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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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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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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

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