Lifestyle & Belief

Israel's ultra-Orthodox protest to study Torah, instead of serve in the army

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Baz Ratner/Reuters

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel blocked highways and clashed with police this week to protest a government decision to cut funds to seminary students who avoid military service.

A fierce culture war in Israel over its ultra-Orthodox minority may finally be coming to a head.

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A couple of years ago, Israeli lawmakers decided to start requiring ultra-Orthodox Jews to enlist in the army, just like other Jewish Israelis.

But the government had been dragging its feet, and hadn’t yet started enlisting them. Instead, it was subsidizing their religious studies. Not any more.

This week, the government cut off cash stipends to religious schools, and police arrested an ultra-Orthodox draft dodger.

In response, thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish activists took to the streets in their signature black hats and jackets. Police say about 2,000 protesters shut down a major highway. Hundreds of other protesters tried to block the main road into Jerusalem. Police tried to disperse them with water cannons.

A leading rabbi, at a protest Thursday, warned Israel’s leaders that ultra-Orthodox boys would rather commit suicide than give up learning Torah. "Throw us in jail," he said. "We’ll all go."

This particular conflict has roots in the Holocaust, when Jewish religious schools across Europe were decimated. When Israel was founded, the country agreed to let a few hundred men rebuild the world of Jewish scholarship that was lost, instead of serving in the army.

But over time, nearly all ultra-Orthodox men have skipped army service and, instead, have been paid to sit and study Torah. The mass army exemption was supposed to end two years ago, but it didn’t happen.

“In reality, the government has done everything possible to avoid implementing this decision, and keeps paying them the subsidies, which come to the tune of some billion shekels a year,” said Uri Regev of Hiddush, an Israeli organization advocating religious equality. That's a couple hundred million dollars, each year, for people to go to school.

Hiddush and other organizations petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to stop subsidizing religious study centers whose students dodge the draft. This week, they succeeded.

“What is at stake is not merely Israel’s security,” Regev said. “It is also, and no less than that, a battle over the rule of law, over the nature of Israeli democracy.”

Israel has undergone a political shift in the last year. Ultra-Orthodox political parties were tossed out of the ruling coalition, replaced by a center-left coalition that says it wants the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, minority to pull its weight, serve in the army, get into the workforce and integrate into Israeli society.

“That’s where the community, the Haredi community, gets up on its back legs and says 'Wait a second,'” said Jonathan Rosenblum, an American-born columnist for Mishpacha, a leading ultra-Orthodox weekly. The community’s “first commitment is to the Jewish people, even before the state of Israel, to the Jewish people. They do not look at themselves as parasites.”

Rosenblum’s community takes its Torah study seriously. Without a strong commitment to Torah, he said, Jews will lose their spiritual identity.

Rosenblum went to Yale Law School, and his boys attend one of the most prestigious religious study centers in Israel. While soldiers are carrying out nighttime operations, his kids are up in the wee hours of the night studying complicated religious texts, he said.

“This is the attitude we try to instill in them: 'You are a soldier! You are a soldier! And you have to act accordingly. You have to take seriously that your Torah protects,'” Rosenblum said.

He admits, though, that not everyone in the community needs to be studying around the clock. In fact, ultra-Orthodox society has been evolving on its own. The community is poor, and more and more young ultra-Orthodox men are signing up for the military, in part to learn skills that can help them get a job.

Rosenblum’s advice to the Israeli government is: don’t push the Haredi community into a corner.

“Let this evolutionary process take place,” Rosenblum said. “It is taking place far more rapidly over the last 10 years than anyone expected, from our own internal financial pressures.

“There’s a trend in economics: Trends that cannot continue forever, won’t,” said Rosenblum.

The trend of ultra-Orthodox men dodging the draft and the workforce will end gradually, Rosenblum said. But he said forcing the community’s hand — like this week’s sudden funding freeze and the police detention of a draft dodger — only encourages more violent protests, like Thursday's.

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