Israel’s ultra-Orthodox headed to the army

On an abandoned army base here in the Jordan Valley, a couple of dozen ultra-Orthodox teenagers are entering a new military academy designed to prepare them for the rigors of the Israeli army.

Where once these young men in black hats, white tassels and side curls were destined for a life of religious study, poring over Torah and Talmud at a yeshiva, they will now spend the coming months with an expanded curriculum: running an obstacle course and humping packs across the frying pan of the Judean desert.

“Ever fire a gun?” the visiting Israeli deputy defense minister, Danny Danon, asked a whip-thin 17-year-old from one of the most cloistered, religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem, where the role models are learned rabbis, not Israeli special forces.

“No, sir,” he replied. “But I am looking forward to it.”

The specter of ultra-Orthodox Jewish boys donning green Israel Defense Forces chinos and toting TAR-21 assault rifles is exactly what mainstream Israelis are demanding — and what leaders of “the Torah world” dread.

The Israeli parliament is ready to make good on a campaign promise by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government to compel the Haredim, as the ultra-Orthodox are known, to “share the burden.” Under the new law, they must enlist in the army or perform some other kind of national service or else face criminal charges and jail time as draft dodgers.

In an Israeli society divided between secular, high-tech Tel Aviv and pious, ancient Jerusalem, the voting public’s insistence that the sons of the ultra-Orthodox go to boot camp, like every other 18-year-old in Israel, represents a remarkable rewriting of the social contract.

“This marks the end of the era in which we discriminated between secular Jewish blood and Haredi Jewish blood, while our enemies don’t make that distinction,” said Yaakov Peri, a government minister and former head of the security agency Shin Bet.

The law of compulsory service for the Haredim passed the first of three rounds in the Knesset late last month by a solid two-thirds majority. If the bill wins final approval after the summer recess, as predicted, the new law could bring 5,000 or more ultra-Orthodox recruits into the army each year. As part of a compromise, the government will begin a compulsory draft for the ultra-Orthodox after a four-year transition period. About 1,800 “Torah geniuses” will be allowed to continue their studies. Haredi women will also be exempt.

Haredi politicians and rabbis warn that this could unleash mass protest, a culture war or worse — the wrath of God.

In parliament, the bill’s initial passage evoked intense emotions, as Haredi parliamentarians handcuffed themselves to the podium, tore their clothes in acts of mourning and blew a ram’s horn in the corridors.

“They look at this legislation as evil, as a threat to their way of life,” said Sam Sokol, a reporter with the Jerusalem Post who served in the sole all-male, super-kosher combat brigade for the ultra-Orthodox in the Israeli army, which he compared to “a yeshiva with guns.”

Haredim believe, he said, that as the Jews have survived persecution by Pharaohs, Babylonians, Romans, Nazis and Communists, so, too, they will endure this. “If the political establishment says they have to go — then the army will have to take them by force,” Sokol said.

A growing population

Unlike other Israelis, including many who are religiously observant, ultra-Orthodox youthhave been exempt from military service since the 1950s, when one of the founders of Israel, former prime minister David Ben-Gurion, struck a deal with Haredi rabbis that allowed yeshiva students to study rather than fight.

But that was when Jews were struggling to rebuild the world of Torah study following the Holocaust and when the number of Haredi students seeking exemptions was small.

Yair Lapid, the Israeli finance minister and leader of a party that campaigned on a platform that called for the ultra-Orthodox to serve, said that when exemptions and subsidies for Torah learners were established, they went to 400 students. Today there are 800,000 ultra-Orthodox in Israel.

With their triple-stroller families and high birth rates — supported by taxpayers kicking in for tuition, child support, health care and housing — they are the fastest-growing population here, comprising about 13 percent of the 6 million Jews in Israel and about 10 percent of the total population. Their numbers are expected to double by 2030, according to the Bank of Israel.

Lapid said at a news conference earlier this year that Israel’s enemies “do not distinguish between us.”

“If tomorrow, God forbid, a third intifada should break out, and there are waves of terror as in the past,” that affects the ultra-Orthodox as much as it does anyone else in Israel, Lapid said.

The Haredim are the most conservative and insular of Jews, following a strict religious doctrine of study, clothing, food and gender segregation. In the United States, outsiders sometimes lump them together as Hasidic, but that is only one specific stream.

In Israel, many Haredim are poor, and their participation in the workforce is low. Few Haredi women work outside the home, and among the men, unemployment has been measured at 60 percent. Because their student years are often devoted to the Torah, they come into adulthood with limited math, science and foreign language skills.

“Some people like us believe that without the Torah, the Jewish people have no raison d’etre,” said Moshe Gafni, of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism Party. “You can smile your smug smiles while I say it, but no bill will change our way of life. We are not afraid.”

In Jerusalem, anger about the coming draft has been simmering for months. In the Haredi neighborhoods, gangs of ultra-Orthodox have attacked the relative handful of Haredi soldiers returning home in their uniforms, grabbing their yarmulkes off their heads, spitting and cursing, throwing rocks and rolling burning trash cans toward them.

An ultra-Orthodox politician told a Haredi radio station that an army uniform looked to him like the outfit worn by garbage collectors, a low and dirty cloth. In posters plastered on walls in Haredi neighborhoods, there were calls to assault the locals who joined the army.

‘Taking, not giving’

Many Israelis say enough is enough. On a radio program, Israeli Deputy Finance Minister Mickey Levy said the ultra-Orthodox must “bear the burden together, join the job market. They can’t be parasites on the Israeli public; they can’t keep on with their worldview that ‘we don’t work.’ ”

Levy quickly apologized for calling them parasites, but the message was delivered.

The exemption from service “is basically a form of free-riding,” said Shlomit Harrosh, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “There is the sense that they are taking, not giving.”

The ultra-Orthodox say they are misunderstood. They want to serve the Jewish people, but not in the army.

“The ultimate determinant of our security is our relationship with God,” said Jonathan Rosenblum, director of Jewish Media Resources and a Haredi commentator. “It may be that the Haredim are serving the greatest good” not by manning checkpoints in the West Bank or flying drones over Gaza, but by studying the Jewish Bible.

The Haredim are not claiming conscientious objector status; the Bible is filled with stories of Jewish warriors going into battle. And as their numbers grow, some young Haredim are already bucking tradition by joining the army without the threat of the draft.

At the military academy in the Jordan Valley, the rabbi of the preparatory school, Yaheil Peretz, said, “Behind closed doors I have support from many of the biggest rabbis, who tell me, keep it up, because we do have many yeshiva students who are just hanging out, not really going to class, who need some direction in life.”

Avraham, one of the young men who will attend the camp and who would give only his first name because he is a minor, said: “I want to do my part. I know this is not for everyone. I come from the neighborhood where they threw rocks at Haredi soldiers. Maybe I am among the first, but more will follow.”

“We will get them ready, we will help them, mentally, physically, spiritually,” said Yedidya Akerman, a captain in the Israeli army reserves. Akerman is a former commando who also served in the Haredi unit for three years and is now a counselor at the academy.

He pointed up the treeless mountain behind the camp where his charges will soon be marching. “They will learn,” he said.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
Ruth Eglash is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in Jerusalem. She was formerly a reporter and senior editor at the Jerusalem Post and freelanced for international media.
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