Earlier this month, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox men attended a rally in Jerusalem to protest Israeli government plans to conscript their yeshiva students to the Israel Defense Forces.
What worried me about the protest wasn’t the numbers of passionate opponents to the government’s plans. I understand their opposition, even if I disagree with it heartily. Many of them, I know, sincerely believe that studying in yeshiva is a way of defending the land spiritually. Even as a religious Jew, I think their position is naïve, simplistic and unfair to those who have to defend the country with their lives. But, as I said, I do understand their opposition.
What worried me was the nature of the speeches intoned by the rabbinic leadership of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox society. Rabbi Yitzchak Tuvia Weiss, a leading rabbi of the fringe, yet influential, Eda Haredit, urged people to attend the rally, stating that: “The conscription decree that hovers above the heads of a holy people… is unacceptable and essentially forbidden.” In the Torah, the Jewish people as a whole is described as a "Kingdom of Priests, and a holy nation," (Exodus 19:6). But Rabbi Weiss’s words clearly seem intent, if only by implication, upon revising this notion. According to his revised edition, the Jewish people are not holy; only the ultra-Orthodox community can be holy. Evil outside forces are hanging a conscription decree above the heads of the holy people. We, the rest of Israeli society, are not Jewish anymore. Only they are.
It’s easy to write off Rabbi Weiss's words. The Eda Haredit have always been amongst the most extreme voices in the ultra-Orthodox community - loud, but certainly not authentically representative. But Rabbi Weiss was not alone. The rally was addressed by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, the son of the saintly and greatly revered Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, of blessed memory. These were his words at the rally: “There can be no compromise here. We will stand as a wall against these decrees, so nothing can penetrate them.”
These words echo previous speeches of his, in which he has compared the impending ‘evil decree’ of the Israeli government to generations of anti-Semitic decrees in years gone by. To be fair to him, he has, on occasion, gone out of his way to distinguish this persecution from past persecutions because “this time, the decree is coming from our errant brothers.” And, he has expressed his belief that we are one people, urging his flock to state their position “firmly and clearly, and perhaps this way … penetrate the hearts of our errant brothers." He continued: "Harav Yisrael Salanter says that 'Klal Yisrael' [the Jewish people] is one body, and just like on Yom Kippur, when everyone is more inspired, it influences those who are distant… If we declare our position firmly, it will influence them as well and prevent them from breaking us.”
But the problem is, Rabbi Auerbach’s words pose a great danger to the very notion of Jewish unity that he cares so deeply about. In some of his speeches, he has directly compared the government’s conscription plans with the persecution that the Jews were subjected to in the time of the crusades. In doing so, he casts the rest of the Jewish people, almost all of those outside of his community, in the role of the evil non-Jewish crusader; leaving only his community to play the role of the victimized holy Jew.
We are at serious risk of two Jewish nations (if not more) emerging within Israeli society. I understand that Rabbi Auerbach wants to defend the yeshiva world, but by playing into the rhetoric of the Eda Haredit, he may well be playing with fire. When I see the kosher certificate of the Eda Haredit on almost every mainstream product in Israel, I have to contain myself. The Eda Haredit is an organization that last year held a demonstration against pretty much all of Israeli society, in which they wore yellow stars, to compare their suffering at our hands, to the suffering of all of us at the hands of the Nazis. It is an organization that vilifies everything about Israeli society. And yet, so widespread is their lucrative kashrut certification that, every time we buy food from the supermarket, we’re almost bound to be swelling their coffers.
The rest of Israeli society has to play its cards very carefully. We need a carrot and a stick. On the one hand, we have to show tremendous sensitivity to their cultural and religious needs. We can’t allow ourselves to fall into the role of the villain. On the other hand, as the draft is inevitably, and rightly, phased in, there have to be real consequences for people who disobey; otherwise the law will be ignored.
Their joining the IDF may well be the first stage of a major restructuring of the ultra-Orthodox sector, in which they start to play a much larger, and more constructive role, in our society and economy. But, if we impose our agenda in the wrong way, we may well stoke a fire that we have little capacity to control. When Ruth Calderon gave her maiden speech to the Knesset in February, demonstrating the breadth of her Jewish literacy, the ultra-Orthodox MKs may have been out of their comfort zone, receiving Torah teachings from a secular woman, but it was noteworthy how eager the ultra-Orthodox chairperson of the debate, MK Yitzhak Vaknin (Shas), was to engage with her talk; she was, after all, speaking a language that he could understand.
We have to find a way of demonstrating to the Haredim that we are one people, with one common language and heritage, without allowing them to ride any longer upon the sacrifice of secular and religious-Zionist servicemen. We need to be inventive about our carrots and our sticks. We cannot allow them to cast us as their pantomime villains, but we also can’t allow them to disengage from their collective responsibilities and burdens as Israeli citizens. The situation calls for a strong and yet delicate hand. I wonder if this government is up to the job.
Dr. Samuel Lebens studies at Yeshivat Har Etzion, holds a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London, and is the chair of the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.
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