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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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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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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