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The Charedi protests: A response to David Suissa

[David Suissa: Charedim should start with ‘thank you’  /
Knesset passes Charedi draft law / Community response]

I consider myself a friend of David Suissa. I like what he is about, trying to bring disparate segments of our Jewish community together. That is precisely why I feel obligated to respond to his recent negative column on the Charedi rally last week in Jerusalem. 

He characterized the rally of more than 500,000 as a demonstration. It was not. It was a prayer gathering. There were no speeches, only the recitation of tehillim (psalms) and selichos (prayers for forgiveness). Participants were told not to bring signs or shout slogans.  Those who attended the gathering were moved by its somber tone and uplifted by praying out loud with half a million people. This rally was not about yeshiva students evading the Israeli draft, nor was it a protest against the conclusions of the Shaked Committee, which, most analysts claim, leave Charedim in a better position than they are today. As Rav Aaron Leib Shteinman, shli’ta, the senior Torah leader in the Lithuanian Torah World stated, it was to pray for the negation of proposed legislation that would mean that Torah study in the land of Israel could be treated as criminal behavior.  Remove the criminalization of Torah study and there is no rally. 

Yes, they realize that the criminal act would be noncompliance with a universal draft law, not Torah study per se. That is true, and beside the point. It is simply an affront to Jewish memory that the principled choice to study Torah could result in prosecution. 

One also has to understand the reaction of the Charedi community in the context of recent unabated attacks against it, promising “to teach them a lesson” and “fix their values.” The paternalistic adage of “we know what’s better for you” and “we will force you to accept our way of life” only served to unite Charedim in a common struggle of resistance. It is interesting to note that many of the social engineering proposals being legislated in the Knesset were already happening, only in an evolutionary manner.  More and more Charedim were joining Charedi-friendly units of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and entering the workforce. Those trends have now been set back many years. Instead of aiding what was already occurring, politicians, who for 60 years used the Charedi parties to stay in power, now scapegoat them for all of the country’s problems. Sounds like an old familiar tale. 

Suissa writes eloquently of the importance of the IDF to the security of all Israelis. I would add, to all Jews around the world. They are owed a great debt of gratitude for their “mesirus nefesh.”  If we don’t thank them enough, we are guilty. By the same token, it is important to realize the value to our entire nation of those dedicating their lives to Torah study. I am not referring to the value in spiritual currency, as David remarks. Rav Saadia Gaon wrote nearly 1,200 years ago in his seminal work, Emunos V’dayos, “Ein umaseinu uma ela ba’Torah” (Our nation is only a nation through Torah). By that he meant that the Jewish people have only one commonality and one common destiny, and that is the Torah. Jews may all relate to the Torah differently. They may understand it differently and observe it differently, but they all relate to it. The 60,000 or so idealists in Israel who chose to make the study of Torah their life and submit themselves to a life of poverty in the process are to be cherished, not denigrated. They hold the torch that binds us to the land of Israel and justifies our being there. I will not argue the relative importance of Torah study versus army service, but let us at least understand the value of those Torah scholars to our nation. They too are serving the country.

Lastly, I must address the opening foray of Suissa’s article. “Put yourself in the shoes of the Israeli mother whose son was killed while serving in the IDF … (as) you watch close to a half a million ultra-Orthodox Jews demonstrate against a bill that would force some of them to serve in the IDF.” While there were no reports of such mothers complaining, and there were participants in the rally who themselves had lost children and loved ones, Suissa’s point, heard all too often, begs a response.

In reality there is no answer to a mother who lost a child. Such people have made the ultimate sacrifice for the Jewish people. The Talmud refers to them as “Konai Olam Haba.” They own their part in the World to Come. Yair Lapid, who did his military service as a correspondent for the IDF periodical “Bamachaneh,” has no answer. David and I, who have enjoyed our Sundays in sunny California while the children of those mothers gave their lives so that we Diaspora Jews would have a safe haven should the need arise, have no answer. At least the dedicated Torah scholars in Israel are giving up something for the Jewish people. That may not be the best answer, but it is certainly better than ours. 

David Suissa responds:

What my friend Irving Lebovics says was just a “prayer gathering” with a “somber tone,” the Associated Press described as: “Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews rallied in the streets of Jerusalem, blocking roads and paralyzing the city in a massive show of force against plans to require them to serve in the Israeli military.” Beyond his effort to put a soft spin on the rally, Lebovics missed my essential point: The Charedi tradition of ignoring civil obligations in favor of full-time Torah study dishonors the very notion of Torah. It makes the Torah look cloistered and insular, turns Torah study into an excuse to not serve the country and makes Torah a divisive force rather than a unifying one. After all, if studying Torah means living off the blood, sweat and taxes of others, how can this injustice not turn Jews off from Torah? I know Charedim in America who, in private, seem to understand this. Rather than feeding into the sense of victimhood of their brethren in Israel, they ought to show them some tough love and implore them to get with the program. Instead of waiting for the state to “force” them to fulfill their civil obligations, Charedim in Israel must lead the way. They should study Torah and willingly contribute their fair share to society. That combination would honor the Torah more than a million prayers.

Dr. Irving Lebovics is the chairman of Agudath Israel of California.

Israel seals deal ending military exemptions for ultra-Orthodox

Israel clinched a deal on Wednesday to abolish wholesale exemptions from military service for Jewish seminary students, ended a brief crisis that divided the ruling coalition parties.

The issue of “sharing the national burden” is at the heart of heated debate over privileges the ultra-Orthodox minority has enjoyed for decades, and a government-appointed committee had failed to formulate a new conscription law earlier this week.

Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party, had balked at a clause under which criminal charges would be brought against those trying to dodge conscription.

Netanyahu's main coalition partner, the centrist Yesh Atid party, threatened on Monday to quit the government unless the issue was resolved.

In a compromise that paved the way for the deal, the committee agreed on sanctions but delayed imposing them during a four-year interim period in which the military will encourage 18-year-old Bible scholars to enlist, political officials said.

Under the proposed law, which still faces ratification in the cabinet and parliament, the number of seminary students exempted from the military each year will be limited to 1,800 of the estimated 8,000 required to register for the draft annually.

Welcoming the agreement on the proposed law, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid told a news conference: “The government proved it can make a change, even on the most explosive issues.”

Yesh Atid came second to Likud in the January general election on a pledge to reduce state benefits for Israel's fast-growing ultra-Orthodox minority and end military service exemptions for the community.

For the first time in a decade, Israel's government has no ultra-Orthodox members, and main coalition partners had pressed Netanyahu to break with political tradition and enact reforms under a slogan of “sharing the national burden”.

Most Israeli men and women are called up for military service for up to three years when they turn 18. However, exceptions have been made for most Arab citizens of Israel, as well as ultra-Orthodox men and women.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Thousands protest in Jerusalem against haredi draft

Thousands of haredi Orthodox Israelis protested in Jerusalem against plans to enlist haredi men into the military.

The protesters gathered Thursday night near the city’s military draft bureau to hear rabbis warn that army service would irreparably harm their way of life.

“The government wants to uproot and secularize us,” Rabbi David Zycherman said, according to Reuters, “They call it a melting pot, but people cannot be melted.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government has committed to expanding the draft to include haredi men, most of whom receive exemptions on religious grounds.

The strong showing in January’s election by Yesh Atid, the party of Finance Minister Yair Lapid, was attributed in large part to pledges to resist demands by Orthodox parties and spread the burden of army service and taxation more evenly across Israeli society.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said at least 20,000 protesters took part in Thursday’s demonstrations. There were about a dozen arrests after protesters hurled bottles and stones at officers, some on horseback, Rosenfeld said. Police used stun grenades to quell the unrest. A water cannon was also deployed when protesters set a garbage bin on fire. At least six officers required medical treatment and two were taken to hospital, Rosenfeld said.

Most Israeli women and men are subject to two to three years of mandatory military once they turn 18. Exceptions are made for most Arab citizens of Israel as well as haredi Orthodox men and women.

Israel requests reservists after rockets target cities

Israeli ministers were on Friday asked to endorse the call-up of up to 75,000 reservists after Palestinian militants nearly hit Jerusalem with a rocket for the first time in decades and fired at Tel Aviv for a second day.

The rocket attacks were a challenge to Israel's Gaza offensive and came just hours after Egypt's prime minister, denouncing what he described as Israeli aggression, visited the enclave and said Cairo was prepared to mediate.

Israel's armed forces announced that a highway leading to the Gaza Strip and two roads bordering the enclave would be off-limits to civilian traffic until further notice.

Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the border area on Friday, and the military said it had already called 16,000 reservists to active duty.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened senior cabinet ministers in Tel Aviv after the rockets struck to decide on widening the Gaza campaign.

Political sources said ministers were asked to approve the mobilisation of up to 75,000 reservists, in what could be preparation for a possible ground operation.

No decision was immediately announced and some commentators speculated in the Israeli media the move could be psychological warfare against Gaza's Hamas rulers. A quota of 30,000 reservists had been set earlier.

Israel had endured months of incoming rocket fire from Gaza wehn the violence escaleted on Wednesday with the killing of Hamas's military chief, and targeting longer-range rocket caches in Gaza.   Hamas stepped up rocket attacks in response.

Israeli police said a rocket fired from Gaza landed in the Jerusalem area, outside the city, on Friday.

It was the first Palestinian rocket since 1970 to reach the vicinity of the holy city, which Israel claims as its capital, and was likely to spur an escalation in its three-day old air war against militants in Gaza.

Rockets nearly hit Tel Aviv on Thursday for the first time since Saddam Hussein's Iraq fired them during the 1991 Gulf War. An air raid siren rang out on Friday when the commercial centre was targeted again. Motorists crouched next to cars, many with their hands protecting their heads, while pedestrians scurried for cover in building stairwells.

The Jerusalem and Tel Aviv strikes have so far caused no casualties or damage, but could be political poison for Netanyahu, a conservative favoured to win re-election in January on the strength of his ability to guarantee security.

“The Israel Defence Forces will continue to hit Hamas hard and are prepared to broaden the action inside Gaza,” Netanyahu said before the rocket attacks on the two cities.

Asked about Israel massing forces for a possible Gaza invasion, Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said: “The Israelis should be aware of the grave results of such a raid and they should bring their body bags.”

Officials in Gaza said 28 Palestinians had been killed in the enclave since Israel began the air offensive with the declared aim of stemming surges of rocket strikes that have disrupted life in southern Israeli towns.

The Palestinian dead include 12 militants and 16 civilians, among them eight children and a pregnant woman. Three Israelis were killed by a rocket on Thursday. A Hamas source said the Israeli air force launched an attack on the house of Hamas's commander for southern Gaza which resulted in the death of two civilians, one a child.


A solidarity visit to Gaza by Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, whose Islamist government is allied with Hamas but also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel, had appeared to open a tiny window to emergency peace diplomacy.

Kandil said: “Egypt will spare no effort … to stop the aggression and to achieve a truce.”

But a three-hour truce that Israel declared for the duration of Kandil's visit never took hold. Israel said 66 rockets launched from the Gaza Strip hit its territory on Friday and a further 99 were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system.

Israel denied Palestinian assertions that its aircraft struck while Kandil was in the enclave.

Israel Radio's military affairs correspondent said the army's Homefront Command had told municipal officials to make civil defence preparations for the possibility that fighting could drag on for seven weeks. An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on the report.

The Gaza conflagration has stoked the flames of a Middle East already ablaze with two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to leap across borders.

It is the biggest test yet for Egypt's new President Mohamed Mursi, a veteran Islamist politician from the Muslim Brotherhood who was elected this year after last year's protests ousted military autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are spiritual mentors of Hamas, yet Mursi has also pledged to respect Cairo's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, seen in the West as the cornerstone of regional security. Egypt and Israel both receive billions of dollars in U.S. military aid to underwrite their treaty.

Mursi has vocally denounced the Israeli military action while promoting Egypt as a mediator, a mission that his prime minister's visit was intended to further.

A Palestinian official close to Egypt's mediators told Reuters Kandil's visit “was the beginning of a process to explore the possibility of reaching a truce. It is early to speak of any details or of how things will evolve”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-2009, killed more than 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

Tunisia's foreign minister was due to visit Gaza on Saturday “to provide all political support for Gaza” the spokesman for the Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki, said in a statement.

The United States asked countries that have contact with Hamas to urge the Islamist movement to stop its rocket attacks.

Hamas refuses to recognise Israel's right to exist. By contrast, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in the nearby West Bank, does recognise Israel, but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Abbas's supporters say they will push ahead with a plan to have Palestine declared an “observer state” rather than a mere “entity” at the United Nations later this month.

How Charedi draftees affect the military

Professor Yagil Levy of the Open University in Israel discusses the Charedi draft, and an alternative direction on Iran. ‎

You have claimed that the religious community has a growing amount of influence ‎in the Israeli military – why is this a negative thing? Does it impair the army’s ‎operational capabilities, and in what ways?‎

There is nothing wrong in the growing presence of religious soldiers in the ‎IDF. The problem is with the attempts of the soldiers’ leadership to impair the ‎military’s autonomy in several areas, such as: exclusion of women from many ‎roles in field units, the expansion of the role of military chaplains – from the ‎traditional role of providing religious services to the religious socialization of ‎secular soldiers, and many instances in which religious solders refused, or ‎threatened to refuse, to carry out orders to evacuate settlements in the West ‎Bank. ‎

Read more at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.

Israeli military begins drafting haredi Orthodox

The Israel Defense Forces have begun drafting haredi Orthodox 18-year-olds without encountering significant protests, one week after a new law requiring haredi military service took effect.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak on July 31 ordered the IDF to compose guidelines for haredi army service within 30 days, and in the meantime implemented the Military Service Law of 1986 with regard to the haredi Orthodox. The law requires every Jewish Israeli to serve in the IDF, and includes penalties of up to three years in prison for those who do not comply.

A military source with knowledge of the issue told JTA that one week after the law’s implementation, the IDF has yet to encounter any significant problems in putting haredi youth through the draft process.  The 18-year-olds are undergoing competency tests in math, Hebrew and general knowledge, as would any draftee.

Previously, under legislation known as the Tal Law, haredi youth would be able to go to an IDF induction center with a letter from a rabbi exempting them from military service so they could study Jewish texts in a yeshiva. The Israeli Supreme Court invalidated the Tal Law in February.

The court mandated the government to pass new legislation by Aug. 1, but no such legislation has been passed.

Barak orders haredi Orthodox conscription

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered the Israeli Defense Forces to draft haredi Orthodox men as it does other Jewish Israelis.

Barak has allowed a month for officials to formulate regulations on haredi conscription, according to reports.

The order came as the Tal Law, which allowed haredi men to defer army service, expired on Wednesday. Israel’s Supreme Court overturned the law in February.

Israeli law mandates that Jewish Israelis enter the army at age 18. Some Israelis legally defer army service for a year or more to study and prepare for the army. Israeli Arabs are not required to serve in the army.

Since the Tal Law was overturned, the debate over Israel’s mandatory conscription has been at the center of the country’s political discourse. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu established a unity government in May with the centrist Kadima, the Knesset’s largest party, to draft new legislation on mandatory service that would address haredi and Arab youth, but Kadima and its leader Shaul Mofaz quit the coalition in July after failing to reach an agreement with Netanyahu.