Culture War Widening


Jerusalem — The phrase is familiar to the point of cliché: Israel is a Jewish and democratic state.

It may sound simple, but even after more than six decades of statehood its reality is elusive, and the conflict between the two ideologies has never been sharper than it is now. Deep down most Israelis believe that one or the other must prevail.

Much of the debate we hear at home concerns the role of Israeli Arabs in a Jewish state. But here the focus of late has been more parochial. That is, either you listen to those rabbis who preach that Israel has a unique responsibility to follow the guidelines of the Torah or you subscribe to the secular position that Israel should be a “normal” country, like those in the West, determined by liberal, moral values.

Pick up a newspaper here any day of the week and you see the tensions played out in the headlines. Two fervently Orthodox Israel Defense Forces soldiers walking in Jerusalem were beaten recently, presumably by haredim who oppose army service for their own. There have been violent demonstrations in front of an army draft center. These and other ugly incidents have come about after Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party proposed legislation that would have haredi young men jailed for resisting national service.

The more I discussed this with various experts here, the more I came to see how shortsighted and needlessly confrontational that approach is. Much of Israeli society is fed up with the fact that the haredim, or fervently Orthodox, not only show disdain for the army — asserting that learning Torah is a source of Divine protection for their fellow Jews — but do not consider themselves Zionists and are a serious drain on the national economy. Numbering about 750,000 strong and growing faster than the rest of the Jewish population by far — half the haredi population is under the age of 14 — they receive subsidies from the government for their large families.

Lapid captivated the Israeli electorate in January with his call for “sharing the burden,” pointedly insisting that haredim do national service and become part of the workforce or suffer the consequences as criminals.

Some say that the only way to change the status quo here is to force the issue in this way, showing the haredim that the country is serious about carrying through on jailing those who do not comply with the law. Such a law would give cover to those young haredi men who feel socially trapped into a life on the dole and would like to join the workforce after performing national service. A friend told me he heard that Naftali Bennett, the minister of religion, was approached by a young haredi man recently who told him quietly, “Draft us.”

But others insist that legislation enforcing the draft for the haredim in a confrontational way is a lose-lose proposition.

Yedidia Stern, vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) and an expert on the balance of Judaism and democracy in society, believes passage of the law would either result in a religious war or end up with the state retreating from its tough position, damaging the legitimacy of the rule of law.

Stern says Israel’s democracy is “in crisis,” primarily over identity issues focused on religion and state, and that where IDI once spent much of its time on constitutional and electoral reform, it now focuses increasingly on matters of Israeli (including Arab) and Jewish identity, like equal rights, marriage, conversion and Shabbat observance in the public space.

“The conversation is transferring to new horizons, to the source of authority,” he told me. “Now it’s an open issue.”

True, Israeli society is about democracy. But it’s also more and more about rabbis and their interpretation of Jewish law. Indeed, the IDF is worried about the influence of some of those rabbis on Orthodox soldiers who, for example, may be torn between following military orders to remove West Bank settlers from their homes, or obeying their religious leaders who assert the land must remain in Jewish hands.

Stern says that over the last few years Israel was making quiet progress in integrating young haredim into national service (usually doing chesed projects) and then the work force, with the numbers small but steadily increasing.

But since last summer, when the Supreme Court invalidated the longstanding Tal Law, which gave deferments to haredi yeshiva students, those numbers have decreased.

Abolishing the Tal Law was “a huge mistake,” Stern said, because it, in effect, took away the haredi cover and forced them into a confrontational stance with mainstream society and the government, reinforcing their belief that they are victims of discrimination. And Stern agrees, to the point of convincing haredi leaders to let the IDI help fight for their rights, as his institute would for any minority.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute here, also opposes legislation that would jail haredim who do not sign up for national service or the army. “The fundamental mistake” the Knesset is making is not learning the lesson that “you can’t legislate social change,” he asserted during a conversation this week.

He noted that haredim are no longer anti-Zionist but rather have become “acculturated Zionists,” more a part of modernity and willing to participate in the system.

Rabbi Hartman says the motivation for the proposed legislation has little to do with having more haredi young men in the army. After all, the army is shrinking, due to budget cuts and improved technology, and it simply doesn’t need haredim serving. What’s more, since many haredi men marry young, if they were in the army they would be receiving additional pay, which the IDF can ill afford.

Rather, the rabbi says, Lapid, as finance minister, has turned public anger toward the haredim as a means of deflecting it from his highly unpopular proposed budget cuts.

Rabbi Hartman says successive Israeli governments, starting with David Ben-Gurion, created the problem by instituting the deferments for haredi yeshiva students — he thought their numbers would remain small — and have allowed haredi rabbinic leaders to “infantilize” their constituency, making them dependent on a society that views them with contempt.

“It’s a shame,” he said. Further, “it’s just not the Jewish way, which is to treat fellow Jews more gently. We’re violating the core principles of Zionism. Plus, it’s ineffective.”

Erel Margalit, the highly successful venture capitalist and new member of Knesset from Labor, agrees. He says the haredim are “being used as a punching bag, as a political tool, in a way that delegitimizes them.”

In an interview at the Knesset this week, he said that for the last seven years as a businessman/philanthropist, he helped integrate young haredim into the work force in the preliminary high-tech sector. “But this [proposed legislation on national and army service] stops the progress we’ve made on the ground.

“The country is making a mistake,” he said, calling for economic incentives rather than “making the haredim criminals.” Margalit also believes that national/army service should begin at the age of 18 for everyone. According to the proposed law, haredi students would be able to defer a few years, but since many of them marry young that would incur an additional financial burden on the IDF.

Sadly, many of the recent under-the-radar efforts by the army and business leaders to quietly integrate the haredim into the work force, building trust along the way, have been undermined by this new push for a confrontational bill that likely will radicalize the haredi community, if it ever passes.

The whole issue underscores at least two troubling aspects of Israeli society. One is what Yedidia Stern of the IDI calls the “winner-take-all” approach — in this case showing the public that the haredim can be defeated — rather than collaboration and compromise. (Anyone following the goings-on in Washington these days can relate.)

The second is that seemingly every calculation and decision affecting this country is political. So if, in the end, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decides to push off the proposed bill, it will not be because it is damaging to Israeli society but because he wants to bring haredi parties like Shas back into his government.

“Our challenge is to make this society’s narrative one of cooperation,” says Stern, not of each segment proclaiming its own truth. And he adds that none of the country’s leaders are dealing with the issues of national and Jewish identity on a cultural or ideological level — only a political one.

Until that changes, we can expect more battles pitting haredim against the rest of society, even as the country’s demographic balance continues to shift toward what some call “the politics of the womb,” with haredim in the ascendancy.

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at