Justice Must Be Equal for Migrants, Bedouin - and Haredim, Too

The moral conscience of the peace camp, left-wing NGOs and international media is strikingly selective.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

This was to have been a historic week for the global ultra-Orthodox community. The leaders of the largest Hasidic courts in Israel were about to embark on the “Rebbes’ Journey,” a highly publicized visit to the United States, where they planned to address a massive audience, lobby American politicians and business leaders and call for a united front against the evil Israeli government’s plan to ruin the holy yeshivas by forcing their students to join the army.

A stadium had been booked, thousands had already bought their plane tickets and the flunkies were already getting down to the crucial detail of which rabbis would sit in the first row, when it was quietly announced that the trip wouldn’t be going ahead. The best laid schemes of rabbis and men had gone awry once again, leaving us with nothing but excuses and accusations.

So why had the plan failed? In part, it was a combination of logistical issues and the massive egos of the rebbes that made any concerted effort an absurdly complex operation. But there was an underlying reluctance that probably doomed the journey from the start.

The rebbes of Ger, Belz and other large Hasidic groups are no Zionists, but protesting abroad against the Israeli government’s policies is something that only the small and esoteric anti-Israel (and pro-Iran) group, Neturei Karta, does. The rest of the haredi leadership has always preferred to demonstrate and argue with the government at home. And over the last few decades there was little need for protests anyway – through their political parties, the Haredim were part of the establishment and usually got most of their demands through political horse-trading.

For the last year however, they have been out of the coalition, and with the law designed to force them into national service in its final drafts, they have been forced to rethink their tactics, and have yet to come up with a new strategy. For now at least, internationalizing the campaign still seems beyond them. Whether it’s from a sense of loyalty to the state or, more likely, a reluctance to seek the assistance of the goyim against a Jewish government, the result remains the same.

The three protests

Other Israeli protest movements have no such qualms. Three civil and human rights struggles are currently on the boil within Israel borders (as opposed to the struggle over the actual location of these borders and the status of what lies beyond them).

This week was all about the African migrants who went on strike and marched in their tens of thousands in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, demanding the government treat them as asylum-seekers and not illegal infiltrators. Last month it was the Bedouin protesting against the Prawer-Begin Plan to forcibly remove tens of thousands of them from “unrecognized” villages in the Negev. Both campaigns are supported by nearly identical coalitions: the political parties normally associated with the “peace camp,” Israeli liberal and radical left-wing NGOs, financed to a large extent by funds from foreign foundations and European governments, and a uniformly sympathetic international media.

The third campaign, that of the Haredi community against the new law which will force its young men to enlist, will come to a head in a few weeks as the Shaked Committee completes its work. But the Haredi campaign has received none of the support extended to the Bedouin and migrants. On the contrary, major parts of the pro-civil rights coalition, especially Meretz, are in favor of forcing the draft on the ultra-Orthodox. Yet they see no contradiction.

Lumping the struggles of Bedouin and African migrants with the demands of the Haredim seems counter-intuitive to most Israelis. After all, while the Negev tribes are among the most disenfranchised of Israeli citizens and the migrants are not even granted any status whatsoever that might allow them to survive and seek stable and productive lives, the ultra-Orthodox have long enjoyed billions in housing and welfare subsidies and had their schools, which refuse to teach the national curriculum, funded by the state. All this without working, paying taxes or undertaking national service. In what way have these most-favored citizens and perennial partners in power been disenfranchised? Insisting they join the army is only the first stage in creating equality between them and the rest of the (Jewish) Israelis, who all join the national conscript army. It’s simply having them abide by the law.

But this is a superficial reading of the current situation and historical process.

Not just about legalities

If all that matters is the letter of law, then thousands of Bedouin are squatting illegally on state land and the majority of Eritrean and Sudanese civilians currently in Israel illegally entered the country and are not eligible for asylum. But these campaigns are not simply about adhering to the law - they’re about trying to achieve justice. For a host of social, national, political and legal reasons, both ultra-Orthodox and Bedouin (as well as most of the Arab Israelis) opted out of mainstream Israeli society. True, in part they chose to live on the outside and occasionally even benefited from it, but no government ever made the effort to create a mechanism for bringing them in. Whatever they may have gained over the years, suddenly changing the rules on the ground and throwing the book at them is manifestly unjust.

Forcing the Haredim to join the IDF and the Bedouin to conform to proper land-planning procedures may be legal, but is impossible to justify when there is no infrastructure for modern education and gainful employment for the ultra-Orthodox community, while the national planning policy routinely disregards the basic housing needs of Israeli Arab communities. And by the same coin, denying African migrants any basic rights simply because they illegally “infiltrated” across the border is unjust, seeing as how the outdated and incoherent immigration system has no space whatsoever for any non-Jewish immigrant to gain even temporary residential rights, let alone an eventual path to citizenship, even for a few.

Citizens shouldn’t be allowed to occupy state land without proper authorization, all Israelis should take part equally in national service, and citizens of other nations should enter Israel legally. But the government can’t enforce only part of the law on 50,000 Bedouin, Haredim or migrants when it continues to forget that it is also has duties towards its citizens and an obligation to human rights for all. True commitment to these values means equally opposing the government’s plans for Bedouin, Haredim and migrants until it fulfills its obligations.

Haredim protest outside Israeli military's Confinement Base 396, December 4, 2013.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

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