Binyamin Netanyahu and Eli Yisahi 390.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
ULTRA-ORTHODOXY negates nearly everything Middle Israelis espouse: We cherish,
and they scorn, A.D. Gordon’s productive Jew, Ahad Ha’am’s Hebrew Jew, Ze’ev
Jabotinsky’s fighting Jew and David Ben-Gurion’s stately Jew, who was to shed
our forebears’ ghetto walls and the ignorance, tribalism and narrow-mindedness
that flourished within them.
Still, all of ultra-Orthodoxy’s other
faults, from idealizing non-work to separating Ashkenazim from non-Ashkenazim,
and from resisting enlightenment to oppressing women – are dwarfed compared with
their draft dodging.
David Ben-Gurion agreed to exempt 400 bright
students from military service because he accepted ultra-Orthodoxy’s argument
that the Torah world destroyed in the Holocaust demanded restoration.
have come a long way since then.
Annual military service exemptions have
grown 15-fold, and the prewar Torah world has long been rebuilt; in Bnei Brak
alone there are more yeshivot and students now than there ever were in all of
Lithuania. Still, rather than change its demands ultra-Orthodoxy changed its
argument, now claiming yeshivot bring victory to the IDF, an attitude that
ignores what Moses himself told the tribes of Reuben and Gad when he thought
they wanted to avoid the war for the Promised Land: “Shall your brethren go to
war, and shall you sit here?” (Numbers 32:6) Now Israeli society is forced to
reexamine all this, as the Supreme Court has ruled unconstitutional the Tal Law
which for the past decade shaped relations between ultra-Orthodoxy and military
THE MIDDLE Israeli reflex is to use the constellation to once
and for all impose military service on the ultra-Orthodox. Well, that
would be foolhardy.
Scandalous as the situation has become, it will be
undone by evolution, not revolution. Justice Zvi Tal, an observant Torah scholar
whose son, Moshe, was killed in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War, understood
this when he conceived a mechanism of gradualism and volunteerism, whereby
yeshiva students made do with four years of study, followed by one year in the
army or in national service, after which they would be allowed to
Now the court, in ruling this violated Basic Law: Human Dignity and
Freedom, reasoned that the Tal Law’s impact did not justify the inequalities it
On the abstract level that is of course right. On the
practical level, however, the fact that in 2010 nearly one in four
ultra-Orthodox youths enlisted was a major accomplishment for Israeli society,
one that is attributable only to the Tal Law’s passage in 2002, incidentally
while the prime minister was, of all people, Ariel Sharon.
Tal’s attitude now in the illusion that ultra-Orthodoxy can be enlisted in one
fell swoop will prove naïve, and in fact destroy recent years’ quiet
breakthrough. The launch of new programs for ultra-Orthodox conscripts in the
infantry and in the air force, and the parallel sprouting of specialized
colleges and vocational schools where ultra-Orthodox students are trained as
lawyers, accountants or software engineers were the happiest things that could
be expected on this front; for Middle Israelis don’t want ultra-Orthodoxy
defeated; they want it incorporated.
ULTRA-ORTHODOXY has been on the
defensive for centuries. All orthodoxies, beginning with the Greek Christians
who first described themselves as such, responded to what they saw as other
people’s heresies. Judaism’s was no exception, having been a reaction to the
rise of secularism and, worse, as they saw it – Reform.
Jewish Orthodoxy faced were formidable. The allure of Enlightenment, the
availability of secular education and the seduction of professional careers
undermined rabbis and split families, with thousands not only abandoning
observance but also converting.
The story goes that one French rabbi who
– in accordance with Jewish law – was sitting shiva because his brother had just
converted to Christianity, was paid a shiva call by that very brother, who
really meant to comfort his bereaved brother.
The rabbis responded in two
ways: They resisted all change, and they cultivated the figurative ghetto as a
barrier from the outer world’s temptations. And when some sought to reconcile
observance and modernity, those who disagreed with them raised their
metaphorical ghetto walls even higher, and became what we now call
Ultra-Orthodoxy’s sense of siege grew after the
Holocaust, which ultra-Orthodox rabbis, who opposed immigration to both America
and the Land of Israel, failed to foresee. And in the young State of Israel
ultra-Orthodoxy was even more defensive, because anti-religious militancy was
fashionable in parts of the Israeli elite.
ultra-Orthodoxy was originally humble, seldom demanding government jobs or big
budgets, and making do with a small number of military- service exemptions.
Ben-Gurion had a tacit agreement with them: The rabbis shunned the state’s
affairs, and the state considered favorably the ghetto’s needs, for instance
tolerating its separate school system and allowing neighborhoods to ban traffic
Today this defensive spirit is prehistory.
Likud’s victory in 1977 ultra-Orthodoxy struck an entirely different deal,
becoming the new ruling party’s strategic ally. Annual service exemptions grew
gradually from several hundred to some 7,000 young men (no one, on either side
of the ghetto wall, is even mentioning the women) while the number of yeshivot
and the size of their budgets multiplied, as did housing subsidies and assorted
tax breaks, all of which added up to the a social price tag that a growing
number of Middle Israelis came to resent. And most insultingly, some
ultra-Orthodox politicians will not serve as ministers, only as deputy
ministers, lest they be identified too fully with the Zionist
Surely, these formulas of maximum taking with minimum giving,
of maximum power with minimum responsibility, and of maximum budgets with
minimum service, cannot last. The assumption that Middle Israel will tolerate
its abuse indefinitely has proven unfounded with last summer’s social
Secular Israelis already talk privately about ultra-Orthodoxy
like the worst anti-Semites. The explosion all this might produce is much closer
than many assume, and its danger to the Zionist enterprise is on a par with the
Ultra-Orthodox politicians had therefore better preempt
the wrath they are cultivating. For their own constituency’s sake, they should
now seek an expansion of the Tal Law, so that more ultra- Orthodox young adults
will enlist, study and work.
Still, the biggest onus in all this is on
ISRAELI PRIME ministers can generally be divided into
strategists and tacticians.
Ben-Gurion, Begin and Peres, for instance,
were strategists, having been guided by ambitious, long-term
Golda, Shamir and Olmert were tacticians bent on preserving what
Netanyahu thinks of himself as a strategist, but to him
this means Tehran and Natanz, while the pressing strategic challenge which is
right here, between Bnei Brak and Mea She’arim, remains under his
To address it, Netanyahu must do three things: Personally produce
the new formula that will succeed the Tal Law; admonish secularists to respect
ultra-Orthodoxy and its struggle to modernize; and relegate ultra-Orthodoxy to
the political margins, where the vast majority of the public think it
None of this will be easy, but it will convince everyone he is a
The writer is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman