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
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.”
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