They arrived by bus and despite their youth they were veterans of demonstrations honoring the rabbi’s of the extreme-right and protesting negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. But last Sunday their focus was on a Knesset bill to draft Israel’s ultra-Orthodox into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Over 300,000 heeded the calls amplified on religious talk radio and shut down central Jerusalem with a tearful and gender segregated prayer protest.
“Lapid is dead.” “Lapid, he’s a Nazi.” “Lapid wants to die fast, from the heavens God sees everything,” said a group of teenage ultra-Orthodox (also called Haredim) girls from the Tel Aviv area. They likened Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid, the main backer of the compulsorily conscription legislation, to the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, suggesting he would meet a similar fate. In the past week Lapid has taken the brunt of Haredi discontent against the military service measure, and even received a death threat days before the march.
“He’s a monkey, he’s a dog,” said the girls. Then turning their attention to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the secular-nationalist Economic Minister Naftali Bennett, both of whom are also backers of the draft bill, they said, “Bennett is an anti-Semite. Netanyahu is an anti-Semite. Lapid is an anti-Semite,” the teens continued, adding “Lapid he is a shiksa [Yiddish for a non-Jewish woman, with the connotation of a harlot], but Netanyahu, he is a shiksa–shiksa!”
Netanyahu, Bennett and Lapid, “they will cut our subsidies, the money is for us,” the teen continued. As with many Haredim, the young women feared the loss of government support the state provides them would go hand-in-hand with military service.
In 1948 Israel’s first prime minister—a secular labor Zionist—David Ben-Gurion struck a deal with the religious sector. The ultra-Orthodox of that day were not fully convinced of Zionism and the construction of a Jewish nation-state, but were very much in favor of a Jewish presence in the holy land. They were granted a pass from army duty, and instead could receive subsidies to study the Torah, which was intended to provide supplemental income during the years young Israelis are of draft age. Yet today scores of ultra-Orthodox continue their religious education indefinitely. They opt for state benefits in lieu of employment, and view prayers as their service and contribution to society.
At the time Ben-Gurion made the deal, the ultra-Orthodox comprised only 1% of the population of Israeli Jews, but today they represent 12% and are the base of the declining powerhouse right-wing Shas party. Yet in Israel’s secular population, where 30% of the citizens pays 80% of employment taxes, middle and low-income families feel the Haredim are a financial burden. The measure to conscript ultra-Orthodox is therefore supported by nearly every sector of Israel’s often factional political life, and was part of Lapid’s campaign platform during the last election cycle.
“Everyone, including those who are shouting, because they are expected to shout, knows that not one person studying Torah will be sent to jail. Period,” wrote Naftali Bennett, chairman of the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party that typically aligns with religious parties, on Facebook on Sunday in advance of the demonstration. Bennett remarks come during a rift between right-wing parties and a coalition crisis within the ruling bloc. “There is no Jewish historical precedent for non-participation in the workforce. Rabbi Yochanan was a shoemaker. Maimonides was a doctor. Rashi was a vintner. Throughout the history of Israel, our leaders worked,” he continued.
The ultra-Orthodox opposition to the state of Israel continues to date, and overtly anti-Zionist Haredim chose to demonstrate in Tel Aviv on Sunday, rather than Jerusalem. By contrast the Jerusalem demonstrators—though often referred to as “anti-Zionist” due to this historical aversion to the state— support Israel as a Jewish state. Only 20,000 of some 800,000 ultra-Orthodox do not recognize the state of Israel as legitimate and do not receive government benefits, according to Tamar Aviyah a secular-leftist Israeli and one of the Tel Aviv protest organizers.
“We believe that with our study God guards us and without that the powerful army cannot protect us,” said Ziv Kelley, 45, another protester at the anti-military draft demonstration. Once secular, today he is ultra-Orthodox. Kelley used to be an IDF paratrooper, but had a spiritual awakening while in army service in Lebanon during the 1980s. Kelley said he feared the new bill, which is slated to go into effect in three years, would cut his grants and force him to seek employment.
“If you come to the land and an Arab has a house and you don’t believe in the Torah, who are you to kick him out?” asked Kelley explaining how the secular leaders of Israel existentially need the religious, “But if you come with the Torah, it’s your land,” he continued.