What Is the Real Issue in Israel?

The real issue in Israel is the unprecedented attempt at a “makeover” of the chareidi community. This campaign began immediately after the last election, when the Likud-Yisrael Beitenu faction formed a coalition with the Yesh Atid party, headed by Yair Lapid and Habayit Hayehudi, led by Naftali Bennett. Their  pronounced goal was to end “preferential treatment for chareidim.” They agreed not to include representatives of the chareidi parties in the government.

One of the first actions of Mr. Lapid as Minister of Finance was to institute steep cuts in the funding of yeshivos and to kollel families who depended on these subsidies. The next step was a campaign to have chareidim “share the burden”: That included a new measure to draft yeshivah students, to have more chareidim in the labor force, and to put the onus on the chareidi institutions to choose who learns, who serves and who works. In other words, to meet arbitrary quotas, Roshei Yeshivah will be forced to tell most of their beloved talmidim that they can no longer pursue their own personal, family, community and spiritual aspirations.

The final straw was the imposition of criminal sanctions against yeshivah students who do not report if the quotas are not met. Beyond all of that, the legal machinations were accompanied by a vitriolic, divisive and derisive anti-chareidi rhetoric — incitement which was unprecedented in Israel. For nearly 66 years, Israel governments have respected a status quo in these matters. So you see, the draft is far from being the real issue!

Does everyone has to sit and learn all their life?

Take a look in offices and stores and it is evident that chareidi young men are represented in the labor force today. In the past, if chareidim decided to work, they had to report to the IDF for basic training and then reported for reserve duty. Of course, there are chareidim who want to work but, instead of being welcomed into the workforce, they are treated as criminals. How much more productive it would be for all concerned if they were, instead, incentivized, trained, and helped to become productive members of the economy. That would be responsible and highly respected by Jews everywhere.

Don’t you think the demonstration was a chillul Hashem?

Absolutely not! It showed the concern of American Orthodoxy about the new divide that was created by this government at a time when Israel has every reason to pursue unity. The external threats are unprecedented and the last thing Israel needs now is a Jewish community torn asunder by anti-chareidi forces. Nor should this be considered a “demonstration.” There were no speeches, no anti-government slogans, and nothing that looked like a demonstration. These were simply Jews who love Israel and merely came to implore the Heavens to restore a sense of balance and unity in the Jewish nation. It was a kiddush Hashem of historic magnitude that Jews can come together for one purpose only: to daven and say Selichos and Tehillim and pray for true peace and achdus.

Why should some people have to serve while the chareidim have an exemption from the army?

As much as the security of the state of Israel is paramount, so is its spiritual strength. Prime Minister Netanyahu constantly speaks about maintaining the Jewish character of the state of Israel. What good would a robust army be if Jews in Israel assimilate, lose connection with our heritage, and ultimately dilute the Jewish character of the state?

This basic premise was fully understood by the founding fathers of the modern state of Israel and maintained by successive governments including those from Labor (i.e., David ben Gurion, Moshe Sharett, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Shimon Peres, and Yitzchak Rabin). Western countries grant deferments or exemptions to divinity students out of an understanding that this freedom of religion was vital to their societies.

As much as we need a physical army, we need a spiritual army even more! A look at Israeli society shows many Israelis marrying non-Jews abroad, rising crime, violence, and a chronic drug problem. It is not as if the IDF has a manpower shortage. In fact more than 10,000 secular Israelis avoid the draft. The IDF is proposing legislation to reduce the length of service from 36 months to 30 months, because the IDF’s strength is in its reserves and it cannot accommodate a standing army that is greater than its day-to-day needs.

Why do the chareidim think that they can force their opinion and way of life on everyone?

Nothing could be further from the truth. The chareidim are not forcing others to be chareidi. They are merely fighting to preserve their way of life, which has sustained the Jewish people for thousands of years. Again, every democratic society tries to accommodate its minorities. Imagine if there were ever a draft again in America, and the American government refused to grant deferments to divinity students because Israel does not. Yes, the chareidi establishment has a right to expect support from the government for its institutions and needy and, yes, there is a large group of chareidim in Israel who work and pay taxes.

How do you think the American government is looking at it? Especially after Sunday?

Strange! Mr. Netanyahu is insisting that the Palestinians and the world recognize Israel as a Jewish state but, at the same time, is leading a coalition that is systematically attempting to deflate the Jewish character of the state, create a huge schism in its society, and label a significant part of its citizenry that is largely free of crime, drugs, and immorality as “criminals” and “parasites.” After the rally, Americans and the American government most likely respect the Orthodox even more, especially witnessing the extraordinary peace, discipline and behavior that was demonstrated at the tefillah asifos around the world.