the possibility of drafting yeshiva students “saddens me more than the death of my own son.” One ultra-Orthodox media organ even floated the idea of creating “autonomous zones” for religious Israelis, so that the writ of the “corrupt” secular state could be defended against. “[The state] doesn’t hurt terrorists like [Lapid’s] Yesh Atid party and the [pro-setter] Jewish Home party want to hurt the Torah students,” said one prominent Haredi member of Knesset, implausibly.

Such rhetoric, and Lapid’s wildly popular insistence to return fire on behalf of his vast (secular) constituency, has done nothing to bring the two sides closer. A commission chaired by a minister from Lapid’s party in early June put forward guidelines regarding a future bill on the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox. Debate is set to start in the Knesset later this month. Final passage is tentatively scheduled for early August. The ultra-Orthodox themselves weren’t represented in the commission, a result of a similar reform initiative failing spectacularly last summer in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling.

The plans being floated publicly, however, aren’t overly ambitious. The reforms are set to take place, not immediately, but gradually over a 3-to-5-year time period. A large-scale release from military service will likely be given to current Haredi 20-somethings, who would then be able to enter the workforce freely. In future, with approximately 7,000 to 9,000 ultra-Orthodox boys reaching the age of conscription every year, the goal would be to have about 50 percent of them serve, with approximately 2,000 every year retaining their exemptions for Torah study.

Many enlistees would likely undertake a form of “national service,” either in the emergency services, national police, or prison system—that is, conscripted soldiers who serve off-base in civilian posts. In addition, there is already an army combat unit in place, the Nahal Haredi battalion, geared for the ultra-Orthodox: special kosher meals and other religious exemptions, and absolutely no females. While there is debate over whether the men in the unit are “real” Haredis, there are plans in place to raise another battalion, and perhaps two. Finally, plans are being mooted for a more “technical” military service for the ultra-Orthodox—in the navy or intelligence branches, as computer programmers, electronics specialists, and the like. The biggest obstacle for such service is that army bases aren’t segregated, and women abound. But this pathway holds the appeal of professional training and the incentive of real work after release from the army. Failure to meet the quotas set for ultra-Orthodox army service will, according to press speculation, likely bring about both personal and collective penalties (i.e., to the draft dodger himself and his yeshiva). What this would mean, and how far-reaching the penalties, remains a major sticking point of the proposed plan.

Yet the ultra-Orthodox, for the most part, don’t seem interested in the proposals currently being floated by secular politicians. In mid-May, a demonstration took place in central Jerusalem outside the main army conscription office. An estimated 30,000 ultra-Orthodox men took part, and events quickly spiraled out of control. Rioters threw rocks at security personnel and lit trash cans on fire; nearly a dozen police officers and demonstrators were injured, and several arrests were made. It was seen as the opening gambit in what could be a summer of serious internal unrest.

The most interesting aspect of the demonstration, however, was the fact that it was organized by an extremist, Jerusalem-based faction of the Lithuanian Haredi movement. Rabbi Shteinman and his moderate faction, which greatly outnumbers the extremists, refused to participate. It seemed that, despite the rhetoric, there was still some hope of striking a peaceful compromise.

Israel’s political class is hoping that the difficult socioeconomic conditions of the Haredi community will be the prime motivator for the necessary changes. “The No. 1 daily problem—not talking about the coming of the Messiah—but day-to-day problem for the Haredis, is making a living,” Brig. Gen. (ret.) Meir Elran, one of Israel’s foremost experts on military-social affairs, told me recently. “They need to see that at the end of the process they’ll be able to make a living. It’ll be the only thing that convinces them—they don’t care about the army, or Zionism, or the state. They care about making a living, honorably.”

The idea is to use ultra-Orthodox army service as an “accelerator,” in Elran’s words, for larger social changes and, in future, integration. Vocational and professional training will be crucial, he added, as will the changes Lapid intends to make in the Haredi school curriculum. Elran doesn’t mince any words: The costs to the state will be massive, whether via the government-sponsored training programs or via the building of a new army conscription base specifically for the ultra-Orthodox. Not without reason do people like David Saada say that conscripting the ultra-Orthodox would cost the state more money than cutting the funding to the yeshivas. But the objective is for long-term and far-reaching change, not a quick budget fix or transitory political victory.

“The State of Israel knows how to invest a lot of money in places she thinks are important,” Elran said. “I’m not going to give you an example that’s political, like the settlements. I’ll give you an example that’s more in the national consensus, the aliyah [in the early 1990s] from the former Soviet Union—1 million people. In order to create the situation that we have today, the state had to invest a lot of money, in their absorption, in training and education, in the bureaucratic processes. There’s no doubt that 20 years later it’s paid off. Here too [with the ultra-Orthodox] there’s an issue of immigration. It’s internal immigration, a mental immigration, [leading to a] social and economic transformation.”

Will the ultra-Orthodox community respond positively to changes that the rest of the country deems not only important but essential to the survival of the state? No one quite knows yet. As one Haredi journalist I spoke with in Bnei Brak told me, “There will either be a grand compromise, or a grand explosion.”


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.