The Comeback of Polarization

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IDI researcher Dr. Benjamin Brown discusses the sense of attack experienced by the Haredi community during the 2013 election campaign and calls for a process of gradual change in integrating the ultra-Orthodox in the Israeli army and workforce.

According to the election results, United Torah Judaism, the Ashkenazi Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) party, won seven Knesset seats in the elections for the 19th Knesset, an increase of two seats from the five that it had in the 18th Knesset. As the dust of the elections begins to settle, and the political system embarks on a marathon of coalition negotiations, not much attention has been given to the increase in the power of United Torah Judaism in the prolific analyses of the election results. This figure, however, is important. For several decades, United Torah Judaism, and its historical predecessor Agudat Israel, has puzzled the experts, who wondered: How is it possible that the size of the ultra-Orthodox sector has increased so much (4%-4.5% a year), but the size of the party that represents it in the Knesset has increased so little? While this mystery remains regarding the past, at present, it seems that the gap between the two has narrowed.

Why has this happened now? Without a doubt, the Haredi community enlisted—not in the Israeli army but in support of the political party that promised to protect them from service in the Israeli army. For in contrast to the election propaganda broadcast in UTJ's television advertisements, which presented the party as a social party concerned with the needs of the entire population, the party's propaganda in the field—that is, in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods—portrayed it as the only political force that is protecting the interests of the ultra-Orthodox community, including waging the battle against the "evil decree of the draft." When Haredim feel attacked, they do what they do best: they protect themselves behind walls.

The Haredi community's feeling that they were under attack, however, is not a result of paranoia. In their attempt to woo voters, almost all the political parties in the election campaign affirmed their commitment to addressing the issue of "equality of the burden." This is an ostensibly neutral and color blind euphemism to drafting the ultra-Orthodox. In reality, however, it is neither neutral nor color blind. None of the parties that raised this banner really intended to prosecute non-Haredi draft evaders. Moreover, none of the champions of "military service for all" mentioned the importance of Torah study as a value that must be cultivated and preserved even when the Haredim are drafted; at most, they expressed willingness to arrive at a compromise with the ultra-Orthodox that would allow a limited number of army exemptions for Talmudic prodigies, as a limitation. The underlying message was that yeshiva students are not, in fact, a useful population, but it is necessary to forfeit some of these useless parasites in order to increase the chances of acceptance of the new legislation.

Does this sound familiar? Indeed, we have been here before. For Israelis over the age of 40, the rhetoric of Raful Eitan in the election campaign of 1992 and of Tommy Lapid in the election campaign of 2003 echo in these sentiments. This time, thank God, we were spared the anti-Semitic cartoons and the disgusting descriptions, since if nothing else, Israeli society in 2013 has adopted a semantic sensitivity in the spirit of political correctness. But the basic message is quite similar: the Haredim are our misfortune. Thus while there may not have been displays of overt hatred in the election campaign, there was no great love either, and a spirit of attack was definitely in the air. The ultra-Orthodox know well how to detect this breeze.

The point is that it is not just Israeli society that has changed since the early 90s. Ultra-Orthodox society in Israel has changed as well. Due to a combination of factors, in recent years, Haredi society has begun to open up, slowly and gradually, mostly expressing a hesitant willingness to integrate into the labor market but also to enlist in the army. Some ultra-Orthodox Jews, albeit a minority, have begun to wonder whether the social structure of the "society of learners" is not healthy, or, at least, is not appropriate for everyone. The moderate moral pressure exerted on this community by public opinion in broader Israeli society certainly contributed to this trend, even if only to a limited degree. Its success was, in part, because it was not couched in the terminology of hate propaganda and did not employ the coercive force of the State.

Some people, however, were in a hurry to make faster progress. Before the expiration of the Tal Law in August 2012, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that if new, more egalitarian law was not passed by the expiration date, there would have to be a sweeping draft of Haredim by the Israel Defense Forces. The old law expired, a new law was not passed, and the Haredim were not drafted. But the ultra-Orthodox began to feel the state's power of enforcement beginning to close in on them. Right after the Supreme Court ruling, Professor Yedidia Stern predicted this would happen, and that the Haredim would withdraw defensively from society, and he was right. A veritable panic began in the Haredi community against the "evil decree of the draft."

If the Supreme Court ruling was not enough, during the election campaign, all the politicians jumped onto the impassioned bandwagon. Lapid, Meretz, Netanyahu and Liberman, Livni, the small-sized Kadima Party, and even Naftali Bennet, all subscribed to the "equality in burden" slogan and contributed to the Haredi community's feeling that it was under siege. What the weakened leadership of the Haredi community did not manage to accomplish was accomplished by the advocates of "equality of the burden." The mobilization of the Haredi community was extensive, and the result was seven Knesset seats for United Torah Judaism. It would appear that we will soon witness a downturn in the trends of increased integration in both arenas—army service and participation in the workforce.

So now what? The polarization of the days of Tommy Lapid and Raful Eitan is here again, and the voting public is clamoring for instant gratification. What did these voters imagine? Did they really fantasize that tomorrow morning thousands of ultra-Orthodox men will throng to the military recruiting office, caught up in the fervor of the commandment to serve in the Israeli army? Did they imagine that the day after, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews would join the workforce in order to ease the burden of the weary middle class? After all, everyone agrees that whatever happens, the process cannot take place overnight. If so, why hasten the end? Why impose "decrees" instead of quietly supporting processes that have already begun in any event? It is difficult to escape the fact that beyond a desire to see ultra-Orthodox military recruits and productive ultra-Orthodox members of the workforce, there seems to be a desire to "show them what's what."

We have no recourse but to hope that the politicians will not try to deliver the goods immediately to their constituents, who are demanding results here and now, but will instead exercise sober restraint and say what they know how to say and love to say repeatedly: "what you see from here you don't see from there" [a reference to an aphorism, taken from a popular song that was recorded by Yehudit Ravitz, which was used by Ariel Sharon to explain that it is difficult to implement far reaching political promises once you have attained power because the issues are seen differently]. Perhaps from "there," they will see that the Haredi public is not just a burden, but also an asset. Perhaps from "there," they will see that the world of the ultra-Orthdox yeshivot is not just an economic trouble for the middle class but that it has also established today's Israel as Torah superpower that will be remembered for generations in the history of the Jewish people. Perhaps from "there," they will see that the Haredi public actually wants to change, as long is that change occurs gradually and is not imposed by a gun to their heads.

This does not mean that the State should not be involved in the process of the Haredi community becoming more open and more integrated in society. It may and perhaps should encourage them by means of gentle methods of "carrot and stick" and by strengthening enforcement in cases of young men who are listed as enrolled in yeshiva programs but who are not really learning. But the State should not be a hero at the expense of the weak, should not issue pretentious proclamations, and above all should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

There are also good things in the Haredi public that should be maintained, but it is doubtful whether our politicians will be prudent enough to do so. Shortly before the writing of these lines, news reports quoted rumors that Yair Lapid is interested in a "government without the ultra-Orthodox." Based on the current atmosphere, it seems that he and the other leaders of his party, would prefer that we return to the "merry old days of Shinui" (the party headed by Lapid's father Tommy), to the great chagrin of those of us who understand that we really, but really, do not miss those days in the least. 

Dr. Benjamin Brown conducts research as part of IDI's Religion and State project and is a member of the faculty of the Jewish Philosophy Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.