Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote in these pages: “The citadels of Torah
study are the very raison d’etre of the haredi community. [A]nything perceived
as an effort to destroy them will harden haredi resistance and halt the salutary
trends of the last 10 years toward haredi academic study and entry into the
workforce and the IDF” (“Advice for the Plesner Committee: Minimize
confrontation,” June 22, 2012). That prophecy, unfortunately, is well on the way
Over the past decade, there have been dramatic changes in
Israeli haredi society.
Between 2008-2012, for instance, the number of
students pursuing advanced vocational training – architecture, structural
engineering, interior design, computer programming and networking – at the
Mercaz HaHaredi for Technological Studies, the largest institution of its kind,
tripled to 1,800 students on five campuses.
A variety of platforms have
been created for haredim to pursue academic degrees via Israel’s leading
universities, and large-scale funding of scholarships for students – many of
them still learning in kollel – secured through private donors. On the distaff
side, new tracks are opening up in post-high school seminaries every year – in
accounting, computers, graphics, architecture, speech and occupational therapy,
dance, art and music therapy.
Changes have taken place in the IDF as
Nahal Haredi has been approved for the addition of a second
battalion over the next few years, starting with an additional company this
year, and now has its own reserve unit. More important, in the long run, has
been the development by the IDF of new frameworks for (mostly) married haredi
men in their mid-to-late-20s.
These programs have proven to be a win-win
for the IDF and the haredi community. Haredim receive training in fields of
general applicability, and in return are filling some of the IDF’s critical
manpower needs. Re-enlistment rates have been among the highest in the
THESE CHANGES have been dictated by the internal needs of the haredi
community. Yet like all social change, particularly that emanating from below in
the form of the individual decisions of thousands of individual haredim, the
various trends described have generated a backlash as well.
would be such a backlash is predictable in a conservative society, in which all
change is evolutionary in nature. And to some extent it also serves as a
necessary corrective against moving too quickly and in the process destroying
the ideal of long-term Torah learning for men that made possible the astonishing
renaissance of Torah learning after the Holocaust.
The passion for Torah
instilled by the immediate post-Holocaust generation is the lifeblood of the
But the backlash has also opened up fissures within haredi
society. The creation of a second daily newspaper serving the community
identified with the Lithuanian yeshivot symbolizes those fissures. One of those
papers has an unpleasant habit of hectoring those who seek the education to
support their families with derogatory terms like “new haredim” and “haredi-
lite.” And warnings of spiritual decline in the workplace or academia can, for
some, become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Until recently, the backlash did
not succeed in arresting the overall trends, which have in large part been
dictated by economic necessity. Part of the reason for the relatively slight
impact of the delegitimizing efforts is that it is difficult to make a case
based on Torah sources that earning a livelihood or protecting Jewish lives are
not elevated activities, though like every other permitted activity, they can be
done in forbidden fashion – e.g., men and women serving together in combat
ENTER YAIR Lapid. Lapid has wittingly or unwittingly provided the
forces of the backlash with the one tool that they could never have provided
themselves: Evidence that the Torah community and the haredi way of life is
under direct assault. Never mind all the protestations of brotherly love and
respect. When Lapid uses haredim as the scapegoats for every budgetary shortfall
and deflects every criticism of his economic policies with reference to the
haredim, these protestations ring hollow.
The proposed cuts of benefits
to haredim come from so many directions all at once and are so draconian in
nature that no family headed by a man learning in kollel could ever hope to make
up a fraction of the shortfall in the time allotted. The only result will be the
further impoverishment of the poorest sector of the Jewish population. These
cuts will be understood – and rightly so – as punitive in nature, i.e., designed
to punish kollel families for past “bad behavior.”
limitation of government-subsidized nursery schools and kindergartens to
families in which both parents are working would either serve as a disincentive
to kollel wives working or make kollel learning impossible for all but newlyweds
and the richest haredi couples. All haredi schools – including Chinuch Atzmai
and Ma’ayan HaTorah, both of which generally teach the “LIBA,” or core
curriculum subjects – are slated for across-the-board 25 percent cuts in
funding. Even today, haredi schools receive only 61% percent of the per capita
government support that students in the state school system
Lapid’s insistence via the Perry Committee on criminalizing
non-service in the IDF, however, clinched the case. Already a month ago, I heard
murmurings from a left-leaning religious member of the Perry Committee, who will
never be accused of too great a sympathy for haredim, that the committee was
pursuing a vendetta.
As Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon pointed out, the
coalition guidelines made no mention of criminal sanctions. Ya’alon knows very
well that the IDF has no interest at present in absorbing 5,000 haredi teenagers
a year. Already in 2011, the IDF was turning away new haredi recruits because it
had no place to put them.
(Interestingly, I cannot recall a single word
from Lapid on how the absorption of haredim would be achieved in a manner
consistent with their religious requirements.) At a time when the demands on the
IDF are multiplying, even as the available resources are being cut, Ya’alon has
no wish to devote any portion of the IDF’s budget to a vast expansion of
gender-separate units. So criminalization has precious little to do with solving
the manpower needs of the IDF. It does, however, turn every man learning in
kollel into an outlaw. That is not a step toward haredi integration into the
economy or IDF or toward greater societal cohesion.
By even raising the
specter of jail, Lapid plays into a certain haredi impulse for
Haredim are raised on stories of ancestors who gave up their
lives rather than betray their religion.
Many may fear that they are not
on the level of previous generations, and would be only too delighted to have
the opportunity to prove their mettle. Standing firm in the face of government
threats, including that of imprisonment, now becomes a means of doing
It is well known that a Jew is required to give up his life rather
than transgress any of the three cardinal sins – murder, idol worship, and
certain forbidden sexual relationships. But the Talmud also states that at a
time when the ruling authority seeks to wipe out religious observance, Jews must
give up their lives rather than even change the color of their shoelaces to that
customarily worn by gentiles.
Lapid has succeeded in turning government
decrees perceived as threatening all long-term Torah learning into the
metaphorical command to don “red shoelaces”; and agreement to the government’s
expressed goals into a form of capitulation.
THAT THIS will happen is no
longer in the realm of speculation. It has happened. Wall posters mocking the
“new haredim” have proliferated in some (not all) haredi
And married men in uniform have been accosted in shuls and
made to feel not welcome. They and those who might otherwise have followed in
their path will now have to balance fears of not getting their children into the
schools they wanted.
Over the past five years, the sight of former kollel
students in uniform in haredi neighborhoods has become commonplace. And when
people saw them with their tzitzis still out, still praying with fervor, still
using their nights to learn, still serving as the Torah reader on Shabbat, it
sent a message that the IDF, at least for married men, need not be viewed as
hostile territory or as an environment of great danger.
That message made
it easier for unmarried young men – whose self-image and self-discipline would
benefit greatly from service in a crack anti-terrorist unit in the
gender-segregated Nahal Haredi – and for older married men seeking training in
technical fields and stable postservice employment, to sign up.
Lapid has done is conjure up older haredi images of the IDF as an instrument of
coercion and socialization of haredim into an Israeli culture of which they have
no wish to be part, and thereby helped set back, if not reverse entirely trends
he claims to want to encourage.
I only wish I had not been proven right.
■ The writer is director of Jewish Media Resources, has written a regular column
in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight
biographies of modern Jewish leaders.