Israeli Haredim rebel against army draft plan

Ultra-Orthodox Jews say Torah studies can protect Israel better than an army.

Last Modified: 27 May 2013 18:29
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Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 10 percent of Israel's population [Reuters]

Jerusalem, Israel - Entering an ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, neighbourhood in West Jerusalem is like entering another Israel - one where religious observance, family, and a separation from non-Orthodox people take precedence over everything else. 

Boaz Naki sits around his dining table with several other male members of his Haredim community, all wearing the trademark black suits and hats. It's just a discussion about the current government's policies - but it feels like crisis talks.

Members of the government want to draft young ultra-Orthodox men into the army. Since Israel's creation in 1948, they have been exempt from the three years of military service expected of all other Israelis over age 18. The Haredim instead study the Torah in religious Yeshiva schools full time.

They are not opposed to the army and consider themselves patriots, but Naki's community has long argued its Haredim men contribute to the state through a spiritual tradition that strengthens Israel in the eyes of God.

"Through studying the Torah, Israel will be mightier than with soldiers and tanks," explained Naki. 

The walls of his small apartment speak to that tradition - pictures of elderly, bearded chief rabbis fill most empty spaces, alongside one of his grandparents in their native Iran, from where many Jews have emigrated over the years.

Israel seeks to draft ultra-Orthodox Haredim [Al Jazeera]

A government committee is currently forming a draft bill that will propose that only a small number of young ultra-Orthodox men will be exempt from military service if they are shown to be exceptional students. The rest will have to either volunteer for the army or public service of some kind, or face prosecution. The proposed changes would begin in 2017. The problem for Boaz and his neighbours is that the rest of Israel seems to want a more tangible contribution to the state these days.

'Separate from the secular life'

But military service is just one part of a much greater issue surrounding the Haredim - integration with Israeli society. Naki himself admits that his main concern about the young men joining up is not simply being away from their studies for a few years, but whether or not they will return.

"If he comes back, he won't be the same. He will be a different person," Naki explained. 

Sending young men from a strict religious environment into a wider, more diverse and often secular world is a serious worry.

"Being Haredi is all about being separate from the Western life, from the secular life," said Yair Ettinger, religion correspondent for Haaretz newspaper. "And this is what really bothers the leaders, the mothers, every family. Their biggest fear is to mix too much."

But their refusal to mix has become a political and - increasingly - an economic issue.

Haredi men generally don't work for a living. Some have jobs or small businesses within their own communities, but they rarely venture out into the greater workplace, preferring instead to study religion full-time. Most of their income is generated from foreign donations from Haredi abroad, and government aid in the form of child allowances. Traditionally, the community has large families. It is not unusual for some couples to have 10 children.

Forcing the ultra-Orthodox into the army is a way to open the door to their greater involvement in the economy. Most people agree that the Israeli army does not necessarily need the influx of members, and that Haredi men would not likely fight on the front lines of a conflict. Rather, it is a move to break the cycle of total self-imposed segregation, and create a new generation that would get more involved in Israel's civic life.

The timing of such bold political moves is a reflection of both Israel's economic crisis and political changes.

A debt burden of more than 4 percent of the country's GDP has led to austerity measures to avoid economic collapse. Also, Israel's new government - formed earlier this year by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - is the first in more than 30 years, save for a short period in 2003, to not include representatives from the ultra-Orthodox community.

Finance Minister Yair Lapid is a major proponent of the reform. Ruling politicians such as Lapid are keen to take advantage of that loss of power - aware that many voters' patience for subsidising Haredim communities is growing thin under their own economic hardships.

"One could argue that it's really economics that is driving this process," explained Calev Ben-David, senior correspondent for Bloomberg in Jerusalem. "Why would Netanyahu take on his natural allies? The answer is economic."

Subsidising the Haredim

The government spends large amounts to subsidise religious schools and child support, said Ben-David. The concern for the government is that although the Haredim constitute about 10 percent of Israel's population, that figure will rise rapidly in the coming years. Education at Yeshiva schools doesn't involve much beyond religious subjects, so even if the growing new generation of Haredim men did want to work, they would not be qualified to do much.

"The problem is when you look into workforce participation," Ben-David said. "They are not paying taxes but keep growing in numbers ... So the perception is that they are only taking money from the government instead of contributing."

"They are not paying taxes but keep growing in numbers ... So the perception is that they are only taking money from the government instead of contributing.

- Calev Ben-David, senior Bloomberg correspondent

To contribute to the economy, Haredi adults will have to study more vocational subjects in order to enter professions in demand by the economy. One of the points being discussed is whether or not to make Yeshiva schools include mainstream subjects in their curriculum, such as math, English and science, if they want to receive state funding.

The communities know change has to come eventually, say experts, but they worry the current cries for reform are too sudden. Earlier this month about 20,000 Haredi men protested and clashed with police in Jerusalem over the draft proposal. Protests in such numbers by the community are rare, but will likely continue if the government goes ahead with its plans.

"What we are now witnessing, I would say, is a struggle," said Ettinger, the religion correspondent. "A struggle between forces inside Israeli society - between secular and religious - and it's a political struggle."

Naki has nine children, including one son of draft age. He said he would sooner see his son go to jail than join the military, and that most in the community feel the same, confident this phase of criticism will pass.

"The people of Israel are used to all kinds of trends," he said. "They look fabulous, but they do not last. The Torah is eternal."

Whether or not Naki is right, however, will depend on decisions made by a ruling system currently more concerned with bread-and-butter issues than scripture.


Al Jazeera
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