Israel’s ultra-Orthodox at heart of furor


A sculpture depicting Yair Lapid, head of Yesh Atid (There's a future) party is seen at a factory near Kfar Saba that manufactures floats for the annual Purim parade in Holon, Feb. 3, 2013. (NIR ELIAS/REUTERS)
February 13, 2013

Dov Lipman, a U.S.-born ultra-Orthodox rabbi, decided to enter Israeli public life when he was hit by a rock hurled by a member of his community harassing schoolgirls considered to be “immodestly” dressed.

“A switch went off in my head,” said the 41-year-old native of Silver Spring. “Even though these were extremists, the fact that we have a society where these kind of things happen or are tolerated shifted me to the political sphere — I thought I could play a role.”

Lipman was sworn in to Israel’s parliament, known as the Knesset, this month on the ticket of TV presenter Yair Lapid’s new centrist party, Yesh Atid. This put him at the heart of one of Israel’s most divisive political issues: the debate over “burden-sharing,” or the call for members of the ultra-orthodox Haredi community to contribute more to society — in particular, for boys who avoid the draft by studying in yeshivas, or Orthodox Jewish seminaries, to begin serving in the army as other young Israelis do.

The argument over the ultra-Orthodox and their cloistered world was Yesh Atid’s signature issue in campaigning for last month’s election and will decide the shape of Israel’s next government. It could also have follow-on effects on international issues, including peace with the Palestinians.

Lipman is one of two rabbis serving as members of parliament in Yesh Atid, which won 19 seats in the 120-seat Knesset in the election, second only to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Beiteinu bloc. The party’s strong showing confirmed Lapid as a kingmaker.

Lipman joined Lapid’s party after hearing him speak to an ultra-Orthodox crowd. “For me that was a huge call — for a secular icon to say ‘Let’s work together,’ ” Lipman said.

Although there were only about 30,000 Haredi Jews in Israel at its founding in 1948, they now account for about 10 percent of the 8 million-strong population because of their high birth rates. With their large families and low median age of 16, the community’s demographic profile has more in common with those of poor sub-Saharan African countries than mainstream communities in upper-income Israel.

Unemployment is high among the ultra-Orthodox because of the narrow, scripture-focused curricula at most yeshivas, which produce graduates unequipped with the skills needed for Israel’s high tech-focused economy. Yesh Atid wants Israel’s next government to pass legislation that will offer state funding only to yeshivas that offer general studies alongside religious instruction.

Yesh Atid is proposing a five-year moratorium during which Haredi boys would be free to leave yeshivas and work. After that, the ultra-Orthodox would have to perform military or national service, with exemptions only for 400 exceptional scholars, or “Torah prodigies,” a group that has enjoyed favored status since the days of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s secular founder.

Yesh Atid has allied on the issue with Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Jewish Home party, which also wants the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the army, giving the two parties effective veto power over the shape of Israel’s next coalition.

However, Haredi leaders have deplored what they see as an attack on “the Torah world.” Last week, in a rare show of unity, Shas and United Torah Judaism, rival parties representing the ultra-Orthodox, met to protest what they called “the wave of incitement” against the Haredim.

Lapid has rejected the claim. “Ten percent of the population cannot threaten the other 90 percent with civil war,” he said Monday in his first speech in the Knesset. “A civilized society does not deal in threats, and if this house does not act because of threats, it is emptying the democracy of all its values.”

Netanyahu, who is trying to build a broad “national unity” government equipped to deal with a slowing economy, security challenges and international calls to renew the peace process, has proposed a compromise plan. His Likud wants the military to set rising targets for drafting Haredim.

As the parties argue over details of proposals to draft the Haredim, analysts say Yesh Atid holds powerful cards. “Lapid wants to have an on and off button for the government, and the prime minister doesn’t want him to have the decisive vote,” said Israel Bachar, a political strategist. “That’s Netanyahu’s strategic goal.”

— Financial Times

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