Ben-Gurion's Original Sin

As Israel's 60th birthday approached, I considered my opinion on the subject of the biggest mistakes made by David Ben-Gurion. I cited two: First, his decision to abolish educational streams and create one uniform state school system - another of those deeds with good intentions that end badly. Because the truth is that the separate streams are not really gone. State religious education stayed put, Agudat Yisrael continued to run its hinukh atzma'i (independent education) stream, and years later, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef founded the Shas network of Ma'ayan Hahinuch Hatorani schools. And who was left without a stream of its own? Only the Labor movement and its ideology.

Ben-Gurion's second mistake was to break away from his traditional allies on the way to a state - the Mapam camp, then the second largest party - and align himself with the religious parties in a government coalition. In so doing, Israel's founding father delivered the newborn into the hands of the rabbinical establishment, a new alliance that exacted a heavy price, one we are still paying - the exemption of yeshiva students from military service. And that is only part of the price. Yeshiva students are sacrificing their lives in the tents of Torah while others are dying in bivouac tents.

When the seeds of draft evasion were originally planted, there seemed to be some justification for it. Entire communities had just been wiped out in the Holocaust, yeshiva learning had stopped, and there was a sense of obligation to restore the situation. After all, there were only 400 yeshiva students back then; the young state could afford the gesture. Did Ben-Gurion foresee, back then, what might happen, but prefer to shut his eyes? Did the rabbis in those days envisage a vast army of ultra-Orthodox in-the-making?

The agreement at the time to this original sin had much broader significance. Ben-Gurion ultimately made peace with the reality of a state within a state - a theocracy ruled by the rabbis within a Jewish state where democracy was meant to lead the way. In a halakhic state, a state run in accordance with Jewish law, not only is there no army service, but people also don't go out to work, because studying Torah is also a lucrative business.

The exemption arrangement has grown unrecognizably corrupt over the years: not 400 men studying Torah to keep the embers burning, but tens of thousands who have ignited a socioeconomic conflagration. The halakhic state has become a giant ghetto with the Jewish democratic state catering to its whims. And the rabbis are only building the walls higher. The ghetto is more insular and closed off than ever before. Almost no one leaves, but many are entering.

What was meant to be for the sake of heaven now serves goals that are totally worldly: The Haredi parties guard their flock within the walls and will not relax their grip because this is how they guarantee themselves an electorate, while the Israeli public is forced to pay for their upkeep.

A decade ago, it seemed for a moment that the secular public had grown tired of those who stand on the sidelines and exempt themselves from doing their duty, from investing, from contributing. But in the overall atmosphere of apathy, if not despair, this feeling has gradually ebbed away. What was sown in the days of Ben-Gurion, and grew stronger in the days of Menachem Begin, will not be easily uprooted. That is the sense one has today. There will always be more important issues to tackle, and the issue of draft dodging, as an art, as a sacred doctrine, can wait until the end of time. Until the day when observers of the Torah and religious commandments bring the Messiah, whether he wants to come or not, be he live or be he dead. That will be their absolution and our reward.