It was determined in advance that there would be no speeches at Sunday’s ultra-Orthodox rally in Jerusalem against the new draft bill. From the stage there were mainly prayers and Psalms, chosen by Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, leader of the non-Hassidic, “Lithuanian” stream. Eleven Psalms were recited, some praising the God’s greatness, others describing shocking destruction, such as Psalm 79: 1-2: “God, the heathen are come into Thine inheritance; they have defiled Thy holy temple; they have made Jerusalem into heaps. They have given the dead bodies of Thy servants to be food unto the fowls of the heaven, the flesh of Thy saints unto the beasts of the earth.”
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The official message of Sunday’s peaceful demonstration was clear: exile, destruction, faith in the Eternal One of Israel, all in poetic phrasings that have been attributed to King David.
Shteinman, 99, is calling on Haredim from across the spectrum to return to the old ultra-Orthodoxy. If this message seems to go down easily at this particular time, it is thanks to Yesh Atid.
After examining the draft of the new enlistment law, one can only conclude that Sunday’s rally should have been attended by the 543,458 Israeli voters who cast their ballot in January 2013 for the party, which promised to introduce universal service, and not the estimated 500,000 to 600,000 Haredim who blocked the capital’s streets.
So what were the Haredim doing here? They need the pictures of unity, which play well both internally and externally. The “criminal sanctions” – that is, extending the Defense Service Law to Haredi men in the event the draft quotas set for the community are not met – are a gift to the rabbis from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yair Lapid, the chairman of Yesh Atid. Without them, it would be hard to unite all the various ultra-Orthodox sects and streams against the new law, which in and of itself will not cause the conscription of anyone who does not want to enlist.
Yesh Atid’s insistence on a victory picture will not send even one Haredi man to jail, but it did allow the Haredi leadership to cry out that the Jewish state is about to throw young men into jail for studying Torah.
This is important for the rabbis. Under its aegis they can maintain the most important element of Haredi faith – building higher walls against Israeli society. Simultaneously, it allows them to lead their flocks along a narrow path as continents tremble beneath their feet. No less important is the fact that Sunday’s gathering was peaceful, proving that the flocks heed their rabbinic shepherds.
The criminal sanctions allow the Haredi establishment to embrace its margins: modern Haredim, Haredi laborers, middle-class Haredim, men who served in special Haredi units of the Israel Defense Forces, Haredim who went to college, who use the Internet and who own smartphones, who are fed up with the Haredi parties and vote Likud or even Habayit Hayehudi.
Although most of Sunday’s demonstrators were from the core of the ultra-Orthodox community, there were also Haredi reformers, such as Bezalel Cohen, the founder and dean of a yeshiva high school in Jerusalem whose students study for the bagrut matriculation exams.
Attorney Meir Heller, of the modern Haredi movement Tov, based in Beit Shemesh, wrote on his Facebook page, “Even though we have many things we would like to change in our society. We are all haredim. So, yes, when our brothers studying in yeshivas come out to protest the crushing of the world of Torah and that in the State of Israel sanctions for studying Torah are inconceivable, I think that we must be there!!!!”
How long will the banner of Haredi unity remain raised? The rabbis would count a significant blow to Haredi military and national-service enlistment rates a success. On Sunday the call was not to sign up under any circumstances. Will it succeed? Will the trend toward “Israelization” in the Haredi community be stopped? The answers will not be immediate. The new law will grant an immediate exemption to Haredi men over the age of 22, and Haredi enlistment numbers are expected to decline over the next year or two in any event. Only God knows what will happen between now and 2017, when the new law is to be implemented fully.