A massive ultra-Orthodox demonstration in Jerusalem today underscored deep opposition to the Israel’s efforts to integrate its fastest-growing community, which has for decades prized religious study over joining the military or the workforce.
“Our service is in Torah – that’s our way,” says Moshe, a 16-year-old yeshiva student with dark side curls, as loudspeakers project deafening prayers by various rabbis. He is one of hundreds of thousands of religious Jews who converged on Jerusalem this afternoon for the event, blocking the city’s main entrance and causing authorities to shut down the main highway to Tel Aviv, the central bus station, and the light rail line.
Haredi (ultra-orthodox) have been exempted from military service since Israel was founded, but as the once-miniscule community approaches 20 percent of the country’s population, the issue of “sharing the burden” of a secure and prosperous state has become one of the most pressing on the Israeli agenda. In the latest effort at social equality, the Israeli parliament this week pushed forward legislation that would criminalize draft dodging by haredim.
Some say the law is impractical and is ruining more than a decade of groundwork that has increased the number of haredim in the army and workplace. One major sect even threatened a mass exodus to the United States if the bill is passed.
“The whole community is closing in on itself,” says Tzippy Yarom, a journalist with the prominent haredi magazine Mishpacha. “Just like a porcupine, when it is threatened, it curls itself into a ball and then you cannot touch it.”
From the ghetto to tank commander
Yehoshua, an imposing man who works as a supervisor of kosher food certification, says he came all the way from the north of Israel for today’s protest. It’s not that he is opposed to army service; he himself considered enlisting last year, even though he was past the usual age for recruitment. But he decided against it because of how unpopular the army has become in haredi communities, where many see enlistment as a decision to side with people threatening their beliefs and practices.
“Two years ago you could walk around with an army uniform,” he says. “Now, [Israeli authorities] have created a war. It’s going in a direction in which they only want to destroy our tradition.”
Many haredim see the draft law as a battering ram in a larger campaign to undermine their way of life, including a commitment to religious study and prayer, segregation of men and women, and schools and workplaces that uphold such standards. Many ultra-Orthodox fear that enlisting at the impressionable age of 18 could lead many youth to integrate into broader Israeli society and drift away from their practices.
“When you spend all your life in a ghetto and all of a sudden you become a tank commander, it’s very tempting to … lose your identity,” says Yedidia Stern, who heads the Religion and State project at the Israel Democracy Institute in Jerusalem.
‘It’s like saying studying Torah is criminal’
When the state of Israel was founded, haredim were a tiny minority. While most had traditionally combined work and religious learning, the dearth of yeshiva students after the Holocaust led a prominent rabbi to encourage full-time learning for adults.
Nearly two decades ago, with the yeshivas full once again, haredi colleges started opening up to allow some to pursue other vocations. Still, only about 40 percent work today – down from more than 80 percent in the 1970s. And while military enlistment has grown sixfold since 2007, less than a quarter of about 9,000 eligible haredi yeshiva students signed up for the army last year.
That slow pace of integration led the government to limit military service exemptions for full-time yeshiva students. Military service is obligatory for all other Israeli Jewish men. The latest legislation, which has not yet been passed into law, incorporated criminal sanctions rather than economic sanctions for refusing to serve, provoking tremendous anger.
“It can harm the process because haredim feel that deciding [to include] criminal sanctions is like saying that studying Torah is criminal,” says Shahar Ilan, vice president of Hiddush for Religious Freedom of Equality in Jerusalem.
Many haredim, as well as some Orthodox, see their religious study as just as essential – if not more so – to the well-being of Israel and the Jewish people as the Israeli military.
“It’s like a team, you gotta have your guys defending and you gotta have your guys attacking,” says Akiva Cohen, a South African who is studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva and attended today’s demonstration. “Your team is only going to function once it’s got players in every position. Your team is never going to function if you have a whole team of attackers.”
One possible solution
Given the tremendous public pressure for haredim to integrate – some 82 percent of Israelis support mandatory national service, either military or civil, for haredim – it appears unlikely that all young haredi men will be allowed to stay in yeshiva forever.
But Prof. Stern of the Israel Democracy Institute has proposed a plan under which they would be allowed to defer enlistment until age 22, when 75 percent of them are married and have firmly established their haredi identity; two-thirds would be required to serve, but the quota would be phased in over a period of six years; and their period of service would be 18 to 24 months, rather than the standard three years.
While he says the current bill is unlikely to work, he hopes that Israel proves itself to be a “real liberal democracy” with any future legislation.
“You don’t want to use the power of state to change the identity of anybody just because you think values are better ... because you feel you know what should be done.”