Yesterday was a fast day, the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, which ushers in a 3-week mourning period for the first and second temples, thousands of years ago. Our sages have long laid the blame for the destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent exile from the land, in the first and second centuries, on the hatred and fighting within the nation at that time. There were myriad factions and sects within the Jewish people, each believing they had the real Judaism, each maligning others, often coming to violence. It was a terrible time in our history and it left a scar we feel to this very day.
Ever since, there has been an absolute consensus that while Jews may argue with one another, even heatedly, the argument will remain a disagreement, never a physical battle. Seven years ago, when the Jews of Gaza were removed from their homes, against their will, many non-Jews questioned why there was no violent resistance, why Jews did not stand up and fight to protect their homes. But that was never an option. While the uprooting and destruction of the disengagement was extremely painful, we would never have allowed that pain to push us over the abyss and into civil war.
And yet, there have always been issues that divide the Jewish people. The Israeli Knesset is one of the most vociferous parliaments in the world and there are many issues, often rooted in deep ideological or religious disagreements, that threaten the harmony and unity of the country. One such issue has been the refusal of the ultra-Orthodox to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces. This week, however, for the first time, we seem to be getting closer to reaching agreement on this divisive issue.
The ultra-Orthodox, referred to in Hebrew as Haredim, are religious Jews who believe in the divinity of the Bible and that the commandments written there are as relevant today as they were when they were given. In this, they are no different from all Orthodox Jews. However, unlike the religious Zionist or modern Orthodox, they preserve their beliefs and their customs through a more cloistered existence. The Hebrew word Haredim means fearful or anxious, and they are, indeed, fearful that exposing their community to secular or outside influences may endanger their commitment to G-d and to the Bible. Another issue for the ultra-Orthodox is their commitment to Bible Study, not only as a value but as a full-time occupation. Their men will often spend years in full-time study, even after they are married and have many children, relying on their wives’ meager salaries, charity, or as has become increasingly the case, on public welfare to support their families..
When the State of Israel was established, Ben Gurion entered into an agreement with the heads of the ultra-Orthodox community to exempt Torah scholars from military service. The reasoning was that the Holocaust had so decimated the scholarly population, that there was a terrible need for the few Torah scholars who had survived to dedicate themselves to study and teaching of Torah, for the sake of the entire nation. But since then, this exemption has grown from a few hundred to tens of thousands. Moreover, since the exemption only applies to men who are studying Torah full-time, ultra-Orthodox men tend to study way beyond the time that is economically feasible, placing the burden of supporting their very large families on society at large.
Secular Jews often don’t appreciate the importance of Bible Study. They cannot understand why these religious men are not serving in the military like the rest of the citizens and why they are not then going to work to support their own families. The fact that the majority of Israel is shouldering both the security and the financial burden of a growing minority, creates terrible resentment.
The religious Zionists in Israel are a small but influential group. I am a religious Zionist, as are the people who make up most of the leadership of the Settlement movement. But we actually are well represented all over the country. Unlike the ultra-Orthodox, we believe our commitment to the Bible and to G-d’s law mandates us to take part in society – to defend our country and to take part in industry, academia, business and all productive sectors of society. Our sons study Bible and Talmud intensively in yeshiva, but they serve in the IDF as well. This is the model that we have sought to be replicated by the ultra-Orthodox but they have always balked at this suggestion.
Two months ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed a committee to examine the issue of ultra-Orthodox evasion of military service and to draft legislation to put an end to this injustice. Just a few days ago, the head of the committee, MK Plessner, presented his findings and since then, the political leadership in Israel has been working overtime to arrive at legislation that will begin the process of redressing this injustice without causing too much upheaval to what is, indeed, a fairly cloistered sub-culture in Israel.
The challenges are difficult ones but there is a consensus today that we are about to witness a real change. And it is a welcome change. Many secular people have been unaware of the beauties of the Bible and of the magnificence of G-d’s word because they have been poisoned by the battles over ultra-Orthodox military service. The ultra-Orthodox have felt threatened by a secular world and have not known how to build relationships that will create understanding and respect for faith. They feel threatened now, as they contemplate an almost universal draft for their yeshiva students.
I am looking at these changes and I see only good. The ultra-Orthodox will have some adjustments to make but in so doing, they will be reaching out to all of Israel and shouldering the burdens we have all been undertaking for decades. Religious Zionist young people have, for years, represented the beauty of faith to their secular counterparts, in the trenches and in civilian society alike. If we were to be joined by the ultra-Orthodox, what a wonderful influence we could all have. And what an important step this would be for national unity.
During these three weeks, which commemorate the worst that was Jewish unity, we have a chance to really make a difference. I hope and pray that we will see a change, that all parts of Israeli society will take responsibility for the safety and security of the nation. And that all parts of Israeli society will seek to study more Torah, to understand G-d’s word, and will grow together with love and dedication to this land.
Sondra Oster Baras
Director, Israel Office