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
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.
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