Two years ago, when Tair Kaminer was sentenced to prison for refusing to serve in the army, the conscientious objector received support from an unexpected source. M. (who wishes to remain anonymous), one of the leaders of the Jerusalem-based, ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit community, asked to meet with Kaminer to strengthen her resolve, and also used the occasion to give her a gift: a small Book of Psalms with her initials embossed on the cover.
That symbolic gesture was made possible in the wake of a channel of communication that began to be formed at the time, and has been kept secret until now, between conscientious objectors and the Eda Haredit, whose followers are unwilling to serve in the Israel Defense Forces or cooperate with the draft. The initial dialogue took place in small, measured steps – which is only natural, given the ideological abyss that divides the two camps on a range of issues. But last month, the cooperation between them had developed to the point of a public alliance.
Representatives of the two groups met in a small Jerusalem apartment. On one side was Tel Aviv-born Kaminer, the daughter of Sybil Goldfainer, a co-founder of the Israeli fashion house Comme Il Faut. Her grandmother, Dafna Kaminer, is a charter member of the anti-occupation Women in Black organization; an uncle, the late Noam Kaminer, did two prison terms for refusing to serve in the 1982 Lebanon war as a reservist. Tair, a graduate of the prestigious Ironi Aleph high school in Tel Aviv, is currently doing National Service at the Yad Beyad Hebrew-Arabic school in Jerusalem. Counterposed to her is M., a pious rabbi in the fifth decade of his life, a scion of the founder of Neturei Karta, a fringe Hasidic sect, who lives in the heart of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea She’arim neighborhood and is the father of 11 children, two of whom were recently arrested in anti-draft demonstrations.
In terms of identity politics, Kaminer is a kind of negative to her new Haredi friend, but in fact, every other random “couple” in the room also reflect intense mutual contradictions. Suffice it to contrast the silver nose ring that adorns one of those present with the typical black hat worn by the Haredi men there to conclude that what we have here is nothing short of a clash of civilizations.
The secular folk seem to be the more comfortable group. There are more of them, and the fact that the venue is the local headquarters of Hadash, the Arab-Jewish party that is part of the Arab Joint List in the Knesset (though the event itself is not being held under Hadash auspices), creates a feeling that they are on their turf. One’s impression is that the ultra-Orthodox may even be apprehensive about being overly identified with their hosts. This is seen, for example, in M.’s request that he not be identified by name in this article, even though he routinely speaks out against the draft and has been interviewed on the subject in the secular media.
Fireworks on the roof
Yaakov Weiss, a father of six from Mea She’arim, is the senior representative of the Eda Haredit at the meeting. In his remarks, he draws a distinction between the non-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox public and the Eda Haredit, which is declaratively anti-Zionist. To illustrate the point, Weiss relates an anecdote with which the radical leftists in the room might identify: “I remember that as a boy, when the children of our national-religious neighbors went up to the roof to see the [Independence Day] fireworks, we found that disgusting. For us it was almost a Nakba day,” he says, using the Arabic term, meaning “catastrophe,” to describe the period during Israel’s War of Independence when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes.
For the Eda Haredit, an amalgam of Hasidic sects such as Satmar and Toldot Aharon, which view themselves as the successors to the old Yishuv – the pre-Zionist Jewish community in Palestine – resistance to Zionism is manifested in the form of a sweeping refusal to cooperate with the Israeli state and its institutions. Communities belonging to the Eda don’t vote and decline to accept governmental funds, even refusing, in some cases, to receive National Insurance Institute allocations. Given this approach, IDF service was obviously never on the agenda, nor has the state ever made a real effort to induct 18-year-olds from Mea She’arim. How did it come about, then, that Weiss and his colleagues now perceive the draft as “religious persecution” and are looking for allies among the secular population?
The formative event was the draft law, which was passed by the previous government under the sponsorship of the Yesh Atid party. It stipulated an annual quota for the draft of Haredim, which was to rise gradually with time. Under the present government, in the wake of Haredi pressure, the clause in the law that imposes criminal sanctions on ultra-Orthodox young men who do not arrange for a service deferment was annulled. However, the most extreme Haredi groups reject the quota policy altogether, however small the numbers.
Accordingly, since the legislation passed, in 2014, the Eda Haredit has taken the approach that even yeshiva students who are eligible for deferment should not report to the induction center to arrange it, on the grounds that this is tantamount to cooperating with the governmental apparatus. Or, as Yaakov Weiss puts it, “We cannot abide a situation in which Haredi society allocates human sacrifices to the state, such and such a number of heads per year.”
He continues, “After all, we know that there is no real need for Haredi labor in the IDF and that this is only a societal requirement. The IDF is the melting pot of Israeliness. It’s a machine into which ultra-Orthodox are placed and from which Zionists emerge.” Weiss blames the Haredi MKs above all, claiming that they have “betrayed those who sent them.”
As a result of this popular protest, all the male youths who belong to the Eda Haredit are now seen by the state as deserters. The consequences are dramatic: They cannot go abroad until the age of 35, when they would otherwise no longer be subject to the draft; they face difficulties in obtaining a driver’s license; and every encounter with the Military Police, whether planned or random, could end in incarceration. According to Weiss, “Last winter alone, 60 of our boys were in military jails, and most chose to be placed in solitary confinement in order to reduce to the minimum their contact with the military system. We call them ‘heroes of valor.’”
In addition to the religious imperative, the Eda Haredit asserts that resistance is also based on “social” motives. The apparatus for granting exemptions to yeshiva students is controlled by ultra-Orthodox functionaries, they explain, and they primarily protect the students at the prestigious yeshivas in the big cities. Accordingly, to meet draft quotas, the army concentrates its efforts in the social and geographic periphery, in the small yeshivas, where the students are generally Mizrahim or of Ethiopian descent.
“We can look after our own, but this mechanism is meant to take the weak,” Rabbi M. says.
Officers and Torah
This unlikely alliance probably started two years ago outside Military Prison 6, near Atlit, south of Haifa. A few dozen Haredim held a protest there against the incarceration of four yeshiva students from the Peleg Yerushalmi sect (more on that below). Suddenly Shmuel Weiss, Yaakov’s brother, saw something unusual: A handful of nonreligious individuals, among them attorney Barak Cohen, had gathered not far away and were shouting incomprehensible slogans. “That bothered us,” Weiss recalls, “because we were certain that they had come to demonstrate against us. You came all the way to Atlit to call us shirkers? But when I went over to them they told me they had come to support our struggle – that they also opposed draft by coercion.”
That encounter was unplanned and thus premature. But since then, Weiss says, “We have been trying to penetrate the protective nature of the secular community.”
The breakthrough occurred spontaneously a few months later, when Noa Levy, an attorney working for the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel, happened upon an ultra-Orthodox demonstration outside the military court in Jaffa, where she lives, protesting the arrest of a draft evader.
“The demonstration was brutally suppressed by the police,” she relates. “I saw three Haredim handcuffed behind their backs and being kicked by policemen. I photographed it all, of course, and afterward I looked for a liaison from the group to share the material with, so as to help them with internal police investigations. At first they didn’t quite know what to make of me; they sent me from one person to another, and our people also said to drop the matter, because they would never be willing to deal with a secular lawyer.”
But Levy persisted, and finally a representative of an organization called Hatzala La’ahim (“saving our brothers”), in which the Weiss brothers are active, made contact with her. Hatzala La’ahim is actually a network of groups that helps yeshiva students who are candidates for the draft. Levy offered them her services as the Police Brutality Project manager in the committee against torture. They accepted. She has since given legal aid to Haredi demonstrators who were arrested while protesting the draft, and also to deserters who were incarcerated in a military prison. In both cases, the main argument is that the police and warders use disproportional force against the Haredi population.
For example, a year ago she submitted a complaint to the IDF on behalf of Y., an ultra-Orthodox young man who in 2016 was incarcerated in Military Prison 4 for three months, including 11 days in solitary confinement. The complaint began with an account of how warders prevented Y. from following Jewish law by not providing him with food under ultra-Orthodox kashrut supervision, bringing him his tefillin (phylacteries) at midday even though he explained that he needed them at first light, and rejecting his request to have holy books brought to his cell. But the main part of the complaint describes “assault and torture in the isolation ward,” meted out to Y. by his guards and above all by an officer named Adir Malka.
According to the complaint, Malka, for no apparent reason, pushed Y. forcefully against the wall, seized him by the neck and choked him, hurled him into a water-flooded floor and then tied his hands behind his back and left him like that, wet and bound, for some five hours. Levy ended her complaint by demanding that an investigation be launched against “those responsible for the torture” and against Malka in particular. In response, a representative of the IDF Military Advocate General’s Corps admitted that the officer had exceeded his authority and used unnecessary violence. But his punishment was minor: a suspended 10-day prison sentence.
More recently, Levy filed a complaint in the name of another young man that also focuses on the isolation ward in Military Prison 4 and again features officer Malka. Indeed, this complaint appears to be even more serious than its predecessor. M., who was jailed for 35 days, reported a series of “abuses, assaults and humiliations,” as the complaint puts it, perpetrated by his jailers. One incident occurred after “he tried out of boredom to climb the bars” of the ward. According to M., when the guards, headed by Malka, discovered this, “they pulled and dragged him to his cell forcefully while he was handcuffed,” and Malka choked him at length. M. adds that while he lay on the floor, Malka leaned on his forehead with his elbows and then dragged him toward his cell on the floor, not before pushing him into a pool of urine in one of the corridors.
M. added that Malka removed him from his cell, and while he was handcuffed and pinned down by guards on both sides, sprayed tear gas into his face from close range. The IDF’s legal branch has yet to respond to this complaint, but Levy says she was told that a criminal investigation had begun against Malka and three other officers, in contrast to the previous instance, which was purely disciplinary.
For its part, the IDF Spokesman’s Unit told Haaretz that, “Lessons were learned in the wake of the two events. The IDF takes a very grave view of events of violence, and will continue to work to stamp out violence among its soldiers.”
In any event, the Eda Haredit is convinced that it was thanks to the alliance with the secular group that they succeeded for the first time in creating something like a balance of terror with the IDF. “Today, when we come accompanied by a lawyer,” says Shmuel Weiss, “certainly one from an organization like the Public Committee Against Torture, whose specialty this is, matters are treated differently.”
Cooperation in Sheikh Jarrah
The current wave of demonstrations against the draft, marked by violent clashes with the police, would not have succeeded in blocking major traffic arteries if just the Eda Haredit was involved. The explanation for the relative resonance of the protests, and particularly for the large turnouts, lies in the fact that the Peleg Yerushalmi sect has joined the radical struggle against the draft. This sect, which numbers about 80,000 people, split from Degel Hatorah in 2012 in the wake of internal disputes. (Degel Hatorah together with the Hasidic Agudat Yisrael form the United Torah Judaism party in the Knesset.)
Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the leader of the Peleg Yerushalmi until his death last February, espoused a rigid ideological line. Like the leaders of the Eda Haredit, Auerbach too instructed his followers not to report to the IDF induction board for an exemption, and thereby to deliver the message that “We are not in the game.” As a result, after the draft law came into effect, the number of young men classified as deserters instantly soared. In light of the surge in the number of those jailed and repeated clashes with the security forces, the Peleg Yerushalmi also turned to representatives of secular civil society for help. They began by establishing a channel of communication with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
“They wanted to learn from our experience how to defend themselves effectively without having recourse to our actual services,” says Shirli Nadav, coordinator of ACRI’s Freedom of Demonstration Project.
Afterward, the Haredim embarked on an autonomous path: Recently, for example, they established the Association for the Rights of the Haredi Public. The association’s mechanism is based on the apprenticeship of activists in the secular groups. Says a senior figure in the Peleg Yerushalmi, “We learned through them how to submit complaints to the Justice Ministry unit that investigates the police and how to file civil suits, which is something we are working on intensively.” He adds that his refusal to give his name stems from “personal reasons” and not because he’s fearful of the reaction in his community to this cooperation. “I don’t think anyone among us would see it as a problem,” he says. “It’s like going to a secular doctor when you need medical treatment.”
Nevertheless, the dialogue of the Peleg Yerushalmi with non-observant players has been more reserved and restrained than that of the Eda Haredit, and at no time was the possibility entertained of going public with it as an alliance. Both Haredi groups adopted the same strategy of total refusal in regard to the draft, but the two communities lead different ways of life and espouse different theological approaches.
In fact, even the act of refusal itself is based on different conceptual notions. The Eda Haredit believes that the Jews have been in exile since the destruction of the Temple in antiquity, so they must not bear arms under any circumstances. Thus, they find irrelevant all the talk of making the army more “religious” and other adjustments in terms of kashrut and gender separation. In contrast, the Peleg Yerushalmi, together with the ultra-Orthodox mainstream, speaks a language of “cultural continuity,” and is not necessarily motivated by principled opposition to cooperation with the establishment. In its view, every yeshiva student who is assimilated into a secular military structure unravels the group’s delicate fabric of life and endangers its continued existence as a closed community with its own distinctive customs.
In one of the preliminary meetings where the possibility of forming a broad front was discussed, the PCAT’s Noa Levy acted as a kind of mediator between the two Haredi groups.
“It became clear to me there that these are two very separate political streams,” she relates. “The guy from the Peleg Yerushalmi was quite suspicious. He said to me, ‘What are you doing here? Fine, we get that you’re with us on the draft issue, but other than that, we don’t share a common language. We are against having supermarkets open on Shabbat – are you with us? We are angry that public transportation goes through our neighborhood on Shabbat – are you with us? In kashrut battles, are you with us?’
“It was actually someone from the Eda Haredit who got upset and asked him to stop,” Levy continues. “He said to him, ‘Why do you insist on taking our dialogue with secular society to the well-known points of dispute? Do you know how many understandings there are between us? After all, the state is persecuting both us and them. You have partners here.’”
Yaakov Weiss spoke in a similar vein in the open meeting. “The government uses the divide-and-rule tactic against every minority, but as soon as we cooperate, its power is dramatically reduced.”
In the meantime, though, it’s the Haredim who are the main beneficiaries of the alliance: The secular group is working for their benefit. Will this alliance become more reciprocal in the foreseeable future? Yaakov Weiss declares general readiness to take part when the day comes: “It’s true that we advocate separatism, but our activists understand that sometimes going it alone is too difficult, and they’re ready to support struggles on behalf of enfeebled population groups.”
Levy indicates more specific possibilities, based on her impressions from private conversations. “They are totally in a place of unifying battles and they talk enthusiastically and determinedly about a desire for ties with Ethiopians, with Arabs.”
Do you see Haredim joining you in “secular” struggles?
Levy: “That will take time. Obviously they won’t demonstrate on behalf of gays, and probably not in Tel Aviv, either. But why not Sheikh Jarrah [in East Jerusalem, where Jews on the left have fought efforts by settlers to expropriate Arab-owned homes], for example? That’s not so far-fetched. In general, when settlers are involved, the Haredim get worked up straightaway. I met rabbis who go to the territories to meet with Muslim clerics. From their point of view, if you’re not part of their community anyway, and don’t lead a [Jewish] religious life, cooperation is possible. Their ideal is for life here to be the way it was before Israel’s establishment – a mosaic of different communities that have good neighborly relations and offer each other mutual assistance.”
The fact that the cooperative activity sprang from the grass roots and not via demonstrations or highly publicized meetings helped consolidate relations of trust. At a certain stage, Levy’s participation in the emerging partnership was also linked to her membership in Mesarvot (“refusers”), a movement that supports political refuseniks and that began to assist the Eda Haredit with its public campaign.
Even though she is a main figure in the alliance, Levy was not present at the first meeting between the representatives of the left-wing refusal movement and of the Eda Haredit – and not because she didn’t want to be.
“When we started the dialogue, the message I got was that in the first stage it would help if only men were involved,” she relates. “Mesarvot is a secular, feminist organization whose leadership is feminine, but I said, alright, it’s a very preliminary, probing stage, so we’ll send five males. After two weeks, I met with them too, and since then we’ve been in constant touch.”
Nonetheless, even though this barrier has been removed, the partnership still faces many challenges. Levy talks about the need to “translate” the Haredi conceptual universe to make it accessible to a secular audience. “I admit that the explanation that the Haredim don’t want to do army service until the coming of the Messiah sounded ridiculous to me at first. Today, after working together, I understand it differently. You know, the advent of the messiah is not a concrete event that will occur in a year or two. The concept expresses a situation of imagined redemption, a fundamental transformation of social life. You can draw a parallel with the utopian communists’ [reference to] ‘after the revolution.’ It’s the same with the prohibition to establish a state, to bear arms or to be part of the conflicts between nations until the redemption. Those are the same justifications put forward by the conscientious objectors, who don’t want to take part in war or be part of a collectivity that wields force.”
Once a joint conceptual foundation was laid, the question arose of how to translate it into deeds. Recently the sides have launched a revolutionary pilot program, in which the secular individuals brief their Haredi colleagues about how to go before the army’s “conscience committees.” In principle, under international conventions, a conscientious objector is one who refuses to be drafted into the army because he espouses pacifist beliefs that prevent him from being part of any institution that acts by “violent means.”
“Selective refusal,” on the other hand, generally stems from narrower political and ideological considerations, and is expressed in the form of refusal to serve in a specific army. According to Shmuel Weiss, whose son was one of the first Haredim to request to go before a conscience committee – he hasn’t yet had a reply – “our refusal is also principled and innate, so the law should be on our side.”
The army, for its part, is not prepared for a scenario in which Haredim flock to conscience committees. That, as one of the women who took part in the Jerusalem meeting observed, “could be a game-changer.” Levy agrees.
“That’s the direction, but there are a few obstacles,” she explains. “To begin with, the track set by the army, in which you get a preliminary call-up order, undergo medical tests, do other tests that determine your profile, with the conscience committee only happening very close to the induction date, is not acceptable to the Eda Haredit. They’re a community that has never been drafted, so why should they cooperate with the system at all? The argument of ‘give us a conscience committee even though we didn’t report for the earlier stages’ is one that we’re arguing about with the army, and it could even result in a petition to the High Court of Justice.”
At the strategic level, the conscience committee is only one element in the plan of these most zealous of ultra-Orthodox “to educate the government and break down its incentive to recruit Haredim,” Yaakov Weiss says. He adds, “We have created a mechanism by which, whenever the Military Police come looking for a young man, the community is alerted and within minutes hundreds of people are blocking their vehicle. In demonstrations we suffer the stinking Skunk [a malodorous crowd-control weapon], but that doesn’t move us off the road and it forces the police to lend the Skunk a hand. That makes them say, ‘Please stop mobilizing these guys, there’s no use in it.’ The heroes of valor are received by the rabbis with songs and an orchestra, in order to dissipate the fear of arrest and to make Haredi young men even want to be arrested.
“When the general ultra-Orthodox public sees that there are people who are willing to bear this violence and who are not deterred from a tremendous public battle against the ruling forces,” he continues, “they identity with the protesters. From the moment that the struggle moved to the streets and started to get media coverage, it was no longer possible to treat us as pushovers.”
Weiss has good reason to mention the media, an arena shunned until now by the Eda Haredit, in keeping with its separatist ethos. In regular times, its people make do with internal messages by means of loudspeakers or wall posters. They don’t even publish a newspaper or magazine to counter such ultra-Orthodox periodicals as Yated Ne’eman, which serves as a mouthpiece for Haredi officials and reports on the Eda Haredit’s struggle very negatively. A change occurred following the 2012 split in the Lithuanian public, with the founding of a newspaper, Hapeless, by the Peleg Yerushalmi. Of late the Eda Haredit has come to believe that the secular media shouldn’t be ignored, either.
For the past few months, the coalition of Haredi organizations has employed the services of Dror Mizrahi, a Meretz activist who was a parliamentary assistant to the party’s former leader, Zehava Galon, and to Meretz MK Ilan Gilon. Mizrahi, who’s now an independent media consultant, also headed the party’s gay pride wing.
Last September, when this fact became known to the mainstream Haredi website Behadrei Haredim, it published a sensational report under the headline, “The strange appointment of the extremist organizations.” The report stated that the new spokesman of the “extremist organizations’” as it refers to the Eda, is “the chairman of the abomination wing of the Meretz party, which has been active in matters of abomination [i.e., homosexual activity] for many long years.” Undaunted, the groups who were attacked responded, on the website, “Once again Behadrei Haredim is trying to sling mud at the struggle of the ultra-Orthodox against the draft, and to divert substantive discussion from the struggle against religious persecution that threatens all ultra-Orthodox, to esoteric irrelevancies.”
Mizrahi makes it clear that this is more than just a job for him. “I see it not just as a professional matter but also as a moral issue. The attempt to draft the Haredim stems from some sort of nationalist obsession that will benefit no one – not them and not the country. They are a population under attack and experiencing a type of persecution. I met people for whom the draft is an existential threat.”
What about the principle of equality, the value of “equality of sharing the burden”?
Mizrahi: “First of all, the draft law is totally unequal; it creates castes within Haredi society. Second, as I see it, the principle of equality needs to be applied so as to allow every person to decide whether he will serve in the army or not. In this connection, we can also talk about secular conscientious objection – people who are ready to contribute, to take part, but not militarily. In their case, too, instead of finding them alternatives, they get sent to jail. That’s a mistake, because we know that there is no need for mass mobilization and that the army is replete with hidden unemployment. We need to think about a ‘new deal’ regarding the draft, to allow other, specific tracks instead of forcing induction on everyone, because the present method just isn’t working.”
The cement of the alliance between your groups and the Haredim is opposition to Zionism. Do you feel comfortable with that?
“I don’t come to this from a place of ‘who’s the greater patriot,’ but look at it primarily through a human rights prism.”
In the meantime, Mizrahi, thanks to his ties in Meretz, has been able to expand somewhat support within the party for the Haredi struggle. At his mediation, MK Mossi Raz recently met with Haredi activists and said he would be willing to assist them in issues related to governmental abuse and police brutality. The request to Raz also indicates that the Eda Haredit is backtracking from its strict code of avoiding political involvement. Last month, a secular-Haredi delegation, consisting of Mizrahi, Levy and the Weiss brothers, even visited the Knesset. They met with MKs from the Joint List in an effort to enlist Arab support against the draft law (which the Knesset passed in a preliminary vote – ahead of three final votes to come – the next day).
The next stage might be a secular presence in a forthcoming Haredi demonstration. Levy: “It’s clear to us that in such an event we will have to coordinate slogans with them and also to dress in a certain way.”
But with all due respect to demonstrations and a parliamentary effort, those are not the arenas in which the impact of this alliance will be gauged. The significant challenge is to break through from the margins, in both camps, so as order to generate solidarity in more mainstream circles. Mizrahi believes this too is possible.
“For many years, the partition of Jerusalem was considered a taboo subject,” he says. “Even in Meretz the subject never came up until the late 1990s. Yet today it’s at the center of the party’s platform. The left needs to do a conceptual restart and reexamine paradigms that were accepted in the 1980s and 1990s and even in the early 2000s. The left loves to talk about ‘opening up to new publics,’ including Haredim. I know those tunes very well. But who in Meretz has ever been to Mea She’arim? I’m willing to bet that I’m the only one.”
Levy, too, finds hesitation among her friends. “There is even a sort of anti-Semitism among my partners on the left,” she notes. “When I told people that I was going to meet with Haredim, I heard comments like, ‘Doesn’t their smell bother you?’ – and I’m talking about human rights activists. They would never talk about Arabs like that. So, at the level of principle, I think we need to knock down that barrier. Tactically, too, there’s a public of tens of thousands who are being shafted by the government, and we have a lot of points in common with them.’
“They are against the state’s Jewish character, and I also think it should be a democratic country of everyone who lives in it, and not belong to one nationality. They’re with me on this, with all the implications: opposition to the settlements, unjust land distribution, unfair planning processes. In regard to education, too, I believe that they should be allowed to educate their children according to their path and that it’s not right to force everyone through the same national-state sieve. There is even overlap on social-economic issues. They too are enfeebled and poor citizens.
“There’s nothing easier than to patronize them and say they are primitive, but that’s not the way a genuine left that believes in multiculturalism should behave. Yes, they lead an ancient way of life, but if we were to meet a different community in a different country that wanted to preserve its continuity, we would not disdain them. Why can’t we accept the Haredim? Not to forge alliances with them would be really dumb.”