A Tale of Two Processes

The ultra-Orthodox reaction to military service reform has the potential to either upgrade or set back religious influence on Israeli society in its richest sense.

The phrase "be careful what you wish for" is applicable to two developments that could influence the role of religion in the State of Israel. The first is its recent recognition of Conservative and Reform Judaism; the second is the campaign to end the exemption from military and national service for the ultra-Orthodox community. While both processes at first glance may seem detrimental to the status of Orthodox Judaism in Israel, they could eventually leave it unaffected - or even reinforced.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, understandably hailed Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein's decision to award state recognition ("A big step for Judaism," Haaretz, June 4 ) and support to Reform and Conservative Judaism as a breakthrough. He could not do otherwise, as spokespersons have consistently ascribed their denominations' modest footprint in Israel to the absence of government recognition. The Orthodox reaction was decidedly low-key. Aside from Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who termed the decision "reckless," it did not elicit irate or panicky reactions from Israeli Orthodox leaders, although they felt that it was for the cabinet, not Weinstein, to decide.

The claim that non-Orthodox Judaism has languished due to lack of recognition or government support has always been suspect. Dissenting churches and Catholicism have thrived in England in the modern era despite the presence of an established Church of England. In Eastern Europe churches have outlasted anticlerical regimes and ideologies.

The AG's decision may prove salutary in compelling Kariv and his colleagues to explore other explanations if Reform Judaism fails to progress beyond its current marginal position in Israel. One possible reason is that Reform Judaism is predominantly rooted in the Diaspora, both institutionally and ideologically. This logic also explains why Chabad is a bigger player in the Diaspora than in Israel, because its nerve center is in Crown Heights rather than Jerusalem, and it does not attach a premium to living in Israel.

Although Reform Zionism has long abandoned its anti-Zionist animus and is a constituent part of that movement, it still has problems reconciling its universalism and accommodation of individual choice with the more nationalist and collectivist approach dictated by living in a Jewish state. In "tribalist" Israel, for example, it is hard to defend the growing propensity of U.S. Reform rabbis to officiate in interfaith weddings, or accept that half of U.S. Jews marry out the faith.

On the ultra-Orthodox front, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised a legislative proposal equalizing the burden of service. If such a bill passes, its impact will be decided by the manner in which the ultra-Orthodox community accommodates itself to the new situation. Hopefully it will prove open to explore the benefits for Judaism that the law can confer.

The banner of an "equitable share of the burden" has collected a diverse group of supporters. For some, the burden to be equalized is military service, and putting oneself in harm's way, pure and simple. Others view that burden in economic terms. The ultra-Orthodox exemption from military service is contingent on most draft-eligible males devoting themselves exclusively to Torah study rather than gainful employment, thus condemning many of their families to dependency on state or charity handouts. There is also a sub-rosa secularist school that envisions the army as a socializing agent that, says Haaretz commentator Nehemia Shtrasler, will serve as a melting pot to "open the eyes" of the ultra-Orthodox, and presumably (although Shtrasler would deny that this is the intention ) loosen their religious moorings.

Ultra-Orthodox opponents of military service reform harp on about the threat posed by this third approach, but the threat is illusory. We are no longer in the early 1950s, when religiously-observant immigrants were reeducated so as to become model secular Israelis. The first two objectives command broader public support, and deserve serious consideration by the ultra-Orthodox public, because the changes will necessarily be mutual - between their community and the Israeli public at large - rather than affecting only them unilaterally.

An expanded number of ultra-Orthodox draftees will make the army more friendly to the religiously observant. If the ultra-Orthodox enter the workforce en masse, the workplace will also have to be more accommodating to their requirements, an option already proven both feasible and remunerative in the employment of ultra-Orthodox women in service centers near their homes. The choice is between continued self-isolation and enhanced influence in the public sphere.

An ultra-Orthodox population with enhanced economic clout could influence popular culture. Also, as the ultra-Orthodox become important players in the general market, stereotyping that antagonizes them will become economically self-defeating.

Secularists have been able to tune-out Judaism and religious messages by defining themselves favorably against an ultra-Orthodox population that does not perform military service and is vastly underrepresented in the workforce. Once there is a clearly perceived contribution by the ultra-Orthodox to the security and economic fields, the secular attitude of "I contributed (and they didn't ) through service in the army/working/paying taxes" will no longer suffice to justify their conscious lack of engagement with Jewish tradition.

The ultra-Orthodox reaction to military service reform has the potential to either upgrade or set back religious influence on Israeli society in its richest sense. Hopefully their leadership will make the right choice.

Dr. Amiel Ungar writes a monthly column in Haaretz English Edition.