Ultra-Orthodox Jews are resisting new laws which force them to join the army

Then again, many don't even believe in the Zionist state. Ben Lynfield reports on Israel's enemy within

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The Independent Online

Despite unprecedented pressure to start swapping the holy books they so assiduously study for the M-16 of the Israeli army, the ultra-Orthodox young men at the Hebron Yeshiva, or religious seminary, are planning to stick to their lives of learning and prayer. They're holding out against plans to draft them into the military and the workforce, and to turn them into adherents of the Zionist, or Jewish nationalist, ideology on which the Israeli state is based.

The yeshiva, housed in a large, modern building that has no outward signs of being a religious centre, contains a hall that can hold more than a thousand students, who pack it three times a day for prayers. They face the Holy Ark that is adorned with the first two words of each of the Ten Commandments as they shake back and forth in devotion and recite "blessed is he and blessed is his name'' whenever God is mentioned by the prayer leader. This is played out daily at more than a thousand higher yeshivas and related institutions throughout Israel.

In their view, the ultra-Orthodox young men studying at the yeshiva are doing nothing less than fulfilling the divine will by spending 16-hour days poring over sacred texts. But many secular Israelis, most of whom have never set foot in a yeshiva, consider them to be less than a blessing for society, if not outright parasites.

While their secular peers – male and female – wear the olive uniforms of the Israel Defence Force, these ultra-Orthodox – all of them men – have their own dress code, which includes a black skullcap and white strings hanging out of their shirts to remind them of the 613 divine commandments. And while secular Israeli society prides itself on technological prowess, with cafes invariably filled with customers engrossed in their mobile phones, these yeshiva students for the most part live without email, iPhones or television, delving instead into the Torah, the five books of Moses and subsequent sacred texts.

A week after Israel's parliament, the Knesset, passed the Equal Service Bill, with the aim of drafting large numbers of yeshiva students and reversing an exemption for ultra-Orthodox that is nearly as old as the state itself, it was business as usual at the Hebron Yeshiva: and that business is studying hard. The affable and intelligent students have no need for exams or grades, since they are motivated to learn by religious faith. "The Holy one, blessed be he, gave the Torah to the children of Israel at Mount Sinai, and this is the book of instructions of how our lives are to be conducted," Yaacov Halevy, 20, replies when asked why he had made Torah study his central goal. "We try to understand what the Torah wants in every issue. It's a way to come close to the Holy one, blessed be he, and to know what the Holy One, blessed be he, wants.''

Yosef Perlowitz, 22, who moved to Israel three years ago from the US to study in the yeshiva, says that most of the studies centre around the Talmud, a compendium of religious discussions including rigorous legalistic argumentation dating back more than 1,500 years. ''In the morning, we learn to sharpen the mind, to teach us how to think. When we study the text, we take everything in the sentence and take it apart.''

At the yeshiva, the day starts with morning prayers at around 7am and continues to 11:30pm for most students. "At 2:30am you can still see a couple of hundred people in the Beit Midrash," Mr Perlowitz says. Some of the students live in dormitories, while others travel from their homes. "It's not easy," he adds. "Being a Jew is not easy, but it's worth it. It gives a tremendous amount of satisfaction at the end of the day.''

Worshippers in Jerusalem during the Jewish festival of Purim (NurPhoto/Corbis)

But being a secular or modern Orthodox Israeli is not easy, either: three years of mandatory military service from age 18, and reserve duty well into people's forties, with a good likelihood of actual combat or being ordered to enforce the occupation in the West Bank. "We think there should be no distinction between blood and blood,'' says Tuvia Peled, a member of the directorate of the forum for Equal Sharing of the Burden. ''Does the fact that they wear black and study in yeshivas mean they don't have to serve in the army?'' Peled says, "My anger and frustration throughout all the years that I served and saw others not serving impelled me to give my time and energy to the forum.''

Sixty six years after Israel's War of Independence, the army remains the country's most cherished and important institution, with the quest to be accepted into a unit of one's choice the main preoccupation of secondary-school students, with combat service constituting the most admired and prestigious activity for Israel's young men. A key criterion for getting certain jobs is being an army veteran, and what candidates did in the army can play a decisive role in their recruitment.

In Israel's hi-tech industry, it is not uncommon to find companies dominated by former members of the same army unit. Some Israelis, even while going about their civilian lives, do not give it a second thought that they are listening to the army's popular radio stations for their news and music. Israel's very existence is still seen as being foremost in the hands of the army. Ultra-Orthodox, known in Hebrew as haredim, or those who fear God, insist that, through their learning and prayers, they are also playing a key part in Israel's defence. "The Torah holds the world together, and because of the Torah and prayers, the IDF succeeds,'' says Moshe Saler, a student.

Draft deferments for the ultra-Orthodox started out small. In the early years of the state, Israeli founding father David Ben-Gurion agreed to give 400 deferments for full-time students so that a cadre of scholars could be created to rebuild the yeshiva world after it was devastated by the Nazi Holocaust. The number grew slowly until 1977, when Menachem Begin of the Likud party was elected premier. At the urging of ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, draft exemptions were extended to anyone learning full time in a yeshiva. In subsequent years, the number of ultra-Orthodox men who worked to earn a living declined markedly, and the number engaged in full-time studies who received state support rose, so that today only an estimated 40-45 per cent of ultra-Orthodox men are gainfully employed.

Ultra-Orthodox men browsing at an Apple store in Jerusalem (EPA)

The government has traditionally paid a fixed amount to yeshivas for each student enrolled, while the ultra-Orthodox, with their large families, have benefited from state child allowances that, until recently, provided slightly higher payments for each additional child. The allocations do not allow for a comfortable existence, but people make do with little. The ultra-Orthodox remain the poorest group in Israel's Jewish population. With the haredi birth rate exceeding that of the secular population, and their current 10 per cent of the Israeli population poised to increase, the governor of the Bank of Israel, Karnit Flug, recently said that the ultra-Orthodox, along with Israeli Arabs, are pulling down the economic growth rate and raising questions about the future of the economy.

"My calling is to learn Torah. For this I came into the world, not to learn a trade,'' Mr Saler responds.

As the deferments increased and work participation dropped off, secular resentment simmered. During elections last year, Yesh Atid, a secularist party trumpeting equal military service, gained 19 seats and became the senior partner of Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party. That this government would project a different tone than the previous coalitions that included ultra-Orthodox parties became apparent when the new deputy finance minister from Yesh Atid, Mickey Levy, said last April that the ultra-Orthodox must "bear the burden together, join the job market. They can't be parasites on the Israeli public, they can't keep up their world view that we don't work". Mr Levy apologised immediately for using the word parasites, but was still accused by ultra-Orthodox politicians of "anti-Semitism''.

The Equal Services law, passed last month, was supposed to be the fulfilment of Yesh Atid's promise. But most of its provisions do not take effect until 2017, well after the next parliamentary elections. The law calls for a three-year transition period in which increased ultra-Orthodox service is to be encouraged, but is not mandatory. From 2017, 5,200 ultra-Orthodox are to be conscripted into the army or national service every year. The government can increase this figure. In a provision that has prompted ultra-Orthodox leaders to say a war is being waged against the Torah, from 2017 ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers will be liable for punishment, including imprisonment.

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis gather prior to a military graduation ceremony in Jerusalem (Getty Images)

But at the Hebron Yeshiva, the students I speak to say that they would rather go to jail than serve. "I hope I go to jail. That is my aspiration if those are the choices,'' said Mr Halevy, the seventh of 10 children. "Even if the army provides a framework for haredim, it will not satisfy us because we have a central goal in life: studying Torah. Also, the army does not need more soldiers. This is out of the question."

More than 300,000 ultra-Orthodox turned out for a protest through prayer against the draft bill in Jerusalem last month, one of the largest demonstrations in Israeli history.

Public opinion wants to see the haredim absorbed. "They should definitely be drafted so that they can contribute to the state," says Keren Shalom, 40, who works for a food importing company and who lost a brother while he was in military service in 1997. "Now they are taking without giving.'' Ms Shalom, who served for two years in the military, also believes the haredim should be integrated into the labour force. "We have to help them with this by giving them job training,'' she says.

Avner Wishnitzer, 37, a university lecturer who served in the military from 1994 to 1998, believes that it is "not fair'' that haredim do not serve in the army. But he says the issue is being inflated beyond its importance by politicians "to draw attention away from more important things that no one in the government wants to deal with''.

The students at the yeshiva are convinced that the draft law is motivated by hatred of haredim and a desire to destroy their yeshiva world. And the statements of Yesh Atid leaders do point up an intention to impose the state's Zionist ideology on the yeshiva students, to make Israel a more homogenous place. Just as the Israeli government is demanding that the Palestinians, in peace negotiations, recognise Israel as a Jewish state – in effect, to become Zionists – Yesh Atid leaders seem to be making the same demand of the haredim, who have traditionally viewed the state with aversion since it generally does not conduct itself in accordance with Jewish religious law and belief.

''Military and civilian service is a symbol,'' Yesh Atid's education minister Shai Peron, himself a modern Orthodox rabbi, said in a speech before the Knesset vote. "It is one of the symbols of the togetherness, of the nationalism of Zionism. In dodging and evasion there is a divorcing from the Israeli public life.''

Yaacov Peri, Yesh Atid's science minister, said a week earlier: "Integration of the haredim in the army and economy will open a new chapter in Israeli society and bring greater equality and a more uniform society that bears equal obligations and rights.''

But if there is anything a visit to the Hebron Yeshiva teaches it is that if such integration is imposed– and that is a big if given the vagaries of Israeli politics – it promises to not be a smooth process.

''We would not have wanted the rise of this type of state that is based on laws not tied to the laws of the Torah,'' explains Mr Halevy. "We do not have a part in this state. We have no nationalism, we do not celebrate Independence Day. There is no happiness in the existence of a state that is against what God commands.''