In 2007, then-Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Eliezer Shkedi had an idea. For years, the defense establishment, the courts and the politicians had been speaking about the need to draft Haredi men, the ultra-Orthodox. Shkedi decided it was enough time for talking. It was time to do something.
Shkedi met with the Air Force’s rabbi at the time, Lt.-Col. Moshe Ravad, and asked him to arrange meetings with senior members of the haredi community. After a few months, Shkedi and Ravad had a plan in hand called “Shahar Kachol,” Hebrew for “Haredi integration in Blue,” the color of the IAF’s flag.
This was a mission very different than what Shkedi was used to. He enlisted in the Air Force in 1975 and became one of Israel’s first F-16 pilots, making a name for himself as a professional and daring combat operator. As head of the IAF, he helped hone Israel’s targeted killing methods – based on a combination of quality intelligence and precise airstrikes – a capability later replicated by other Western countries.
The plan to draft haredim also needed to be done with precision. First, he and Ravad found a group of haredi men – those who were already in their mid-to-late twenties and had a number of children – who were desperate for a way to support their families. They were looking for a way out of the cycle of poverty.
Shkedi identified a talent among the potential soldiers. While they didn’t have a standard education – they had never studied English, math or science – they had refined analytical skills from years of Talmud study, and when taught math or computer science, they picked it up in no time.
The challenges though seemed huge. The suspicion in the Air Force and the IDF Manpower Directorate was extraordinary. “Over my dead body,” was how one top officer in the directorate answered Shkedi and Ravad when they went to see him with their idea. Shkedi smiled back. “It will happen,” he said.
The haredim were also suspicious. The army was muktza, off limits, to the community. Even if they were willing to enlist, they would need glatt kosher food, a base without women instructors, and time every day for prayer and study. Shkedi was willing to make it all possible. He was determined to make it work.
Early on, Shkedi understood that the key to success was not to patronize the haredim and make them feel like they were a burden on society and he was trying to solve their problems. Rather it was about building trust and maintaining a dialogue. He looked to the future and saw an opportunity to try to help heal the divide in Israeli society.
Shkedi and Ravad, a haredi rabbi, went to talk to the haredi leadership.
“Shkedi made it clear that it was a win-win,” Ravad recalled this week. “He needed talented soldiers, the haredi men needed a livelihood, and he was offering them a profession. Everyone benefited.”
The approach, Ravad explained, wasn’t that the Air Force was going to “teach the haredim how to live” or to “make them like us,” but rather to show respect to them as well as their way of life.
“It was about trust,” Ravad said. “You need trust. You don’t come as someone condescending but as someone from within the community.”
To call the program a success is an understatement. By 2012, more than 600 haredi soldiers had passed through the IAF, serving in technological positions. Other IDF branches wanted their own “Shahar” programs. Military Intelligence set one up, the C4I communications directorate did as well, and then the Navy. Thousands have since been through the different programs.
Shkedi’s success didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from an understanding that despite the differences among Israeli Jews – secular, traditional, national religious and haredi – everyone’s fate is bound with the other. It was a lesson, he told me this week, that he learned as the son of a Holocaust survivor.
“On the way to the crematorium no one asked if you had a kippa, what size it was and what you believed,” he told me. “We have one fate as one people.”I called Shkedi and Ravad this week as a closure was imposed on Bnai Brak, and haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem were divided and blocked off. The steep rise in the number of haredim infected with the coronavirus continues to climb, and there are some indications in the Health Ministry that a third of Bnai Brak is sick without even knowing.
In recent weeks, there have been numerous accusations in the media and the political establishment against the haredi world, accusing the community of something on the verge of sedition for failing to abide by the Healthy Ministry guidelines.
I do not want to whitewash genuine problems that exist. On a visit to Mea Shearim this week – blocked off on all sides by police checkpoints – I saw how haredim gather at the entrance to stores. Social distancing is a foreign concept. The people I saw stood one on top of the other. But as someone there explained to me, how do you expect people who live in a two-room apartment with seven to 10 children to suddenly understand social distancing?
With that as the reality, what was needed at the outset of this crisis was to copy what can be called the “Shkedi model”: not to simply issue orders and expect them to be obeyed, but to speak to key leaders to explain the severity of the situation and to build trust.
What happened with the way news of the pandemic was first given to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky – by a grandson who made it seem like the state was against yeshivas – was a mistake by the haredi community and also by the government. The government should have known that it needed a clear line of communication with the community leadership.
It’s no secret that there is very little trust between the haredi community and the state. This is something that has existed not for years but for decades. When the police enter Bnai Brak or Mea Shearim, they are viewed suspiciously. When soldiers come through haredi areas they are looked at as if they are coming to undermine the community’s way of life.
Soldiers from the elite IDF Commando Brigade were going door to door in Bnai Brak this week delivering food packages to families in need. They weren’t coming to patronize but to help. They weren’t coming to preach but to build trust.
For a people to listen to their government, they have to trust and believe it, and that what they are being told to do is being done to help them, and is not punishment.
The haredim haven’t trusted the government for years – and why would they? Almost every discussion about them is criticism: They don’t share the national burden, they dictate matters of religion and state in Israel, they don’t work in the same numbers as the majority of Israelis, and many don’t pay taxes. Some of this might be true, but is going on the attack the way to change reality?
“There was no trust when the virus broke out,” Ravad told me. “We did not create trust between the haredim and the state. Instead, the feeling in the community has been that whenever something is done it is automatically against the haredim… It doesn’t have to be that way.”
There is also little confidence among secular and national religious Jews that anything will really change among the haredim. For too long, secular and national religious Jews have carried the national burden – serving in the IDF and working hard to fund the state budget. They too are suspicious of the other side.
Regular readers of The Jerusalem Post also know that we have written extensively about the need to abolish the Chief Rabbinate, to separate religion and state in Israel and to break the haredi parties’ monopoly in the Knesset.
But if we have learned anything from the coronavirus that has overtaken our lives and the crisis that has struck the haredi community, it is that disparagement, finger-pointing and attacks will not work.
If the government really wants people to listen to its orders, it needs to cultivate trust. That means working to solve the real deep problems that exist in society. We can’t expect everything to suddenly work after it’s been broken for so long.
We need to build trust. After all, as Shkedi said, we all share the same fate.