Reporting from Israel: Yovav Kalifon
Politics in Israel has gotten a bit of a stir over a recent High-Court ruling, saying that “Tal Law” was unconstitutional, and should not be extended beyond its predetermined expiration date this August.
Tal Law made it possible for religious Yeshiva students to be legally exempt from military service, year after year, provided they can demonstrate they truly do attend the Yeshiva (religious College), where they study Jewish philosophy and traditions, as their way of life.
The motivation behind the law, it should be noted, was not to draft more ultra-orthodox people into the ranks of the IDF, nor to push more of them to study in the Yeshiva. The motivation was merely to make it possible for them to get jobs in Israel.
An Israeli who did not complete military service cannot legally work in Israel, unless they were exempt. The Arab sector, in general, is not called in for service, and can legally work. Many Arabs volunteer for military service, in-fact some of them say it is racially discriminatory not to draft them automatically. The Druze and Cherkessian do get drafted, and they serve with a passion.
Today it is also possible to do some form of voluntary civil service and avoid being drafted, and many choose this option, especially religious girls and some minority groups. By doing so, they earn the right to work legally, without having to serve a day in the military.
The Jewish public is called in for service, but many ultra-orthodox have serious issues with that. They tend to dodge the draft in increasing numbers. That creates tensions between the sectors. It also makes it difficult for the dodgers to get jobs. Working in the black market creates a whole added source of problems. It required some sort of legislation.
Legally speaking, now that the Tal Law will not be extended, it seems those Yeshiva boys might be drafted after-all. That would change the “status quo” we have in Israel, which is difficult to believe (the term “status-quo” refers to the accepted state-and-religion relationship and related laws).
I went out to the neighborhood of Me’a-She’arim with a friend of mine, a French journalist, to talk to the ultra-orthodox about the latest developments.
What we learnt was that for some young ultra-orthodox, the idea of going to a Yeshiva college and studying Jewish philosophy is more important than having people defending the state, and defending the people living there, including themselves.
They more or less assert that Israel faces threats on all sides, with Iran taking the lead as the top existential threat to Jewish independence in the land of Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas trailing somewhere behind, and the somewhat defiant Arab minority in Israel posing a minor concern to Jewish national sovereignty.
Still, some of the people we talked to seemed to think that by going to Yeshivas, they do a better job of protecting the land and its people, than does a high-tech modern army such as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
One person went as far as saying that we need an army today, surely, but if we had never established that army and simply sent everyone to the Yeshivas in the first place, we would have had no threats to our existence here. He was probably unaware of the fact that Jews were fighting for their independence here since before 1948 and the consequent creation of the IDF.
Another person had a more subtle point to make. He said that by sending some people to the Yeshiva, they help preserve the Jewish character of Israel and the Jewish way of life. That, in his opinion, gives the public some sort of self-confidence and a sense of worth, and that is the main function and reason for having a Yeshiva.
So studying in Yeshivas, to that person, was not done to defend the state, but to defend its character, and give the state something valuable to defend.
Well, I thought it was an interesting point to make, and maybe a bit more sensible than the previous mystic idea of God defending Israel without having an army, but it had holes in it too.
My main objection to this view was that the ultra-orthodox, if they truly wish to promote the religious aspect of Jewish character in Israel, should not close themselves off in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods such as Me’a-She’arim, where we were having that chat, or Bnei-Brak, for example.
They should be out in universities, publishing articles in the mainstream media, serving as doctors in hospitals, going to law schools and serving in the High-Court. They should be taking part in society, not shutting society out.
No, the reason they go to Yeshivas and the reason they don’t want to mix with the rest of Israeli society, in the army or elsewhere, is because there is a clash between aspects of Jewish character in Israel. By him saying they preserve Jewish character in the Yeshiva, he is actually saying he sees secular Jews in Israel, or even the state of Israel itself, as devoid of Jewish character.
The truth is that secular aspects of Jewish life in Israel give such an appealing sense of identity that the ultra-orthodox sector has to defend its own sense of Jewish identity by separating itself from modern life in Israel.
Abroad, for example, ultra-orthodox Jews don’t have to face this sort of threat to their identity, and they can afford not to shut themselves in. They earn a better living, they lead more productive lives, and they sponsor Yeshiva boys in Israel.
The Israeli ultra-orthodox, in choosing to separate themselves from the rest of Israeli society, find themselves in a rather poor condition. Upholding their education system and upholding Jewish philosophy above all else makes it difficult for many of them to compete with educated workers in the modern world. Not being able to work legally makes it even more difficult to get by. Men who get married, have many children, and still go to Yeshiva in their thirties or even sixties make it so much harder for their wives to provide for the family.
The situation there is absurd. They obviously sacrifice a great deal for the sake of maintaining their way of life and their Yeshivas. The self-inflicted separation between them and other sectors is a sign of paranoia. The only explanation I can give for their extreme sacrifice, paranoia, and resulted poverty, is the idea that they are afraid of losing their version of Jewish identity.
Looking at other sectors, I see a repeated pattern. Secular Jews and national-religious Jews have a well defined Jewish identity, with either a secular or a religious emphasis, and taking part in state-building is not a threat to their character, in-fact it is their motivation, i.e. identity, to take part in it. The Druze and Cherkessians also have a strong unique identity, and they can contain an Israeli identity alongside of it, so they integrate into Israeli society fairly well, serve in the army, get descent jobs, and do well for themselves.
Two outstanding sectors of Israeli society do poorly, separate themselves from the rest, don’t get very involved in the military, state institutions, civil councils, etc. They are the ultra-orthodox and the Arab-Israeli sector. They would both do well by themselves if they could find a way to coexist with modern Israel, a democratic state with a Jewish majority and a Jewish national character, without them having to lose their other unique identities.
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