Anti haredi demnstration
Anti haredi demnstrationYossi Zeliger/TPS
The special privileges that seem to be given to the haredim, especially the waiver of military service and the supremacy of Torah study over work is in some measure one of the issues in the protests we have seen in Israel over the last few months. Secular Jews of Israel sense that their power is diminishing as the population of Haredim and Religious Zionists grows at a faster rate. Haredim and the secular must make a priority of bridging their divide.

The Israel Democracy Institute recently reported that by 2030 Israel’s haredi population is expected to account for 16% of the country’s total population.

My father, a survivor of Auschwitz who lost his parents and then 8 year old sister to the gas chambers, always respected the observant, even though he himself worked on Shabbat. On the one hand he supported the Histadrut organization, and, on the other hand, he never turned away any fundraiser for a yeshiva in Israel.

Many years later, I began to understand that my father’s tolerance of, modest adherence to, and support for, Orthodox Judaism, was based on his experiences during the Shoah, when all Jews, no matter their religiosity were marched together to the gas chambers. If they could be together then, we should all be together now. His experiences had convinced him that we were and are one people. One gets the sense that people who do not see this, are more interested in power and control than anything else. It is not easy when we must share power and control with people whose values seem foreign to us, but it is necessary if Israel is to remain one country for all of the Jewish people, a sanctuary of safety in an antisemitic world as well as a vessel for self-fulfillment, wealth, and culture.

Perhaps I more readily see both sides of each dispute because I have two children - one secular and the other religious nationalist with four children.

Another problem is that the American Jewish community has become a fractured entity, as the percentage of American Jewish males who marry out increases. Thus, Jews who have assimilated to a woke culture often have very different values. The lack of support for Israel among Reform and other anti-Zionist Jews is something that must fracture the community. That has become an existential problem, whereas the divide between Israeli secular Jews and the haredim, as long as the secular Israeli Jews do not marry Christians or Muslims, should be amenable to certain compromises. Compromise between Jewish sectors in Israel will be possible as long as the State continues to be, at its core, a halakhically Jewish state, whereas compromise in America seems unlikely to survive the rejection of halakha and the rejection of Israel now fashionable in America.

The population of haredim and Religious Zionists, with large families, means that they will have the power of the vote which will eventually reduce the power of the elites, be they in the media, the universities or the judiciary. And so the fight over the nature and power of the judiciary is in large part based on the religious issue and not a narrow legal issue.

In my view, Torah study is of great importance, but it is a problematic policy to have ever increasing numbers of young men refuse to serve in the military and not work and rely on government benefits, studying full time and impoverishing themselves and their children.

Israel is surrounded by genocidal enemies and over the last decade has lost support in Europe and even in America under the leftist Democratic Party with anti-Israelism now forming part of their intersectionalism. The times are dire and those who seek to divide us and weaken us must be opposed and even shamed.

Unity is necessary for national security.

Let us look at the history of the haredi exemption from military service.

The Defence Service Law, governing conscription to military or other national service, of a certain age, provides a specific exemption only to women who are religious, pregnant and/or married. So how did it come about that most haredi men and Arabs have not had to serve? This came about, not through legislation, but through army directives or Defence Ministry regulations.

As to the haredim, one has to go back to the War of Independence of 1948, when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion agreed with the haredi leaders that the Torah world having been decimated during the Holocaust, those whose full time occupatio” was Torah study would be exempted from military service. This was not a legal rule but rather an “arrangement” made through Defense Ministry regulation. The arrangement (made originally when the number of male haredim of the draft age was only in the hundreds) is known as “Torato omanuto” which is translated as “his Torah is his occupation”. Haredi men were allowed to defer their service from 18 to some upper limit when the draft no longer applied in that they could leave the yeshiva and become employed without being drafted to serve.

Initially there was a cap on the number of exemptions, but with the increasing numbers of yeshiva students, and the consequent increasing of haredi political power, that was removed. As to the legal authority for the special attitude to Torah study in a Jewish state, and the increasing resentment by the secular, a Court in 1998 ruled that the procedure of the Defence Minister had no legal authority for the exemption process and that the special treatment was discriminatory.

By 2002, in response to that 1998 ruling, the Knesset passed a law permitting the full-time yeshiva students to postpone their service into the IDF until the age of 23 or do a shorter term of 16 months or do a year of civilian national service or continue in yeshiva. This law, known as the Tal Law, was supposed to be a temporary measure which could be renewed every five years. However, anti-reliigous claimants, who did not consider Torah study of equal importance as army service sued on grounds of discrimination and it was decreed unconstitutional in 2012.

The result of the January 2013 elections was a government headed by Netanyahu, which included the secular party Yesh Atid, headed by Lapid. The situation seemed to bring in a major change as Yesh Atid ran on the promise of ending the haredi exemption and haredi parties were left out of the governing coalition. By early 2014 this new government passed a law requiring the IDF to draft a percentage of draft age haredi men, which contained a provision that this would not be enforced for the first three years, but after that, if the law's quota was not met after the three years, then all haredi men would be drafted.

The coercion and criminal sanctions insisted on by Lapid had, predictably, the opposite effect and less haredi men enlisted than before.. As if fighting against itself, the IDF, pressured by activist feminist groups and their appeals to the courts, integrated more and more women into combat units, lowering standards for acceptance to allow them to serve, and leading to protests by Religious Zionist hesder soldiers and their rabbis, let alone making the IDF off limits to haredi young men who considered service.

However new government elected in 2015 which included the haredi parties - and so the haredim obtained a new law removing criminal sanctions for failing to serve and deferring the new quotas until at least 2020.

The “see saw” between the Courts and the haredi sector over exemptions saw the overturning of the 2014 law. The Court viewed it as discriminatory, and gave the government a year to pass a new law on the haredi draft, but softened the blow by allowing the Defence Minister to continue a system of deferrals. But as political instability brought on by the Netanyahu trial saw new elections on an almost yearly basis, the exemption law kept getting deferrals. Presently, the 15th such exemption is set to expire July 31st, 2023 and the haredi men can stay in yeshiva until the age of 26 and then are exempted from service.

But with the election of the Bennet-Lapid government where again the haredi parties were left out of the government, the first reading of a new law was passed that lowered the exemption age to 21 so that the Haredim would enter the workforce earlier. However with the defeat of that government and a return of Netanyahu the stage was set for the haredi parties to seek a solution by means of judicial reform, through the “override” clause allowing the Knesset to override certain judicial actions.

Current Finance Minister Bezael Smotrich (Religious Zionism), recognizing that the draft issue must be separated from the economic issue, is preparing a bill that will allow full time yeshiva students to leave the yeshiva and seek education and employment without being subject to the draft from age 21 or 23. He believes that being part of the work force will lead to more haredi enlistment, while leaving the optiion of Torah study unharmed for those who elect to remain in yeshiva.

This was not the only reason for judicial reform but it brought to a head all of the resentments of secular Israelis and was allegedly one motivating factor for the protests that occurred. In April the judicial overhaul was paused pending further negotiations, supervised by President Herzog. But those negotiations were unsuccessful. On Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced at the weekly Cabinet meeting that the judicial reform legislation would be “advanced” in the coming week after the opposition suspended the negotiations at the President's Residence last week.

The override clause is now the centre of the conflicting views, but is being postponed in favor of passing less controversial laws. The Haredi parties understandably, after the failure of the Courts to accept the exemptions to the draft, see the override clause, which would allow overuling Supreme Court decisions as to Knesset laws, as their key demand. What size majority would allow that to be done is still undecided, with some proposing that a majority of all Supreme Court judges is the optimal solution.

To get the flavour of the present impasse, here are comments from the major players, as reported by Israel National News:

Prime Minister Netanyahu: "A large majority of the public today understands that changes need to be made to the judicial system, so we will gather this week and begin the practical steps, we will do them in a measured, responsible manner, in accordance with the mandate we received," he said.

Im Tirtzu (Zionist NGO) CEO Matan Peleg: "We welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu's announcement regarding the advancement of the judicial reforms. There is no precedent in the world for the reality in Israel: a minority controlling the majority through blackmail with threats. The national camp acted with generosity and statesmanship, allowing the talks to take place, and yet the anarchists and the opposition refuse to move forward. The people of Israel deserve a more decent, better and more Zionist legal system. We expect actions and not just talk. Otherwise, a regime of "tyranny of the minority" will be established before our eyes, and this is a fundamentally anti-democratic situation that we have no right to accept."

Opposition leader Yair Lapid: "If Netanyahu goes ahead with the coup d'état unilaterally as he has stated, he will find that he is the prime minister of less than half of the Israeli people, with less than half of the economy, less than half of the security and less than half of the Knesset."

Accordingly, before this divide causes a civil war (it does sometimes seem close at hand), the underlying issue must be addressed and those seeking unity and increasing participation of the haredi sector should be supported to the extent possible. All who believe in the central doctrine of Zionism and the unity of the Jewish people as well as the importance of Torah learning must take concrete steps to bring secular and haredi Israelis together. There are some good people working on this, but they need more help. The number of haredi soldiers is gradually increasing without coercive measures.

We note that the chairman of the advisory committee of the Netzach Yehuda association, philanthropist David Hager, received the 2023 volunteer award from President Yitzchak Herzog on June 14th for his work in integrating the haredi community into the IDF and Israeli society.

Hagar, more than 20 years ago, was one of the founders of the Nahal Haredi 97th battalion known as Netzah Yehuda. The Netzah Yehuda association supports haredi soldiers in the IDF and later works to integrate haredi veterans into society. The community of haredi veterans currently numbers around 16,000 individuals who are part of Israel’s society and economy, and all areas of life.

President Herzog told the gathering that “David Hager dedicates his time, funds, and energy to the Haredi soldiers and the integrating haredi society into the IDF and Israeli society. Thousands of haredi soldiers who are in the army and the society at large today owe their great success in all areas of life to him.”

Hagar, in his remarks, said that “in these days of polarization and the deepening of the Israeli internal rift, the haredi fighters serve as a bridge and an example of a life of unity.” So true: “a bridge and an example of a life of unity”.

We note also that on June 12, over 1,200 members of the haredi community participated in an event in memory of the IDF haredi soldiers fallen in battle, held at Heichal Shlomo hall in Jerusalem

The evening was dedicated to the memory of the fallen soldiers of the haredi IDF battalions, including those who served in the first haredi to brigade, the Nachal Haredi, and the soldiers of the haredi service tracks that exist today in the IDF.

The CEO of Netzach Yehuda Association Yossi Levy said: "This is the fifth year of the tradition we founded, an evening where all sectors of the people of Israel, religious and traditional, pure Torah scholars alongside holy soldiers come together to bear the burden of bereavement, to support the abyss of pain without balm of the families so dear to us all. The haredi public is no longer left behind but participates in the memory of the IDF soldiers in a respectful and appropriate manner and in the spirit of the Torah."

I suggest that the IDFcreate a special religious division of the IDF. This division, might, for example, have its soldiers, after morning prayers, study Torah and Jewish texts for three hours and then perform military duties the rest of the day. That branch of the service could be sensitive to issues relating to Jewish law, and would not include women, but it would provide a more equal sharing of the physical burden of self-defense. It coudl be a way to alolow hesder students to enlist for longer and thus be accepted to the elite cyber units for which many are suitable but where they are now not accepted due to shorter active service. It could also stress education in practical subjects leading to a better chance of employment after service. A quid pro quo might be a beefing up of Jewish curricular content in Israeli public schools.

It is not right to endlessly defer a resolution of the problem - the fractures we have seen in Israeli society need to be addressed and this very partial proposed integration of the haredim into mainstream Israeli culture and defense might attract them and provide a more positive and hopeful future – where, at present, the social issues are hidden by more acute problems of terrorism and Iran. Some have said that if ever the Arabs in the Middle East would give up their wars against Israel’s existence, the social war between the religious and the secular might manifest itself more clearly.

Unfortunately, protesting anarchists interested in deepening the divide in Israeli society, marched through Bnai Brak, a haredi bastion, in order to provoke haredi residents. The haredim, for their part, offered them marchers cholent and made them welcome. A second protest march, however, was more violent and blocked off the city. There have been more and more instances of anti-haredi and anti-Religious Zionist verbal attacks, with a 35 year old Tel Aviv yeshiva whose students all enlist in the IDF, mostly in combat units, becoming the object of a raucous protest when it attempted to move into a new buiding near its present location.

Pamela Peled, who lectures at Reichman University, and who made Aliyah from South Africa at the age of 17, considers herself a “committed” and a “traditional” Jew but she asks “Why are Israel’s Jews resenting their own people”.

There are many like her that are not ideological secularists, want to keep some of the halakha, yet have become alienated by the present situation. She writes: “What has gone wrong? Why are committed Jews, those for whom our traditions were blood-beatingly entrenched and revered, now resenting our own religion?”

Among the haredi secotrthere are many who now understand the need to reach out to the secular. The best example is Chabad Lubavitch whose world-wide outreach is educating and uplifting young Jews about our religion and heritage.

Can we ever see the Religious Zionists function as mediators who might be most important in mediating between the far left and the haredim? Grassroots Religious Zionist groups have been trying to do so.

We are such a quarrelsome people.

Haredi sector aside, will we ever see the opposition members overlook their personal disregard for Netanyahu to allow him to really lead towards a permanent settlement of the on the nature of the Zionist state as a unifying factor for the Jewish people?

More people and more efforts must be made to bridge the divide and turn the population’s energies towards unification and other positive needs. We Jews are, and must remain, one people. All politicians of whatever stripe must come to realize that learning to get along with Arabs (who hate Israel’s existence) is less a priority right now than for the secular, Religious Zionist and haredi sectors to make compromises to save our Jewish Homeland.

Howard Rotbergis the author of four books about Israel, ideologies, and political culture, including the novel about Israel during the Second Intifada, The Second Catastrophe; A Novel About a Book and its Author. He is founding publisher at Mantua Books.