Middle Israel: Bibi’s other strategic challenge

Rationalizing ultra-Orthodoxy’s place in Israel is no less urgent than containing Iran.

Binyamin Netanyahu and Eli Yisahi 390 (photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
We 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 service.
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 work.
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 tolerated.
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.
Abandoning 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.
The challenges 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.
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.
Consequently, Israeli 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 on Shabbat.
Today this defensive spirit is prehistory.
Following 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 enterprise.
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 upheaval.
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 Iranian bomb’s.
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 Binyamin Netanyahu.
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 visions.
Golda, Shamir and Olmert were tacticians bent on preserving what they inherited.
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 radar.
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 belongs.
None of this will be easy, but it will convince everyone he is a strategist.
The writer is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.