Commentary

Ultra-Orthodox Jews Protest IDF Conscription Law

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Hundreds of thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews took to the streets of Jerusalem on Sunday to protest against a proposed law intended to make it no longer possible for them to avoid mandatory military or civil service. The ultra-orthodox community’s opposition to the draft legislation is strong enough to bring together various factions and sects — despite the animosity among them. Some have even gone so far as to suggest that the draft law will have the opposite of its intended assimilating effect in the long run.  Yet, for supporters of the legislation, it is only right that the ultra-orthodox religious community begin to share the burden in the society and begin integrating more thoroughly.

In an op-ed on Jewish Journal, Shmuel Rosner is of the view that the legislation is trying too hard to please all the parties: “The Haredi draft was one of the main reasons for the collapse of Israel's previous coalition, and is supposed to be one of the reforms (if not the major reform) passed by the current coalition....In this coalition two parties cooperated and were active in preparing the legislation – the Zionist-religious Habayit Hayehudi and the centrist Yesh Atid....When the moment of decision nears, members of Habayit Hayehudi, a religious party, seem to feel uneasy with the concept of criminalizing the study of Torah....The result is one party that is trying too hard to avoid confrontation with haredi society, while the other is not making a sufficient effort to find a non-confrontational solution to the problem of proper sanctioning.”

Following the Sunday protests, the Jerusalem Post editorial was supportive of the right to protest, but criticized the protest organizers for being insensitive to the needs of those working in Jerusalem: “It is important to safeguard the right of hundreds of thousands of devoutly religious men, women, and children to take to the streets to protest what they believe to be an affront to the Jewish value of Torah scholarship and attempts to coerce able-bodied young men into performing some form of military or national service. But does all this justify completely paralyzing our capital smack in the middle of a work day?...by planning this demonstration in the middle of the day, the intended political message is liable to be overshadowed by Israelis’ feelings of anger and frustration for being subjected to so much unnecessary inconvenience.”

The rally was also opposed by Religious Zionists who according to Arutz Sheva’s Tova Dvorin were ‘shocked and outraged’ at accusations of betrayal by the Haredi community: “Renowned Religious Zionist leader Rabbi Haim Druckman has called on the Religious Zionist community Saturday night to stay far away from Sunday's ‘million-man march’ against the hareidi draft....The hareidi community has taken the calls for a draft as a personal attack not only by Yair Lapid — who helped spearhead the Shaked Committee which is behind the new draft laws — but also against Religious Zionists, who they accuse of deliberately harming the hareidi public.”

Nahum Barnea, writing for Yedioth Ahronoth, was also critical of the protest and was quick to dismiss its potential for change, considering that “the IDF draft law has already been approved…. The protest's accomplishment is that it united all factions, all Hasidic movements, all rabbis and all ethnic groups around one struggle. Ashkenazim with Sephardim, Lithuanians with Hasidim, Gafni with Litzman, Shteinmans with Auerbachs: The internal animosities, which have greatly weakened the sector's power in recent years, were pushed aside, if only for one day....What do the sector's young members think? Are they united in opposition to coming out from behind the walls of the ghetto? Do they blindly follow their rabbis?...But many of them are finding it difficult to come to terms with the lifestyle imposed on them, with the factionalism, with the poverty, with the faux culture that talks about a society of learning but in fact perpetuates a society of idleness.”

Ultra-Orthodox leaders and their supporters have also been very vocal about their opposition to a draft law that would see Haredi Jews imprisoned for refusing to serve in the army. As Daniel Gamson points out on an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post “The secular anti-haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews and non-Jews living in Israel who support the terrible injustice of imprisoning haredim for not serving in the army need to remember their place as relative newcomers. Without being condescending, their immigration to the holy land was unwelcome by the native religious Jewish population, because of their lifestyle and its negative influence on spirituality. The lifestyle of the descendants of the Old Yishuv (early Jewish settlement) needs to be respected....the only meaningful increase of Jews in the country (and yes, they happen to be Jews practicing Judaism) is from the haredi community....the ultra-Orthodox will leave the country as fugitives, and it will be the secular/ Religious Zionist birthrate against the Beduin and Arab demographics. This is not a threat which I am proposing but rather an ultimatum which many haredi rabbis, with their steadfastly loyal communities, have proposed.”

The ultimatum that Mr. Gamson refers to was an oft-repeated one during the Sunday’s rally, where “Hareidi leaders have compared the backlash against the draft to resistance against Nazi Germany, political uprisings in the Ukraine, a ‘fight to the death’ for Torah values, and the struggle against the ancient Persians in the Purim story. At least one Hassidic sect has threatened to flee Israel en masse if the draft law is ratified, and a boycott has even been threatened against Judea and Samaria in ‘retaliation’ against the Religious Zionist community.”

For others, the proposed legislation is more likely to do more damage than good, especially since many of the younger generation in the ultra-Orthodox community were already beginning to move in the direction of a more integrated future. That shift, according to Yedioth Ahronoth’s Yedidia Stern, seems to have been brought to a halt by the recent legislative initiatives: “The criminal sanctions are not just an empty populist promise, but also a real danger: Sticking fingers in the eyes of the haredim pushes the pragmatic majority, which is showing signs of integration, into the arms of the fanatical minority. If a civil disobedience develops, the consciousness of the young, huge generation of haredim may be engraved with an anti-establishment spark which will crush the possibility of integration. This will cause endless trouble. This is not a necessary outcome. It's possible to draft significant numbers of haredim, two-thirds and more from every age group, without causing them to rebel.”

Mitch Ginsberg’s article for the Times of Israel makes a similar argument, suggesting that the IDF draft law will make it more difficult for a new generation to challenge what he considers a rejectionist ultra-Orthodox leadership: “Everyone I spoke to at the protest prayer on Sunday afternoon...was convinced it would only increase the animosity and unite all behind a staunchly rejectionist leadership....”They used to say, ‘Whoever is not studying should go to the army,’” said Shai Dvir, a 17-year-old student from the Torat Chaim Yeshiva in Modi’in Illit. “Today they say, ‘Don’t anybody dare.’”...Benzion Hefetz, the most vociferous of the bunch, said he felt the divide between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society was more entrenched and less solvable even than the Arab-Israeli conflict. “The gap is even greater,” he said.”

Israel Hayom’s Rachel Azaria argues that the time will come when the ultra-Orthodox community “will align with the society,” but “this isn’t going to happen because of the new law being drafted, but because that's what the ultra-Orthodox community wants — not the leaders but the public. What will ultimately tip the scales is the extreme poverty in which many of them live, and the difficulty and even opposition among the younger generation to live and raise children in such scarcity....We need to help these natural processes to continue and accept that they are occurring....And our politicians? I suggest they humble themselves and assist the ultra-Orthodox in every way possible, especially to stop portraying this as our battle against them. We must work together to ensure a more unified, caring and better Israeli society.

Finally, there are those who oppose the legislation simply because it entrenches an antiquated conscription-based army. That is the argument of Israeli Freedom Movement leader Boaz Arad, who, in an interview with Arutz Sheva, makes a case for a volunteer army: “Arad blamed the IDF for fomenting a ‘gang war’ between different sectors in Israeli society, wasting the State of Israel's money, and causing risks to Israel's national security. He insisted that a voluntary draft, with the possibility for soldiers to get paid more and invest in a military career, is a necessary step to ease social tensions and will ultimately produce economic returns....Arad noted, the most vital IDF positions are already staffed by a large number of volunteers and motivation to join those positions remains high. A voluntary draft would increase the pitiful wages for soldiers to reasonable rates, and encourage more volunteers.”


Click here to read previous installments of Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.