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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

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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)
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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.

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The Wifely Person says:

If they don’t want to serve, if they don’t want to participate in the existence of the State of Israel; if they want to reap all the benefits (welfare, housing subsidies, chupat holim, etc) of that state but _do not_ want to contribute, they should go elsewhere. Maybe they should all move to Samaria to become part of that new nation where the secular Israelis won’t pollute them.

If they _refuse_ to contribute to the health and welfare of all of Israel and continue to denigrate the nation, incite violent hatred against other Israelis (Jews and non-Jews alike) , and do everything possible to undermine the very existence of the state, then they should not benefit from those programs. They should figure out a way how to support themselves.

But most of all, they should leave.

M Wakumota Greenberg says:

Right on! I would suggest sending them to Syria, but that might be considered cruel, although who knows? They might find a common language with the religious there. As a woman who was raised in a religious Yemenite household said to me, “The shame is that they cause people to hate Judaism, and there are a lot of beautiful aspects to Judaism.” Not to mention that, in general, they are parasites living off the State’s welfare while undermining democracy.

David Eliezrie says:

As the article states this is a difficult issue and very contentious. While the article thoughtful, the headline is outrageous. Judaism is a religion of peace, to even compare it subjectively to the violent culture that supports intifadas and terror is disingenuous and inflammatory. To compare the occasional violence of a few, that have been time and again condemned by the religious leadership, as a even a remote chance of an Intifada is unethical journalism.

I would suggest to the writer to change the headline, or if it is a product of the the editors of Tablet (most headlines are from the editors) demand they change it. Regular readers of Tablet are cognizant of the political views of the editors that reflect a liberal bias. Still one would hope they would transcend their own prejudice to act with some degree of ethics and responsibility. . Failing to do change this headline undermines the integrity of otherwise a good and thoughtful piece of writing about serious issue.

jankel says:

Haredi don’t want to defend their lives and Nation but are ready to Kill Jews for that?

That is what does mean a Civil War : citizen of the same People and Country killing

each other.

zyggy says:

Doesnt in the Torah, state the All battles of Moses , Yoshua, etc etc.. The machabeans, ! Wernt they Called into defense of Israel?
Doesnt Torah say ” with the sweat of youre forefront” or the plowing while having a sword in the other hand”
Free auto sustentable Individuals, working Phisicalky for theire own dayly needs, and CIVIL service for the subsistence of a Jewish state!,!,as did David and Samson Aguibor!, why not?.
Acting fanatically as do the cousins, is negating the G-D guiven faculty to self realization!, and subsistence?.
Nothing comes FREE… And Manah rained from heaven, not from the others work!

Stuart Rosenthal says:

At the very least, Mr. Lapid and R’ Shteinman should meet, continuously, and have a serious conversation leading to a peaceful and constructive resolution to the problem. The fact That Rabbi Shteinman’s group did not participate in the violent rally mentioned above is a hopeful sign.

brynababy says:

You are right!

But the danger from the Haredi’s is real. If 30,000 of them demonstrate and burn tires, 60,000 secular Israelis can respond. That could bring more serious and immediate changes for the Haredis. They should think carefully before they act!

Jacob Arnon says:

Orthodox intifada? What would mean? Threatening Jewish women?

Argaman says:

One thing that disturbs me about this whole discussion is that it is only about haredi men, and getting them technical education and into the workforce. What about haredi women, many of whom already work, and some of whom are already receiving advanced education that will enable them to get higher paying jobs? This whole scheme relates only to the men, as if there were only men in the Haredi world who need to be coaxed into the army and the workforce.

Geoffrey Rogg says:

A long overdue reform of the exemption is unavoidable. If Rab Shteinman is a true sage he will agree with the fundamental law that over-rides all others that is the most important thing is to save life. If the situation is not changed the economy of the State will face collapse which it itself be the worst threat to Jewish survival since the Nazi Holocaust and one for which he would bear full responsibility.

FlaGuy954 says:

Simple…Eliminate any and all government subsidies to those who refuse to serve. If they create their own intifada, they should be arrested and treated the same way the Arabs were.

From the article it seems like both sides are being reasonable in coming to an agreement.

The title sensationalizes the issue a little, but I guess people love to get riled up.

I think it’s important to note that the demonstrations which have occurred have been organized by more extremist elements,

and Shteinman has declined to participate.

I also think it’s important that the integration is a positive thing for Israeli society, that the charedim can contribute more

instead of taking, improve their own living conditions, and still remain chareidi. I think the opposition to integration in

the chareidi community stems primarily from fear of assimilation. And whether or not you think they should assimilate

more, they can’t be forced to assimilate, and they are not going to make a contribution if they feel like they are being

coerced to not being chareidi. So I think that allowance needs to be made and that Lapid and others are offering it.

Daniel Bukingolts says:

Not only did they not participate or encourage the one in Israel, but they also discouraged attendance of the one in NY also!

Daniel Bukingolts says:

I encourage all those who are calling chareidim “leeches” etc to never partake of ANY charity or chesed organization in Israel and many in NY considering most if not ALL especially in Israel are run by those same leeches!!

Stuart Rosenthal says:

Great news! We need level-headed and rational people to resolve this problem. Loox like Rabbi Shteynman fits the bill

jongnagy says:

Liberal columnist Nicholas D. Kristoff of the NY
Times wrote, “The freedom to be an imbecile is one of our core values.”

I hate to say this but I believe many of those who do not wish Charedim to be exempt from compulsory army service to pursue religious studies may have joined Mr. Kristoff’s club.

In the Art Scroll Bible, Isaac blessed his two sons,
Jacob and Esau. He blesses “Jacob with the higher calling of Torah scholarship
and spiritual ascendancy, and Esau with material success that he would use to
support and assist Jacob.” Esau didn’t do his job but Jacob’s children Isaachar
and Zebulun did with the latter undertaking and engaging in commerce with great
success granted him by God. Similarly (before the Renaissance) the brilliant
Torah scholar Maimonides was fully supported by his brother until his brother’s
death at sea.

A soldier does not fight a battle with just a rifle
in his hands and hand grenades attached to his belt. He fights with a group of
men who in turn are supported by airplanes, helicopters, drones, tanks,
cannons, howitzers, anti-aircraft missiles and other armament. Possibly
hundreds of miles away there are many more supporters who do not fight at the
front but are just as necessary; ammunition supplier, cooks who prepare their
portable ready-to-eat meals, boot makers, uniform suppliers, etc.

With this knowledge of thousands backing him a soldier has full confidence of his success in battle. That bravery helps assure victory on the battlefield.

Just as important—and more so—a secular or religious soldier’s spirit depends on the worldwide Charedim community whose merit in prayers, learning Talmud, and strict adherence to God’s law his life may hang on.

It is a self-defeating purpose for the Israeli government to force the Charedim into army service. The backbone of belief in them holds the future of any success just as it did in the past 60 years in Israel and as it has done since Judaism came into being.

It is a major flaw in believing that taking Charedim out of their yeshivas will aid the army as it is in allowing easy victory to the enemies of Israel.

jongnagy says:

i guess learning and prayer to protect the state of Israel from its enemies—including some non-religious Jews—is not helping much.

The miracles of 1948, 1967, 1973 mean nothing without the spiritual help from God. This does not come without a price. They are called Charedim.

Charedim never left. They have been there for thousands of years providing hope when other Jews gave up hope of ever returning.

BTW How come Israel does not think twice about supporting its national theater, symphony orchestra, sports stadiums, etc. Where is the spiritual benefit from these areas?

jongnagy says:

The assimilationist, secular jews cause hatred.

Remember Germany?
Remember Russia?
Remember Europe?
Remember the Middle East?


jongnagy says:

You should think, period.

jongnagy says:

What planet are you from?

jongnagy says:

“…who refuse to serve.”


Let’s start with the orphans, widows and old people first!

M Wakumota Greenberg says:

Ludicrous. Simply ludicrous, and shows a misunderstanding of situation in Israel by comparing it with other countries. The haredim are in their own Jewish state, but they don’t want any of the responsibilities obligated by that contract, instead they prefer to mooch on the nation’s welfare while undermining democracy since they only seek the well-doing of their particular sector –as if they really were in Germany, Russia or Poland. In addition, their leaders vilify secular leaders; one recently vilified a distinguished Israeli writer. And– my daughter had to be protected by police from the haredi rabble at the Western Wall. What nonsense. What utter nonsense, claiming that assimiliated, secular Jews cause hatred.

doudie kay says:

Let them leave and go back to the pale of Russia


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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