|The Fight Over Who Fights in Israel |
NEW YORK TIMES
By JODI RUDOREN
As the first chief rabbi for the modern state of Israel, Isaac Herzog helped persuade Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to exempt 400 ultra-Orthodox men from the draft so they could study full time in yeshivas.
“After the horrible Shoah, in which tens of thousands of students in Europe, their teachers and sages were destroyed,” Rabbi Herzog wrote in 1949, “they should be released from the army in order to allow these few to continue to study our holy Torah, which is also a need and an honor for our state.”
Yet when his own son Chaim wanted to abandon the yeshiva to dedicate his life to the new Israel Defense Forces, Rabbi Herzog was enthusiastic. “His father told him, ‘If you’re not going to be a rabbi, there’s no greater honor than to be an officer in the army of the Jewish state,’ ” recalled Chaim’s son, also named Isaac, now a Labor Party member of the Israeli Parliament.
Chaim Herzog, of course, went on to become a major general in the army, heading its intelligence wing, and later president of Israel. Meanwhile, the loophole has allowed the original 400 yeshiva boys a year to morph into some 58,000 draft-age Orthodox men skipping the army today. “He would feel it’s gone too much to the extreme,” the younger Isaac Herzog said of his grandfather.
After decades of hand-wringing, deal making and court rulings, the question of what to do about the ultra-Orthodox — known as Haredim — and the army has now come to what Moshe Halbertal, a professor of Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University, described as “a boiling point, a moral crisis.”
Israel’s Supreme Court ruled in February that the draft exemption, known as the Tal Law, was unconstitutional. The new unity government formed early this month by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu named as its top priority rewriting it by Aug. 1, the deadline set by the court for the law to expire. A high-level commission is being formed to negotiate a compromise, set quotas and either guide a reluctant military into absorbing large numbers of soldiers with vastly different preparations and personal needs or create a vast (and expensive) new bureaucracy of civilian national service.
But the battle over the draft is really a proxy for a more fundamental fight over Israeli identity itself, a cleavage here that some see as a far greater threat to the future of the state than its external enemies.
Haredim currently make up about 9 percent of the population, but by some estimates collect as much as half of the welfare payments — yeshiva students get subsidies, and many depend also on public housing, as well as direct payments for the poor. Work force participation among Haredi men is about 35 percent, and their schools emphasize Torah study at the expense of math, English and science. Astronomical fertility makes the situation all the more dire: by 2030, one demographer recently estimated, this impoverished, ghettoized community will be close to a quarter of the Israeli population, something virtually everyone sees as unsustainable.
The resentment, even demonization, of Haredim is deep and growing, most profoundly among the strictly observant Jews known here as Modern Orthodox or National Religious. In Ramot, an elegant area of East Jerusalem, and in the exploding city of Beit Shemesh, many of these religious Jews — people whose children study in yeshivas before and after their army tours; people who find time to study Torah as an avocation alongside serious careers; in some cases men so religious they do not shake hands with women — talk about having to leave their beloved neighborhoods because the Haredim are taking over. What to think, as Zehava Alon, a leader of the universal-draft movement put it, of a state where “there is a law that says our kids’ blood is less valuable”?
Menachem Friedman, professor emeritus of sociology at Bar Ilan University, said, “That in the Jewish state, people will consider the ultra-Orthodox as ‘the enemy’ is a tragic thing.
“Most of the people hate the Haredim,” he added. “It’s bad for Israel, bad for the Jewish people, even bad for the government.”
Professor Friedman described the current situation as “bizarre,” “abnormal” and “unprecedented in Jewish history.” The Torah does not exempt yeshiva students from the military or the work force, and the sages of history all had day jobs: Moses Ben Maimon, known in the West as Maimonides, was a medical doctor; the scholars who wrote the Mishnah are identified by profession — Yochanan the shoemaker, Yochanan the metalworker.
WHILE most agreed after the Holocaust that reviving the decimated Haredi community was important, “this defensive strategy doesn’t make sense at the point where the community is actually thriving and growing,” Professor Halbertal said. Yedidia Stern, who runs the religion and state program at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the essence of the issue was really assimilation. “The real reason for the clash — and I can sympathize with the real reason — is the ultra-Orthodox are afraid that if their kids go to the army, they may change,” he said.
One Haredi rabbi, Shmuel Jacobovits of the Torah Institute of Contemporary Issues, acknowledged that the current situation was “unnatural.” But he said that widespread yeshiva study among Haredim was essential because other Jews were not committed enough to Torah study, which he sees as “the primary function, purpose, raison d’être of the Jewish people.”
“This is national service no less than anything else,” he said. “In our minds, it’s more so.”
Mr. Herzog, son of a president, grandson of a grand rabbi, sat on the commission in 1998 that established the draft-exemption law. He has suggested that 4,000 yeshiva students should now be exempt — a population-adjusted version of Ben-Gurion’s 400. He is also more optimistic than most on the subject, pointing to a growing number of Haredim serving in specialized army units catering to their needs, a growing number in secular universities, a growing number entering the work force.
In Haredi neighborhoods, where those who do join the military have historically had a harder time finding a suitable spouse, “you can see army uniforms hanging out in the laundry,” he said. “People are not afraid to wear them anymore.
“Not a revolution,” Mr. Herzog said, “an evolution.”
Jodi Rudoren is the Jerusalem bureau chief of The New York Times.