Opinion | Naomi Ragen

By | Aug 29, 2013

The Decline of Ultra-Orthodox Power

Never do I remember more post-election excitement and upheaval in Israel, on the civilian front, than in the last few months. Swept into the government by an unprecedented populist tide, big winner Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid [There is a Future] Party opened the floodgates of hope that, after 65 years of stifling stalemate and rising fury, the increasingly grating and fraught divide between secular Israelis and their ultra-Orthodox brothers and sisters was in for a vast change. We crossed our fingers; election promises can melt and disappear like ice in spring rain. But this time, we have not been disappointed.

Lapid, appointed minister of finance, heralded the change with his brilliant rhetorical fireworks at the opening of the 19th Knesset on April 22. In response to haredi heckling and six no-confidence motions, in which haredi MKs accused Lapid of budget cuts that would “starve our children,” Lapid responded for most of us when he answered, “We will not let any child in Israel starve, but the parties responsible for feeding children are called their parents. When you bring a child into this world it is a serious responsibility, and you cannot have children under the assumption that other people will provide for them.”

At a loss for a response to what even haredi journalists subsequently granted was “simple logic,” the typically articulate haredi MK Moshe Gafni lamely accused Lapid of desecrating the holiness of the Sabbath by texting. “I don’t tell you what to do on Shabbat and you won’t tell me what to do,” Lapid countered, his words echoing throughout a country weary of religious coercion.

But the coup de grâce was no doubt Lapid’s response to the ill-timed concern voiced by haredi MK Meir Porush about the diminishing percentage of IDF draftees. “You are worried?” Lapid pounced. “Well, don’t be. The government will make sure that there are plenty of new recruits, straight from your own backyard.”

The initial haredi response to all this was unfortunate but perhaps predictable. Left out of the corridors of power for the first time in 30 years, they held a huge demonstration on May 16 in Jerusalem, subsequently amping up their rhetoric to horrifying heights. Rabbi Moshe Gerlitz, editor of the haredi magazine Mischpacha and no extremist, said on Holocaust Remembrance Day: “A gnat of fear is gnawing at my heart that [the Holocaust] will repeat itself. And it will repeat itself here in Israel. It will repeat itself and its victims will be us, the haredim.”

Such talk has done nothing to derail the new laws being passed at a dizzying pace to bring equality to Israel’s citizens.  But even wanted and necessary change is going to take time and patience, and not every change will necessarily be what we were hoping for. Consider, for example, the draft. Automatic exemptions for thousands of full-time yeshiva students have been the major bone of contention between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of the Israeli population for decades. The new military conscription reform bill is poised to change all that. However, the addition of so many new recruits—most of them products of an educational system devoid of math, science or English curricula—presents its own problems. Indeed, when Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon was asked to come up with a solution, he suggested allowing such haredi recruits the option of choosing national service, currently a bastion of religious girls who teach or help out in outlying development areas. The new bill isn’t slated to take effect until 2020, another nagging sign that the army itself is in no great rush to deal with the flood of haredi recruits the law will create.

Interestingly, even without the new law, the public debate about army exemptions has had a profound effect on haredim. Record numbers have showed up at enlistment centers. As a result, the army is planning an additional haredi unit that will offer mehadrin-certified food and women-free bases.

For haredi leaders, for whom each such recruit means one fewer yeshiva student enrolled and receiving a stipend, this trend is alarming. To counter it, some in the community have targeted haredi soldiers, physically attacking them and hurling verbal epithets like “chardalim.” The term, which means “haredi lite” but sounds suspiciously like the Hebrew word for roach, has outraged many who accuse haredim of using Nazi tactics to dehumanize those who choose to serve.

But for the most part, after the big demonstration in May, the haredi street is keeping a low profile so as not to evoke even more unwelcome laws. Even Women of the Wall celebrated the month of Elul in July at the Kotel without incident.

To my surprise, I wasn’t quite ready for all the changes. Taking my usual Sabbath walk through the lovely, quiet streets of Jerusalem, I was suddenly assaulted by rock music. Shocked at this unprecedented public desecration of the Sabbath, I followed the noise. The trail led me to the boutique shops and restaurants built on the newly refurbished site of Jerusalem’s long-defunct Ottoman railroad station.

As much as I truly believe in freedom of choice and deplore religious coercion, I felt heartbroken and appalled as loudspeakers blared, guitars strummed and people milled around openly buying ice cream and coffee from vendors. It made me feel as if I were lost in a foreign country.

In the recent past, such goings-on would have been greeted with violent haredi demonstrations, particularly during the summer months when idle yeshiva boys are traditionally kept busy with such work. But as I looked around me there was nary a black-suited sign-holder or rock thrower to be seen.  We who treasure and observe Shabbat were on our own. Despite the challenge, I have to admit I prefer it that way.


Naomi Ragen is a novelist and playwright living in Jerusalem. Her tenth novel, The Sisters Weiss, published by St. Martin’s Press, will appear in October. 

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