Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox Jews up in arms

Move to make army conscription compulsory for the Haredim community has brought the Israeli government to an impasse.

Israel’s coalition government is at an impasse. 

The leader of the country’s Kadima Party has threatened to part ways with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud Party, saying it will be an issue of “a matter of days” before the reckoning.

Politicians from both the Left and Right are up in arms.  And all of this brouhaha stems from the matter of what to do with the ultra-Orthodox Jews. 

They represent somewhere between 7-10 per cent of the population of Israel, but have a disproportionate impact on Israeli politics. 

Neither part of the Left nor the Right, the ultra-Orthodox community, also known as the Haredim, ally themselves with the factions who will give them what they want: to be left alone to study the Torah.

When the state of Israel was founded in 1948, the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, granted a handful of Haredim exemption from the military draft in order for them to devote their full attention to religious studies. 

Few would have predicted the exponential growth of the community.  Some 50,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews now avoid military service every year.

Principle of separation 

“Haredi society was always based ideologically on the principle of separation from Israeli society,” explains Yair Ettinger, an analyst of ultra-Orthodox affairs.  “They fear that if you’re going to send tens of thousands of young men to the army, [it] will hurt the principle of separation.”

In an effort to enlist ultra-Orthodox Jews, the Israeli military has sought to accommodate their practices as much as possible.  Haredim who choose to join the Israel Military serve in a special unit where soldiers train separately from women, are allowed to wear their yarmulke, keep Shabbat, and consume glatt kosher food (a stricter set of kosher practices). 

But this has not convinced enough young Haredim to join.

The problem is fundamental.  Any accommodation by the military, even at the Israeli Military’s inconvenience and expense, cannot resolve or change ultra-Orthodox ideology.  Haredim are waiting for the messiah.  Until then, they believe true Jewish sovereignty cannot be achieved. 

This does not mean ultra-Orthodox Jews oppose the existence of the state of Israel, as has often been interpreted to be the case (although a few fringe groups do), but it does mean the community prefers to look inward, rather than engage in state institutions.

The other matter at hand is economic.  A significant portion of the ultra-Orthodox community lives off government stipends. 

Labour of prayer

Men favour full-time Torah study over employment, believing their contribution to society comes from the labour of prayer.  That has led to resentment from mainstream and secular Israelis, who not only consider military service a point of pride and a duty, but in an insult to injury, see their tax payments funnelled to the Haredi community.

“You have a situation where the majority has found themselves subsidising a minority,” says Avinoam Bar Yosef of the Jewish People Policy Institute.  “Many Jews feel that this group is not complying with the requirements of a citizen.”

But ultra-Orthodox Jews would argue they play a very important role: while military service contributes to the state of Israel, their religious studies contribute to the very soul of Israel.

People are not buying it.  More importantly, this past spring. Israel’s Supreme Court didn’t buy it, declaring the law institutionalising ultra-Orthodox exemption from the military, unconstitutional.

In response, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu formed what has now become known as the Plesner Committee to provide recommendations for new legislation to deal with the issue. 

The morass in which the committee has fallen shows just how contentious things have become. 

It has turned into a test for how well, or how poorly, the coalition government functions.

On Monday, Netanyahu scrapped the committee.  Members of the Plesner Committee retaliated by announcing they would issue their recommendations regardless. 

Their report on Wednesday has only made all sides even more ferocious.

 Cauldron of complexity

The draft legislation not only addresses the enlistment of Haredim for military or civilian national service, but tackles the other minority group currently exempt: Palestinian Israelis. 

Most politicians feel that’s another can of worms altogether and better left alone.  Parties representing Palestinian-Israelis interests fret that national service would distort their Arab identities.  And never mind military service –  training Palestinian Israeli youths for conflict in the West Bank or Gaza, to fight their own, is simply out of the question.

The committee went on to propose that those who dodge military service be fined, or even face criminal punishment.  Non-participants would also lose government benefits.

That’s sure to anger the Haredim.  They have taken to the streets over the past couple of weeks in protest, and will likely do so again a few more times this summer, putting pressure to bear on politicians.

“They are placed in the middle of the political melee and they are willing to work with one side or the other,” says Bar Yosef.

It’s become as much a religious issue as a political issue. 

The ultra-Orthodox community controls the balance of power amongst the country’s political parties these days, and knows this. 

But equally, calls for Haredim to enlist are strong and have become quite populist in nature, rolled into the greater dissatisfaction the public has had over the Israeli economy.  For them, economic leeches are not welcome.  Polls show the majority of Israelis in favor of seeing the Haredim in the military and off government stipends.

Netanyahu’s coalition government may crumble over this matter.  And the crisis would have all started because ultra-Orthodox Jews wanted to be left alone to worship God.