Open Zion

03.14.13

Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Jews Have Permission To Believe

“The 2013 election will be remembered as a day on which an entire sector [of society], traditional and religious, was boycotted solely for its beliefs and perceptions,” Eli Yishai, the co-leader of the Sephardic haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Shas political party, wrote on his Facebook page Saturday night. “[I]t’s much more disturbing that this reality was not created by disagreements,” Yishai continued, “it was created for one simple reason: to see the haredim out, no matter what. Anyone who claims otherwise is not telling the truth and is dismissive of the entire public's intelligence.”

A senior Zionist Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Haim Druckman, reacted to Yishai’s Facebook post with incredulity, telling the settler-run Zionist Orthodox website Arutz Sheva that haredim had spent decades boycotting the Zionist Orthodox. Haredi newspapers refuse to refer to Zionist Orthodox rabbis as rabbis, Druckman noted, pointing out that the great Zionist Orthodox rabbis’ Torah books are not found in haredi yeshivas. “Those who are virtuoso full-time boycotters should not talk about boycotts,” Druckman said.

Despite Druckman’s inescapable logic, Yishai’s anger has been both echoed and presaged by haredi political leaders from the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism party and from Shas. The parties’ senior rabbis have, if anything, been harsher than Yishai. For all of these haredi leaders, the “boycott” of the haredi parties is based on unprovoked hatred and is by definition evil. But is it?

For decades, the rest of Jewish Israel has been sending their sons and daughters to fight—and too often die—in Israel’s wars. But with only a few exceptions, haredim have not, because their rabbis have ordered them not to. Instead, haredim send their sons to yeshivas where, as long as they are full-time students, they have until now been exempted from military service by the state—a luxury students of universities and Zionist Orthodox and non-Orthodox yeshivas are not given. Many haredi men remain full-time students in perpetuity, evading the draft while living off government welfare payments and other taxpayer-funded largesse. Non-haredi Israelis are fed up with this arrangement and want it to end. Haredi leaders consider that to be an existential threat and have fought it in every way they can. They made fighting that threat the cornerstone of their parties’ election campaigns and the coalition-forming negotiations that followed.

“Those shouting against haredi yeshiva students know in their inner hearts that it is not realistic to take all haredi yeshiva students into the army, but God places these words in their hearts so they will not have a portion of the reward we [haredim] get [from God] for our Torah study,” the rebbe of Sanz Hasidim said last week as the coalition negotiations heated up. The rebbe went on to declare that soon the messiah will be here and when that happens, “The Army of God, which will consist of the [haredi] saints and Torah students, will be established. Others will be excluded. And the tools of war will no longer be necessary because our enemies will surrender to the power of Torah.” So much for needing the IDF.

This is actually a more moderate position than that taken by many haredi rabbis who claim that the Torah study of haredi yeshiva students protects Israel from harm now by causing God to shield Israel for the sake of those students. If this haredi Torah study did not exist, they argue, God would not be so inclined.

Besides invoking the mystical, haredim have also threatened to stage a “million man” demonstration against the government when President Obama visits Jerusalem later this month, if haredi parties are indeed excluded from the new government. (The entire haredi population of Israel—including women, children and the elderly—is approximately 750,000.) Some haredi leaders have spoken about a “civil war,” while others have claimed that the haredi community may have to flee Israel en masse if the government actually does draft haredim.

It is a mass delusion.

But don’t make the mistake of putting all the blame for this delusion on haredim or on their theology, self-centered and exclusionary as it is. Some of it falls squarely on the often tiny and sloping shoulders of Israel’s secular leaders, who since 1977 have enabled and infantilized haredim to a degree never before seen in exchange for haredi political support. From Menachem Begin onward, most prime ministers gave haredim whatever they wanted. Prime Ministers also looked the other way as haredi politicians gamed the system to get millions of extra shekels from various government ministries’ discretionary funds. Benjamin Netanyahu even refused to draft haredi yeshiva students after Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled that the law exempting them from the draft was illegal, and he scuttled plan after plan that could have passed High Court muster in order to maintain the draft-free status quo. He also tried desperately to include the haredi parties in his new governing coalition despite the relative ease of forming a center-right government without them, and despite the fact that the vast majority of non-haredi Israelis wants the new government formed without haredim.

Who can blame the haredim for thinking this magic bubble would never burst?

And the truth is, it still hasn’t. It won’t until thousands of haredi yeshiva students are drafted, refuse to report, and are jailed; or until haredi yeshivas that in defiance of the law do not teach the country’s core curriculum are, as the law requires, defunded. And while either could happen as soon as next week, it could also take years before either becomes reality.

Until then, haredim can continue to believe their prayers and Torah study stop bullets and missiles, that they and not the IDF are Israel’s true defense force, that money will continue to flow to them from the government like manna from heaven, and that all who oppose these things are representatives of evil.

They have been given permission by Netanyahu and those who came before him to believe, and until that permission is finally revoked, they will.