Charedim on the Ropes: What We Know, What We Don’t
The situation in Israel resembles a playing field upon which multiple teams descend at the same time, each one playing by different rules. What spectators in the stands observe is utter chaos, frustrating in its incomprehensibility. Consider this a half-time look back.
What do we know about what is really in store for our brethren in the charedi camp in Israel? Very little, since none of the opposing forces speak the language of the other. We can safely say that, whatever one’s feelings are about the coalition agreement on the charedi draft and the imposition of the core curriculum in charedi schools, our charedi cousins are living through a time of great angst and uncertainty. They deserve our solicitude and tefilos. It is part of our mesorah to treat pain with sympathy, regardless of the source or cause.
The handful of postings on Cross-Currents have evoked much passion from our readers, and occasionally some real illumination. I will try here to summarize some of what emerges from pooling all that has been said here and published in other places, combining it with off-the-record conversations with unnamed Israeli government officials. I will make no judgments about the issues themselves, other than to reformat material about them that strikes me as plausible enough to be worthy of consideration.
From what we can tell, the charedi community in Israel has split into two camps. One camp sees the proposed legislation as a gezeras shmad. It demonizes everyone connected with the effort, and refuses to talk of any compromise. They call it a war – and you can’t negotiate effectively while the bullets are flying around your head. Within this camp of absolute resisters is R. Shmuel Auerbach shlit”a, the Briskers, and many, many more. The press associated with this camp speaks in martial terms.
A second camp tacitly recognizes that things are going to change, and has expected the change for quite some time. People in this camp understood that one day, Israeli society would no longer wish to substantially foot the bill for a large group of people who had turned long-term full-time learning into the norm. Those in this camp, however – reportedly including Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman shlit”a – feel that a system that was regnant for so long and set in motion by Torah giants cannot be undone by lesser individual of a later generation. It will not resist as strongly as the first camp, but neither will they preside over the dismantling of a Torah-only society. So far, they have refused to meet with architects of the coalition agreement who wished to start a dialogue. The decision of the Peri committee to add criminal sanctions to non-compliance with a charedi draft shifted many people away from this group convinced great numbers of people that the first camp was correct, that charedim were targeted for a full-scale assault on their way of life.
The non-charedi world seems to have found its uniting slogan in shivyon hanetel, or the equal assumption of responsibility by all members of the State. (Almost equal. In good Orwellian form, all Israelis are expected to be equal, but some are more equal than others. The Arabs are left out of it. No one wants them for the military because of the security risk.) The Haaretz crowd cannot disguise its disdain for charedim, but it is not at all clear that the average Israeli wants anything more out of the entire effort than a bit of justice and a bit of financial relief. The hysteria whipped up by the Haaretz yefai nefesh is matched by the hysteria whipped up by the charedi press (in the US as well) in creating a public mind-set in which every bigoted, over-the-top remark by some secular leftist is lovingly embellished and sent on to the public as representative of the majority of secular Israeli society. This is simply unwarranted, and likely not true. There is a reason why everything is coming to a head just now, and it still seems to be economics. At least it was when it got started. Any apologia for charedim which does not address the present and future projected burden of an underemployed community on the national economy is inadequate.
Here is a different take, decidedly not of my manufacture. In this take, Yair Lapid, Bibi Netanyahu, and many others have much more limited goals. Their steps (and missteps) to the contrary are part of politics, but not meant seriously. They want change, but realize that it will come slowly. They are not willing to accept the charedi plea that change has been taking place, because they don’t believe that there is enough charedi will to see it through. So they want to jump-start the process. They will be satisfied with the achievement of modest goals, and eventually see them to the public. The only people who do not understand the real goals are the media, charedim, and 99% of the Israeli population. Small matter.
According to this plan, there will be no large-scale draft of yeshiva students when it finally kicks in in four years time. First of all, the government can’t afford it. The proposed provisions have everyone who wants to learn exempt until age 21, when they have to declare their intentions for the future – and still have essentially another year before the non-exempt have to chose military or national service. But married soldiers are paid ten times what single soldiers are – and 80% of Litvishe yeshiva students and about 100% of chassidishe ones are married by age 22! The army will not want married students; the vast majority of yeshivah students are just not candidates.
Secondly, the government can’t afford it. It realizes that to recreate (and in all likelihood, improve upon) the Nachal Charedi/ Netzach Yisrael program on a much, much larger scale, much money will be necessary, and it is not in the cards at the moment.
What is the legislation targeting on a practical level? The estimate is that of the roughly 8000 who turn 18 each year, 2000 are really not learning at all. They may register, to stay out of the army, but they are doing no one any good. They are not in yeshiva, and they are not working. The government would like to do two things for them – give them some path to the future, and get some of them for the army. The rest of the country wants to see some charedi participation in the running of the country. They do not – and cannot be expected to – relate to the koach of Torah is the major component of charedi participation. (Rather than being demonized, they should be given credit for having supported Torah as long as they did, thinking in the back of their minds that maybe some of this Torah stuff really did contribute to the life of our people and even its security.) They want to see some sort of parity – and it is not as hard to achieve as people might think. Of the roughly 170,000 soldiers in Tzahal, 30,000 are combat soldiers. Charedim are about a tenth of the population. This means that 3000 soldiers in combat units would mean that charedim have taken up an equal share with others. (Sure, there is room to question this, but some people feel that such a contribution would be a sea-change in the way charedim today are seen as inhabiting their own world, abstracting themselves from the concerns of nation-building.) Netzach Yehudah already contributes 1100. If a fraction of the 2000 who are essentially draft-dodging at the moment will elect army service (which can work for those who wish to benefit from the job training and opportunity that will be associated with service), the number can be brought up in a small number of years to the 3000 mark. It will require an additional battalion like Netzach Yehudah, but that is at least financially thinkable.
Curriculum? I have not heard of anything that will allay charedi fears of giving up any amount of control to a government with a long record of breaking promises. On the other hand, the immediate plan is for a charedi overseer of the curriculum changes, who will not allow them to become a stealth effort to lure charedim away from their way of life. And the vast majority of us in the West do not stay awake nights worrying about the influence of the secular studies we have incorporated in our schools for generations. Reports have it that several charedi schools are preparing to allow the core curriculum in without a major battle.
Why don’t people know about most of this? Because the media on all sides prefer to promote sensationalism rather than calm.
Where does all of this leave American Jews, beside confused? In a beautiful display of loyalty to Torah values and leaders, many are lining up in full opposition to what they read about in Yated, Hamodia and Mishpacha as an evil decree. Some, however, are struggling with embracing a platform that seems problematic. They are turned off by what they see as hyperbolic claims of shmad, and ashamed that they see the community they love neither recognizing that the other side has valid claims, nor providing meaningful responses to those claims. For some, this has created a crisis, as they are crushed by not seeing strong, united, Torah leadership engaging the other side, rather than just calling them names.
The tzad hashaveh, it would seem to me, should be that we take a single, focused message to those outside our community, one that does not have to deal with the relative grievances of the two sides. When a group of us met in my home with an Israeli government representative, we did not debate the merits and demerits of the coalition agreement. We did emphasize that the message that Peri sent to the charedi world was devastating, and may well have erased the considerable progress made over the last years in both job training and army service. A group of leaders who met with Ambassador Oren in DC reportedly took the same approach. If Yair Lapid himself was not serious about the criminalization statute; if Peri was only reading the lines in a political script – someone forgot to inform the charedi community that they should be reading between the lines, rather than the lines themselves. Lots of people have messed up – but that includes the government, and they need to think about repairing the damage so that the progress of the past in job training will not be wiped out.
We have not seen the last of this issue by a long shot. It is fair to say that it ain’t over till the fat lady lip-synchs. (She wouldn’t dare sing!)
Whatever we believe about the merits and demerits of the plan, we must not be oblivious or insensitive to the pain of charedim in Israel. R Eliyahu Kitov, himself the almost-architect of a charedi-Zionist experiment known as Poalei Agudas Yisroel, offers this observation about Bri’as HaOlam: The six days of Creation called for acts of separation. Day and night were separated by assigning them to the sun and moon on the 4th day. The upper waters were separated from the lower waters on the 2nd day. The familiar ki tov appears in conjunction with the former – but not the latter! R. Kitov explains that separating items that don’t really go together is necessary, and cause for pleasure and joy that we continue the work of Creation. On the other hand, it is sometimes necessary to divide between things that have an affinity for each other, like the upper and lower waters. We must be ready to make that separation when it is required – but it is no cause for simchah. We should be saddened by having to accommodate practical considerations, and sacrifice some natural harmony in the process.
The last decades manifested the union of Torah and its people. It was, and continues to be, beautifully displayed in different ways, from the full-time learners in Bnei Brak and at Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, to the hesder units of Tzahal (may they soon be revived!), to the daf-yomi learners in army reserve units. If conditions somehow require that some of the lovers of Torah be partially pried away from object of their affection, it is not something we should be cheering about. It may be necessary, but it does not rise to ki tov.