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The ultra-Orthodox's Struggle Against a Generous Draft Law

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Detailed discussion of the new draft law, to begin in a special Knesset committee next week, is a stormy moment in the relations between the ultra-Orthodox and the state and, no less so, among the ultra-Orthodox themselves. The past week signaled an escalation in the longtime leadership struggle between the leader of the mainstream portion of the Lithuanian sect, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, and the leader of the sect’s zealot faction, Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach.

Thursday’s protests throughout the country, in which a few thousand yeshiva students who are Auerbach’s followers took part, were of course against the draft and against the High Court of Justice, but no less so against Shteinman.

What is now at stake is Shteinman’s method. Will he, in his statesmanlike and passive way, manage to preserve the Haredi yeshiva world? From what is known of the new draft law, it seems that it will make it harder for Auerbach to persist in claiming that the Torah itself is being persecuted. Yeshiva students will be able to defer draft until age 24, more shortened-service programs will be created for Haredim with generous salaries, luxurious conditions and above all − a general quota will be set that will be easy to fill so that means that no Haredi, will be drafted against his will. These details have enormous implications for the leadership struggle.

Last week, in what has become a pattern in the Haredi leadership struggle, Shteinman’s followers once again had to counter accusations that he was “conciliatory” and tired. That has happened in the past and it happened now both because of the timing, ahead of the Knesset vote, and of the report in Haaretz of a secret back channel of communications that the leadership, i.e. the rabbis and wheeler-dealers around Shteinman (not he, himself), maintain with senior army officers and with MK Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi), chairwoman of the parliamentary committee preparing the new law.

Auerbach used this back channel, which mainly consists of quiet lobbying, as ammunition to claim that Shteinman is not a worthy leader. Shteinman also opposes Auerbach’s position that yeshiva students should not be told not to appear at draft offices to defer their service. Shteinman also recently refused to join an initiative launched by the leader of the Gerer Hasidic sect to organize tens of thousands of protesters in New York against the draft. This eventually led to the cancellation of the protest. He also refuses to send the yeshiva students into the streets to protest.

But what does Shteinman want? What do his people say in closed conversations with Shaked?

One individual who has made determined efforts to create rules to exempt full-time yeshiva students describes the current position of the Haredi representation: “The Haredim understand that the current situation will not continue, but none of the rabbis or politicos want to present a plan or say yes to a plan. At most they’ll say what they do not agree to under any circumstances, so they will be able to tolerate being forced into it.”

Another individual, a rabbi who is close to the Lithuanian leadership from Bnei Brak, concurs with this description and explains that the lack of a plan is in itself a plan, one that has served the ultra-Orthodox for many years now, and according to a preliminary version of the new draft law may continue to serve them for the coming years.

The rabbi takes us to a chapter in Israeli diplomacy in his search for an analogy. “Think of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir who adamantly refused any diplomatic offer for years. He too knew that a diplomatic agreement was inevitable and he eventually had to compromise. He understood that there was a price to pay for rejectionism, which would be boycotts. But Shamir thought that it could at least gain a few more years of the status quo in the territories. That’s the way it is with the Haredim. We understand that change is inevitable, and we are simply putting it off so as to build another generation to fill the yeshivas like those before us. Our leadership has no need at all for strategy. They understand that change will come and they are delaying it, and Rabbi Aharon Leib is not bad at it.”

Shteinman was traumatized by the attacks of his rivals in the late 1990s over his sending a representative to the Tal Committee, which passed the previous law on the Haredi draft. Since then he has been careful to maintain a strictly conservative line. But Shteinman, as opposed to Auerbach, has a Diaspora mentality, which seeks to avoid confrontation with the state at all costs.

Auerbach’s supporters are likely to bring out more and more protesters in the near future, but considering what is known of the new draft law it will be difficult for them to portray the Israeli government as a heartless tyrant. Among the Shaked committee’s ideas is to study the new law until 2020 and then, if it fails, to cancel it and impose the Security Services Law in its present form. Thus it could turn out that Shteinman will have obtained 21 years of tranquility for the Haredim and for the institution of full-time yeshiva study.

The ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem.Credit: Shiran Granot
Haredi soldiers praying at Massada. Credit: Alex Levac
Ultra-Orthodox youths protest in Jerusalem, February 6, 2014.Credit: Moti Milrod

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