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The Decline of Ultra-Orthodox Power

In the recent past, such goings-on would have been greeted with violent haredi demonstrations, particularly during the summer months when idle yeshiva boys are traditionally kept busy with such work.

Never do I remember more post-election excitement and upheaval in Israel, on the civilian front, than in the last few months. Swept into the government by an unprecedented populist tide, big winner Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid [There is a Future] Party opened the floodgates of hope that, after 65 years of stifling stalemate and rising fury, the increasingly grating and fraught divide between secular Israelis and their ultra-Orthodox brothers and sisters was in for a vast change. We crossed our fingers; election promises can melt and disappear like ice in spring rain. But this time, we have not been disappointed.

Lapid, appointed minister of finance, heralded the change with his brilliant rhetorical fireworks at the opening of the 19th Knesset on April 22. In response to haredi heckling and six no-confidence motions, in which haredi MKs accused Lapid of budget cuts that would “starve our children,” Lapid responded for most of us when he answered, “We will not let any child in Israel starve, but the parties responsible for feeding children are called their parents. When you bring a child into this world it is a serious responsibility, and you cannot have children under the assumption that other people will provide for them.”

At a loss for a response to what even haredi journalists subsequently granted was “simple logic,” the typically articulate haredi MK Moshe Gafni lamely accused Lapid of desecrating the holiness of the Sabbath by texting. “I don’t tell you what to do on Shabbat and you won’t tell me what to do,” Lapid countered, his words echoing throughout a country weary of religious coercion.

But the coup de grâce was no doubt Lapid’s response to the ill-timed concern voiced by haredi MK Meir Porush about the diminishing percentage of IDF draftees. “You are worried?” Lapid pounced. “Well, don’t be. The government will make sure that there are plenty of new recruits, straight from your own backyard.”

The initial haredi response to all this was unfortunate but perhaps predictable. Left out of the corridors of power for the first time in 30 years, they held a huge demonstration on May 16 in Jerusalem, subsequently amping up their rhetoric to horrifying heights. Rabbi Moshe Gerlitz, editor of the haredi magazine Mischpacha and no extremist, said on Holocaust Remembrance Day: “A gnat of fear is gnawing at my heart that [the Holocaust] will repeat itself. And it will repeat itself here in Israel. It will repeat itself and its victims will be us, the haredim.”

Such talk has done nothing to derail the new laws being passed at a dizzying pace to bring equality to Israel’s citizens.  But even wanted and necessary change is going to take time and patience, and not every change will necessarily be what we were hoping for. Consider, for example, the draft. Automatic exemptions for thousands of full-time yeshiva students have been the major bone of contention between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of the Israeli population for decades. The new military conscription reform bill is poised to change all that. However, the addition of so many new recruits—most of them products of an educational system devoid of math, science or English curricula—presents its own problems. Indeed, when Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was asked to come up with a solution, he suggested allowing such haredi recruits the option of choosing national service, currently a bastion of religious girls who teach or help out in outlying development areas. The new bill isn’t slated to take effect until 2020, another nagging sign that the army itself is in no great rush to deal with the flood of haredi recruits the law will create.

Interestingly, even without the new law, the public debate about army exemptions has had a profound effect on haredim. Record numbers have showed up at enlistment centers. As a result, the army is planning an additional haredi unit that will offer mehadrin-certified food and women-free bases.

For haredi leaders, for whom each such recruit means one fewer yeshiva student enrolled and receiving a stipend, this trend is alarming. To counter it, some in the community have targeted haredi soldiers, physically attacking them and hurling verbal epithets like “chardakim.” The term, which means “haredi lite” but sounds suspiciously like the Hebrew word for roach, has outraged many who accuse haredim of using Nazi tactics to dehumanize those who choose to serve.

But for the most part, after the big demonstration in May, the haredi street is keeping a low profile so as not to evoke even more unwelcome laws. Even Women of the Wall celebrated the month of Elul in July at the Kotel without incident.

To my surprise, I wasn’t quite ready for all the changes. Taking my usual Sabbath walk through the lovely, quiet streets of Jerusalem, I was suddenly assaulted by rock music. Shocked at this unprecedented public desecration of the Sabbath, I followed the noise. The trail led me to the boutique shops and restaurants built on the newly refurbished site of Jerusalem’s long-defunct Ottoman railroad station.

As much as I truly believe in freedom of choice and deplore religious coercion, I felt heartbroken and appalled as loudspeakers blared, guitars strummed and people milled around openly buying ice cream and coffee from vendors. It made me feel as if I were lost in a foreign country.

In the recent past, such goings-on would have been greeted with violent haredi demonstrations, particularly during the summer months when idle yeshiva boys are traditionally kept busy with such work. But as I looked around me there was nary a black-suited sign-holder or rock thrower to be seen.  We who treasure and observe Shabbat were on our own. Despite the challenge, I have to admit I prefer it that way.

This article first appeared in the September-October issue of Moment.

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17 comments on “The Decline of Ultra-Orthodox Power”

  1. Naomi R.

    At last I believe we finally have an opportunity for compromise. I’m with you on this Naomi.

  2. Pingback: The Decline of Ultra-Orthodox Power in Israel |

    • Elisha b. Avuya

      The only soul you should be concerned with, Shmiel, is your own. You’re not G-d to be judging other people, no matter what your rabbis have been telling you, and neither are they.

      • Shmiel

        It’d be very selfish and un progressive if I cared only for my own soul. I trust you’re not that petty that you care only for your own.
        And your choice of Acher speaks volumes.
        Mah she ein kein w Lapid’s unwillingness to stop prisoner / terrorist releases

  3. Leonard Markowitz

    At last, at last, common sense is beginning to prevail, with respect to the Ultra-Orthodox, in Israel. As someone in the diaspora, I feel that no Jew, in the diaspora, has the right to tell the citizens of Israel what to do, unless they make Aliyah and emigrate to live in Israel. However, we can hope for the best for Israel.

  4. Miriam Lavi

    Naomi, Shalom –

    Although I’ve been a fan of your books for more years than I can count, and I read your blog ‘religiously’ (pun is intended!) I’ve never felt the urge to respond – until now:

    You’ve captured the sense of HOPE that many thinking Israelis (across
    the entire spectrum – religious and
    non-religious) are feeling now: The hope that the stranglehold of Haredi politicians is finally showing signs of becoming undone . . .

    May this herald in a Good Year for all of us. Amen.

  5. Dolly Weiss

    There is but one true way of resolving issues. That is called voting. That is the voice of the people in a Democracy. So let it be voted, so let it become “the way”. Another “simple logic?” In what other part of our planet are the haredi able to practice their customs and religion without fear? Is there somewhere else that they can even attempt to impose those customs on the rest of the population and protest and bully the citizens who do not see Judaism as they do? Foolish, stubborn, unyielding zealots. Until now.

  6. Alan Mark

    My solution is that the State must support a percentage of all 18 year old boys eligible for the draft, and these must stay and learn in yeshiva. They should be at least 1/12 or 1/6 of the total population and they should be selected by Torah scholars (not politicians). Not only the brightest students should be selected. But those that will work the hardest to learn on behalf of the nation should and will stay in yeshiva for at least 3 years – this will be their “national service.”

    For the rest of the boys, there needs to be military or national service options for them. This must include a yeshiva/service alternative like the 5 year program that currently exists. The religious girls must be made exempt. Military/national service for charedi boys must be according to religious standards such as kosher, no women.

    Otherwise, you will have jails full of charedi boys and those will be their new yeshivot.

    • Elisha b. Avuya

      Alan, your solution to the objection of non-haredim to their having to foot the bill for the massive undeserved haredi entitlements is to give the haredim even more entitlements. Good luck convincing the Israeli public of that!

  7. Emily Panzer DeRosa

    I’m so sorry you have to deal with internal problems as well as external. Some people don’t realize how well off they are.
    Doesn’t anyone see the similarity between the Ultra-Orthodox and the radical islamists? Except, of course, they would not kill anyone for not being as observant as they are. May Hashem forgive me for my comments.

  8. Ira L. Jacobson

    Anyone who sides with Yair Lapid’s hatred of the Jewish religion has lost his or her ability to distinguish between good and evil. Lapid asked for forgiveness for not instituting public transport on Shabbat. This is not anti-Haredi, it is anti-religious. One is shocked to think that a Religious Zionist’s hatred for Haredim is so strong that it puts him or her in the same camp with the Lapids.

    • Elisha B. Avuya

      Why are you so sure Yair Lapid hates religion? Maybe he just hates footing the bill for haredim refusing to work or to serve in the IDF? Maybe he just hates to hear haredi rabbis tell him again and again that G-d himself speaks through their holy mouths?

      • Shmiel

        this same Lapid refused to sign a letter halting the release of PLO terrorist killers. So much for your Zionist Lapid

  9. Diana

    There is a middle ground and that is for what we must strive. I’m not shomer shabbat exactly and don’t think loud music is appropriate. No reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

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