Last week, I ran into an acquaintance at a minyan in Boro Park. "The situation is azoi shver," he told me, as he directed his woeful gaze upwards. I asked him whether he was talking about the financial situation or the war in Gaza.
Actually, the war in Gaza and the economic disaster that has hit the Torah community are not unrelated. The drying up of the vast philanthropic resources of America has hit Israeli Torah institutions at all levels, from high school age mesivtos to yeshivos to kollelim. A number are on the verge of closure. Kollelim have stopped paying stipends and yeshivos and mesivtos are cutting down on food for bochurim.
Housing for young couples in the major chareidi centers of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak is almost impossible to find. Thousands of young couples in Jerusalem are starting married life in tiny apartments consisting of little more than a bedroom and kitchen, often without even a window.
The Israeli system of long-term learning is predicated on the assumption that newly married couples will start life together with their own apartment. Otherwise, it is argued, rent alone will gobble up most of the couple’s income from his kollel stipend and whatever she can earn. With even the kollel stipend increasingly in doubt, that argument only takes on added force.
The problem, however, is that the number of parents who can afford apartments of $160,000 in "projects," like Kiryat Sefer, Beitar, or Ramat Beit Shemesh, much less $200,000 (minimum!) in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak is dwindling rapidly. Fewer and fewer families have the savings to buy half of one such apartment, much less eight or nine.
As a consequence, more and more young couples committed to the husband’s long-term Torah learning will have to consider communities on the periphery, where apartment prices are one-third to one-quarter of those in the main Torah centers. Those willing to make the sacrifice of moving away from their families represent the future of Torah learning in Israel. These are the avreichim who did not hang a price tag around their necks, but instead chose their spouses based on their commitment to Torah learning and capability of building a Torah home. That is why the gedolei Torah have made support for kollelim on the periphery a high priority.
The catch is that most of the communities on the periphery are also well within the range of Hamas or Hizbullah missiles. Ofakim, Netivot, and Tifrach in the south are just three examples of communities with a Torah presence, hit by Hamas missiles last week. Ashdod, Israel’s fifth largest city and home to a large Torah community, is now in missile range of Gaza. In addition, any new communities built in response to the critical chareidi housing shortage are likely to be on the periphery, which by definition means within missile range of Gaza or southern Lebanon.
Thus the outcome of the current Israeli military operation in Gaza is of crucial importance for the future or Israel’s Torah community. If the operation ends with Hamas’s missile launching capacity largely intact, and with the terror group free to upgrade its missiles, as it did during the recent six-month ceasefire, it is unlikely that southern Israel will witness a rapid growth in the Torah-learning community. The large yeshivos in Ashdod, for instance, all left the city after the first fatal missile hit last week.
The choice facing the Israeli government is between two precedents: the 2002 Operation Defensive Shield and the 2006 Second Lebanon War. The former, following a month in which 130 Jews were murdered in terrorist attacks, resulted in the virtual elimination of terror from the West Bank.
By contrast, the Second Lebanon War was widely perceived as an Israeli defeat. After a highly effective initial thirty-eight minutes of bombing, which wiped out Hizbullah’s infrastructure in southern Beirut and most of its long-range missiles, the government dithered unconscionably for the next month. On the last day of the thirty-four-day war, Hizbullah was still able to rain 300 missiles on Israel, and in the two years since, Hizbullah has succeeded in obtaining twice as many missiles as it had at the outset of the 2006 fighting.
Last week’s fighting in Gaza brought back painful memories of the Second Lebanon War. Once again fighting began with highly successful pinpoint bombing. Yet for all the power of the Israeli air campaign, it failed to suppress Hamas missile fire, just as it failed to suppress Hizbullah missile fire in 2006.
And once again, after the initial successful bombing, the Israeli government showed signs of confusion about what to do next. After less than three days, Defense Minister Ehud Barak publicly entertained the idea of a new ceasefire that would have left Hamas with pretty much the same capacities as at the beginning of fighting.
As it had in Lebanon, the government hesitated about committing ground troops, likely out of fear that the public would not tolerate heavy military casualties — a consideration that took on added force in the midst of an election campaign. As former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon said last week, "We have reached a dangerous point in this country in which we are no longer willing to accept military casualties. Instead we accept civilian casualties. But the role of the army is to defend civilians, and not vice versa."
Even when Israel finally sent in ground troops on Saturday night, there was talk of a short ground action ahead of French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s visit early in the week. Yet any ground action that does not result in Israel taking control of the northern Gaza Strip, from which most of the missiles targeting Beersheba, Ashdod, and Ashkelon are fired, and end Hamas’s ability to smuggle in advanced weaponry via tunnels under the Philadelphi Corridor, will only return us to the previous unstable ceasefire. Hamas used the ceasefire to attain longer-range missiles from Iran and to vastly improve its defensive capacities against Israeli troops. Thus any delay in a ground operation now only guarantees a more costly operation, in terms of Jewish lives, at some future date.
Even as we look to the south and pray for the safety of Jewish soldiers and the 800,000 Israeli civilians under mortal threat from Hamas missiles, we should also add a prayer for the future of the Torah community in the south.