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Israel Faces an Army of the Ultra-Orthodox

Charlotte Silver

JERUSALEM, Mar 11 2012 (IPS) - The High Court of Justice in Israel has annulled the 2002 Tal Law that had allowed Yeshiva students – scholars of Jewish religious texts – to avoid an otherwise mandatory service in the Israeli army. While politicians on the left and right welcome the court’s decision, the Haredim community considers it an assault on their way of life.

The Haredim are also known as the “ultra-Orthodox” and represent around 10 percent of the country, which has a population of nearly eight million.

The law in its current form gives students of the Yeshiva the choice at age 22 to continue their religious studies or enlist in the IDF. All other non-Arab citizens are required to serve two to three years in the Israel Defence Force after the age of 18. The ten-year-old law has been extended repeatedly. Now, with the court’s recent ruling, the law is set to expire this August.

Organisations and political parties in opposition to the law have argued that it is unfair to exempt a significant portion of Israeli society from civic and military service.

“We must share the burden of our duties and our rights. If you want equal rights you should have equal duties,” Tal Nachom, speaker of the far right nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu, told IPS. Enlistment in the IDF has been steadily decreasing since 2002 as a result of religious and medical exemptions.

Critics of the Tal Law point out that when Israel was established, only 400 exceptional students were exempted from military service. Today that group has swollen to more than 60,000.

However, members of the Israeli Haredim community – the primary beneficiaries of the law – argue that the court’s decision is an attack on religious life in Israel.

“The judges don’t know what they’re talking about because they are coming from a secular background and don’t know the rules of Judaism. They shouldn’t be making these decisions,” Rabbi Simon Hurwitz told IPS.

Rabbi Hurwitz moved to Israel nearly 39 years ago from Baltimore in the U.S. He explains that after living a mostly secular life in America, he became observant after being properly exposed to Judaism.

The Haredim adhere strictly to the rules laid out in the Shulchan Aruch – also called the Code of Jewish Law – separating them culturally from most communities. Some examples of what sets the Haredim apart from other Israelis are a requirement not to possess television sets or access the Internet, in order to avoid offensive material.

Women and men’s attire must conform to strict regulations. In addition, Zionism for the Haredim is justified by religious entitlement above nationalism.

“It’s hard for me to imagine Zionism without a religious base. What does it come from? Nationalism? That just sounds racist to me,” said Rabbi Hurwitz.

At stake with the cancellation of the Tal Law is more than just forced enlistment in the army. At the core of the debate is a battle for power and security between the Haredim and the rest of Israeli society. While secular Israelis find themselves discomfited by the Haredim’s high growth rate and political mobilisation, the latter see themselves as a threatened minority.

Studies indicate that the birth rate among the Haredi is nearly three times that of the rest of Israel; predictions estimate that by 2020 the Haredi community will constitute 17 percent of the Israeli population.

Many in Israel view the Haredim as a drain on the Israeli economy. While they still constitute a small portion of society, they receive a disproportionate amount of state subsidies. Because men consider their occupation a study of the Torah and women are systematically undereducated, they are one of the poorest communities in Israel. Sixty percent of the Haredim community live in poverty compared to only 10 percent of the rest of the non-Arab Israeli population.

Indeed the International Monetary Fund published a report last month that warned of the peril this growing impoverished community poses to the Israeli economy.

Conversely, the Haredim believe their contribution to Israeli society to be vital. Rabbi Hurwitz sees studying the Torah as itself a national service. “Morality is a part of society. Without a moral compass how will you keep a society above water?”

Because the Haredim are dependent on a selective state welfare system, they are vulnerable to the changing winds of public attitude.

The rising tension between the Haredim and the rest of Israeli society is clearly evident in Bet Shemesh, a town of 80,000 that lies 30 kilometres west of Jerusalem. Currently, 40 percent of the town identify themselves as Haredi.

Called a “mixed city”, Bet Shemesh has been the site of cultural clashes. It was originally one of Israel’s first development towns, but since the 1990s, it has been the destination of both modern Orthodox immigrants from North America and Haredi Israelis. Now, the two groups are finding each other as infelicitous neighbours.

Last January, the city made national news after an extremist from the Haredi community verbally attacked an eight-year old Orthodox girl on her way to school, spitting on her and shouting epithets at her regarding her “immodest” dress.

Since members of the Orthodox, non-Haredi community built a local national religious school for girls on the border of the Haredi part of the city, relations between the two communities have become increasingly strained.

“The school is telling them this is where your expansion stops,” explains Dr. Yoel Finkelman, a lecturer in contemporary Jewry at Bar Illan University.

Finkelman explains that the new, state-of-the art school building stands in stark contrast to the abysmal conditions of the Haredim’s educational facilities.

“In Bet Shemesh two classrooms are born every week, and the majority are ultra-Orthodox babies,” Shmuel Greenberg, the deputy-mayor of the city, told Haaretz.

However, this growing need within the Haredim community is not being met with adequate services. In fact, religious schools in the country are facing economic woes now more than ever.

“The government has been cutting funding for years and years. Just last week our principles called a meeting to tell us to be very frugal with materials. We are having a lot of money problems,” Tzippy Escriz, a teacher at a religious school in Jerusalem, told IPS.

“Our schools get less than half the funding that secular public schools get,” she said. “It makes no sense.”

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