Israel's High Court: Bull in the China Shop

If anger towards the High Court has until now mainly come from religious Zionists and rightist activists, now the ultra-Orthodox may join them

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Ultra-Orthodox men protest against military conscription in Jerusalem, June, 2017.
Ultra-Orthodox men protest against military conscription in Jerusalem, June, 2017.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Israel Cohen
Israel Cohen

The ultra-Orthodox newspapers’ headlines, alongside the utterances of Shas and United Torah Judaism MKs in the past day since the High Court of Justice canceled the law exempting yeshiva students from the draft, took me back to the winter of 1999. As a youth, I took part that year in an ultra-Orthodox demonstration at the entrance to Jerusalem, dubbed “the rally of the million.” All the ultra-Orthodox factions gathered to protest the High Court’s intervention in the issue of the draft.

It was difficult at the time to explain to youngsters like me, who hadn’t studied civics, what the High Court’s verdict meant and how its intervention affects issues we care about as an ultra-Orthodox public. But I remember the outcry and the pain, and the call to prevent what I later learned was called “judicial activism.”

Throughout Israel’s existence, the draft exemption granted to yeshiva students has been an explosive issue in the relations between state and religion and between secularists and Haredim. In recent years there has been an improvement. For the first time, leading rabbis from the ultra-Orthodox mainstream started turning a blind eye – some of them even giving a silent nod – to drafting all those who aren’t engaged in actual Torah study.

From reading the court’s ruling one can understand that the judges believe any change in the matter of drafting the ultra-Orthodox is extremely slow, and is not in keeping with the expectations and goals set in advance. Some commentators and columnists even described the process taking place in recent years as a “bluff,” claiming that those who join the army are former ultra-Orthodox or family men who receive relatively high pay.

I, like many in the ultra-Orthodox public, disagree. There is no doubt that increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox youngsters who have trouble studying the Torah and choose to join the IDF are not denounced as they once were by family and friends. In contrast to teenagers in the general public, who feel pride and a sense of vocation in military service, ultra-Orthodox education teaches the exact opposite. Apart from the importance of studying the Torah, the official ultra-Orthodox view is that the entire goal of the IDF – and of Zionism from its beginning – is to assimilate the ultra-Orthodox youngsters and turn them from Jews into Israelis. The army, according to this approach, is an “instrument” by which to influence yeshiva students’ consciousness and change their worldview.

So the very fact that many in the ultra-Orthodox leadership have recognized, even in retrospect and due to necessity, that there are some whose duty is to enlist, constitutes a real change and an upheaval in consciousness. Unlike the ultra-Orthodox establishment, whose approach has undergone many changes in these years regarding the drafting of those who don’t study Torah, radical groups like the Orthodox Council of Jerusalem (Eda Haharedit) and Peleg Yerushalmi have continued their war and vehemently objected to any compromise. Now they’re celebrating and rejoicing, conveying a message to the ultra-Orthodox mainstream that “We were right. We told you so. Only war will help.”

The High Court of Justice gave a tailwind both to radicals from the ultra-Orthodox community and those from without, like the petitioners who successfully sought the annulment of the law, which could hinder the change many Israelis have yearned for. We’re dealing with delicate processes that develop very slowly, and the High Court in its ruling acted like a bull in a china shop. Instead of strengthening the moderates, it strengthened the radicals.

From the start the ultra-Orthodox public had little confidence in the High Court, due to its rulings on religious issues; on Tuesday the same justices breached the walls of kashrut as well. The court, regrettably, gored a very important and necessary law. It gored a delicate, sensitive process that could bring parts of the nation closer to each other. But even sadder, it gored itself. Whoever listened as I did to the ultra-Orthodox MKs and the community’s media, realized that now all the force and energy will be directed at initiating a law to bypass the High Court, a move that could turn out to be daring but redundant.

If so far the anger at the High Court came mainly from religious Zionists and rightist activists, now the ultra-Orthodox public’s leaders may join them. The verdicts about kashrut and drafting yeshiva students are added to the High Court’s controversial verdicts about asylum-seekers and evacuating settlements. This will prompt Shas’ Arye Dery and United Torah Judaism’ Yaakov Litzman and Moshe Gafni to jump on Habayit Hayehudi MK Motti Yogev’s D9 Caterpillar on the way to bulldozing Israel’s most important institution.

Israel Cohen is a reporter and commentator for the Israeli news website Kikar Hashabbat.

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