Sometimes it’s best to hear it directly from the horse’s mouth.
society agreed back in [David] Ben-Gurion’s time to the ‘Torah is his faith’
exemption from IDF service for 400 Torah scholars.
Israelis] never thought or dreamed the numbers would reach today’s enormous
quantity that’s gone beyond all proportions.
“They say we have become a
burden on them? The truth is we have become a burden on ourselves. We’ve
abandoned the field and let them disparage us, and call our students
We’ve made them hate the Torah.”
Yair Lapid, the
great white hope of the secular public, couldn’t have put it better.
could Lapid have improved upon Shas MK Haim Amsalem’s attack on the modern
haredi way of life which is committing hundreds of thousands of Israelis to live
a life of poverty.
“Study in a kollel is not a goal, but merely a means
of training the next generation of rabbis and scholars.
built for this, it’s a waste of his time. Earning a living for himself and his
family is more important than anything else.”
Since making these remarks
in an interview with Ma’ariv
earlier this month, in which he also called on
haredi schools to teach the core curriculum so as to enable their students to
enter the labor market after IDF service, Amsalem has become the bête noire of
Shas. At the same time, he has suddenly emerged as the hero of the non-haredi
public, looking for some distraction from the troubling sexual harassment
allegations surrounding one the country’s most senior police officials and the
despicable character attacks on the woman brave enough to file
But Amsalem’s revolt is no flash in the pan. It’s been simmering
for quite some time, particularly since the party leadership’s failure to tackle
the issue of haredi racism highlighted by the segregation of Sephardi students
at a girls’ school in Immanuel. He further raised the hackles of the haredi
establishment a year ago, when he proposed easing the requirements for
conversion of soldiers in the IDF who have a Jewish father.
leadership’s totally disproportionate attack on Amsalem at the end of last week,
calling “upon everyone for whom the Torah is dear to keep a bow shot’s distance
from this man and from his strange and heretical opinions,” reveals just how
painful a nerve the renegade MK has touched. At its heart, Amsalem’s criticism
of the party centers on the fact that Shas has abandoned the traditional,
tolerant path of Sephardi Judaism and blindly imitated the ways of the more
extreme Lithuanian- Ashkenazi tradition.
Indeed, the article in Shas’s
which compared Amsalem to the biblical enemy Amalek, “who the Torah
orders us to wipe out his memory,” and which referred to Amsalem by the loaded
term “that man” (the talmudic way of referring to Jesus) is straight out of the
Lithuanian yeshiva stylebook, as are the placards in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak
accusing Amsalem of “desecrating heaven’s name.”
And the fact that the
Knesset’s master of arms has ordered a bodyguard to accompany Amsalem at all
times in response to the placards and newspaper articles shows they shouldn’t
just be regarded as a literary curiosity but reflect a real and serious threat
to someone prepared to challenge a Shas establishment that, while condemning its
followers to a life of poverty, has grown fat and rich through its proximity to
the levers of power.
AMSALEM’S CRITICISM of Shas is not just an internal
party matter; the direction Shas takes influences the wider society. Three
decades ago, before the establishment of Shas, 21 percent of haredi men did not
Since then, that number has jumped to a staggering 65 percent. Such
a figure is economically unsustainable, not just for the haredi community, but
for the country as a whole.
Neither can the country afford to continue
kowtowing to the narrowest of narrow haredi perspectives on other matters
affecting the nation’s social fabric. Just last week, the coalition shamefully
voted down a private members’ bill in the Knesset that aimed to reduce the
number of young women dodging the draft by claiming to be religious.
bill was hardly an attack on the haredi way of life; it simply said that any
young woman seeking a draft exemption on the grounds of religion would have to
declare she had studied in an officially recognized Orthodox educational
institution and provide written proof from that school or college. However, for
reasons best known to itself, Shas pressured the coalition into opposing this
While the nixing of this bill won’t have any great effect either
which way – last year, the IDF only uncovered 570 young women who had falsely
declared they followed a religious way of life to avoid the draft – it is
symptomatic of Shas’s influence on the government.
And this influence, as
Amsalem has so clearly and bravely stated, is bad for the country and disastrous
for Shas’s own voters.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The