Could Divisive New Israeli Military-Draft Laws Lead to an Ultra-Orthodox Intifada?
As Israel debates conscription for Haredi Jews, one rabbi may decide whether the community peacefully integrates
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 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.
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