HomeAugust 2013Israel’s Religious Divide

Israel’s Religious Divide

Israelis are debating the role of Haredim – traditional Orthodox (I find the term ultra-Orthodox deeply offensive) – in society.  The big issue is the draft.  Mothers in Tel Aviv, whose children stand at the front wonder why others should be studying in Yeshivas.  Religious families fear that the effort to remove deferments from Yeshiva students is just another foray by the elites to get their kids and mold them into secular Israelis.  It’s an issue filled with emotion.
The media tend to lump all Haredim together; in truth there are many varied viewpoints.  In my community, Chabad, our young men serve in the army after they complete their Yeshiva studies.  (My classmate was killed in the Yom Kippur War.)  Afterwards they enter the workforce.  Some believe a life of study is a noble venture.  Others spend 6 to 7 years studying after marriage and then choose to seek employment.
The politicians leading this debate are ignoring trends underway in the Haredi community.  Young men have been joining the army; units like Shachar in the ground forces and in the Air Force have created environments that are friendly to Jewish observance.  Many others are enrolled in college programs run by the Haredi sector that prepare young men and women for a career path.
Professor Yedidia Stern, of the liberal Israeli Democracy Institute, argues that the initiative championed by Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, to force change will ultimately set this agenda of integration backwards.  He says part of the community wants to balance between Jewish scholarship and integration into the society; the other advocates a total separation from secular Israeli culture.  The present approach of forcing change is marginalizing the voices of moderation.
The government is now threatening jail for Yeshiva students who ignore the draft.  Even Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon opposed this move,  saying “Israel should not be a country that jails those who study Torah.”  Lapid is demanding that this law be passed, or he will break the coalition.  Stern laments “the state is threatening a doomsday weapon – mass incarceration – against a group that includes one tenth of the Israeli population; it is planting a time bomb in the fabric of Israeli existence.”  He says, “This move is only emboldening those advocating against integration into the army and workforce.”
Yair Lapid stated in a speech two years ago that “Israel has become a nation of tribes, religious tribes, secular tribes, Russian tribes.”  He said the secular Zionists who created the state “saw religious Jews as relics that would fade into oblivion and oppressed them.”  He argued that “it’s time to create a consensus that brings all together.”
When I heard the speech I thought, “Wow, this guy gets it.”  Now I am convinced his way of force will fail.  You can’t jail thousands, cut off their funding for their schools and destroy the social net and not expect a harsh response.  The effort to change the Haredi society from within was already underway.  I fear that Lapid will only set that agenda backwards.
What needs to be done?  The answers are not simple.  Today tens of thousands are studying in Yeshivas, at the same time large numbers are moving into the mainstream.  Force will not solve the issue.  Conversation and compromise are the keys.  There is no one solution.  Job training, financial incentives, an army sensitive to religious needs are a few of many suggestions.  Most importantly, political leaders must convince the religious community that the policies of decades ago of using government coercion to force young people to abandon observance are a relic of the past.  With patience infused with a sense of common destiny and Ahavat Yisroel (love for our fellow Jews), solutions can be found.

Previous article
Next article


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here