JERUSALEM - A small rock lies on the desk of Dov Lipman. It
was hurled at the member of parliament by a fellow ultra-Orthodox Jew and is a
constant reminder of the deep divisions within Israel that Lipman says must be
Lipman, who is a rabbi, was hit by the stone shortly after
immigrating to Israel from the United States, eight years ago, when he stumbled
into a riot over plans to dig up some ancient bones - something the protesters
said was a desecration.
"We have returned to this land after 2,000 years
and we have to get this right; and it is not right," said Lipman, a member of
the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party that wants Israel's large ultra-Orthodox
communities pushed into mainstream society.
An integral part of Prime
Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's ruling coalition, Yesh Atid is leading an
unprecedented, multi-pronged charge, backed by legislation that seeks to draw
more ultra-Orthodox men into the conscript army, trim their welfare benefits and
reform their antiquated, religious schooling.
For many haredim - a
Hebrew term meaning 'those who tremble before God' - the government is doing too
much too quickly. Even some coalition partners have their doubts, fearing a
backlash from the volatile fringe of a disparate movement born in the
impoverished villages of 18th-century eastern Europe.
The haredim make up
10 percent of Israel's eight million population and they are expanding rapidly,
with families of 10 children not uncommon. Few of them share Lipman's world
Often living in de-facto ghettos of their own making, the
majority of Haredi men are allowed to shun the army and dedicate their life to
religious study, living off donations, state benefits and the often meagre wages
of wives, many of whom work.
In a country where most 18-year-old Jewish
men and women are conscripted, to maintain a standing and reserve army over
600,000 strong, such treatment is causing growing resentment - something Yesh
Atid successfully tapped into at an election in January, helping it become the
second largest party in Israel.
As a result, Haredim parties were cast
into opposition for only the second time since 1977, leaving angry
ultra-Orthodox to warn that the rule of law cannot trump the rabbis'
"We'll go to jail. Don't put us to the test," said Yechezkel, a
30-year-old, full-time seminary student, wearing the traditional heavy black
garb that many Haredi men don, in defiance of the sun burning the Jerusalem
street around him.GROWING ARMY
Ultra-Orthodox men poured onto the
streets of Jerusalem last month to protest against government plans, hurling
stones at police at the start of what could become a long, hot
"It's a joke. They founded a state 65 years ago and they want to
reform people who keep a thousands-year-old tradition," said Yechezkel,
contrasting the devout to the secular Zionists who founded the Jewish state but
kept religion at arm's length.
He declined to give his family name. As he
spoke, a passerby shouted that it was blasphemy to even talk to reporters at
Studying the Jewish scriptures, the Torah and Talmud, is one of the
most important edicts for the Haredim, whose heroes and role models are rabbis
and scholars who stood against religious changes that reached Jewish communities
with the industrial age.
However, ultra-Orthodox moderates such as Lipman
deny that study should exclude all else, pointing to the United States where
Haredim have full-time jobs - including his father who was a judge and whose old
gavel sits on his desk besides the stone.
In a country that feels under
siege, with a 20-percent Arab minority and Jews themselves drawn from very
diverse immigrant groups, the separateness of the Haredim has come to seem a
major obstacle to Israel's national cohesion as their numbers swell.
the state was created in 1948, its first prime minister, the Polish-born
socialist David Ben-Gurion, exempted about 400 students from military service so
they could devote themselves to religious study, hoping to keep alive sacred
knowledge and traditions almost wiped out in the Holocaust.
65 years, and the number of full-time seminary students has swelled to about
60,000, across a wide age range.
Demographics suggest their ranks will
expand much faster in the decades to come, with an estimated 32 percent of all
Jewish children who started school in Israel last year going to Haredi
establishments - most of which barely teach subjects such as maths,
concentrating instead on the Jewish scriptures.
"The fact they don't
serve and they don't work is starting to be a real problem for the economy and
for the unity of Israel," said Ofer Shelach, another Yesh Atid lawmaker, whose
secular background is more typical of the party's electorate.
don't prepare them better, our workforce will be ruined," he told Reuters,
arguing that getting more Haredim to serve in the army was a good way to teach
them new skills that would eventually help them find jobs.
hold little sway in the Haredi Jerusalem neighbourhood of Geula, where the
narrow streets are crowded with men, women and children who appear to have
stepped out of grainy photographs from pre-war eastern Europe.
we live on different planets," said Mordechai Wingott, who lectures in a
seminary for teachers. "These are different cultures, with different values.
Lack of understanding creates hate and divide. Suppression is done for its own
sake, not for the sake of the budget or equality," he said.
terms of the conscription bill that is due to be passed into law by August, only
1,800 seminary students will be allowed to skip military service each year out
of 8,000 ultra-Orthodox religious students reaching service age each
Through a mix of incentives and threats, including possible jail
terms, the government hopes the remaining number will gradually be drawn into
the military, or alternative civilian service roles. Haredi women will retain
But street posters have already gone up in Geula,
calling on young Haredi men to go to prison rather than join the army, voicing
the fear that the sheltered youths will be corrupted by the modern world if they
leave the yeshiva seminary schools.
"The new Israeli government is
definitely more hostile to the ultra-Orthodox people, our way of life. They are
trying to destroy it," said Michal Green, 48, a mother of seven who compared it
to historic enemies of the Jews. "The Jewish people are used to (others) trying
to destroy them," she added.BIBLICAL PRESSURES
Not all Haredim are
against military service. The military says some 3,500 soldiers serve in units
or in army roles where conditions are designed to cater to their strict
religious codes, and the numbers are slowly rising.
Life is not easy for
them. David, a 24-year-old network manager in the army, said many Haredim
soldiers were afraid of being shunned by their families for serving in the
ranks. He did not give his full name because he did not want to be
"I come from a more moderate family," he said. "I can come
home in uniform but some of my friends can't. They keep secret the fact that
they are in the army. As soon as they leave the base for home, they change into
civilian clothing." Underscoring the pressures they face, one poster in Geula
described Haredi soldiers as sinners who shunned their forebears by joining the
army of the Midianites - a Biblical people who hounded the Israelites, according
to the Old Testament.
David said he decided to enlist in order to
increase his chances of finding work: "You get experience in the military and
the army also gives you professional courses," he said.
A recent study by
the Economy Ministry found that 70 percent of Haredi soldiers entered the
workforce after they completed their service. By contrast, only 45 percent of
all Haredi men were employed, according to the Israeli central bank.
government believes many ultra-Orthodox are tired of relentless poverty and,
unable to challenge the authority of the powerful rabbi, secretly hope the
In a further effort to encourage the Haredim to seek
jobs, the government is going to cut child welfare for large families and says
it will withhold funds from schools that do not broaden their curriculum and
prepare their students for the workplace.
David Zoldan, a journalist and
one of the first haredim to serve in the army, says his community is in fact
ready for change, but warns that threats and edicts are not the way forward:
"Once the haredi public decides it is not going to do something, it will not
budge," the 32-year-old said.
"It must be done with consent, otherwise it
is doomed." His concern is echoed by some government allies, who fear the
proposed pace of change will prove counterproductive.
"I am against any
reform that is taken very dramatically and very sharply in just a short period
of time," said Silvan Shalom, Israel's energy minister and a political
heavyweight in Netanyahu's traditionally secular, right-wing Likud
"We have been a nation for just 65 years. We were in exile for
2,000 years. After so many years, you are going to have tribes," Shalom told
Reuters. "It seems like Israel will remain a country of tribes for many
decades." Such sentiment raises the question of how vigorously the draft bill
will be enforced. According to the current version, it will only come into full
effect in four years, when a new government that could include Haredi parties,
will be in office.
"It's a massive scam," said Shahar Ilan, vice
president of Hiddush, which campaigns to limit the legal power of certain
religious leaders over the life of Israel's Jewish citizens.
leaving the fight for the next government."