American Torah Jews often have a hard time understanding the heated rhetoric and even the policy debates over religious issues in the Holy Land. Let me start with the most glaring example. In America, Torah Jewry lives with a heavy presumption against state support of any kind to parochial education, while accepting each state's right to regulate the curricula of parochial schools to a large degree. In other words, there is no correlation between state support and state regulation of private education.
In Israel too there is no correlation between state support and state efforts to regulate the curricula of Torah schools, but it paradoxically goes in precisely the opposite direction. Despite substantial state funding of religious education at every level through kollel, all attempts at curricular regulation is absolutely rejected by the Torah community. The latest flare-up on this front concerns the guidelines of the recently formed government that require chareidi schools for males to provide instruction in English, Hebrew, and mathematics. (These studies form a standard part of the curriculum in girls schools at all levels.)
The difference between American Torah Jewry's acceptance of government regulation and the Israeli Torah community's rejection of it lies in the different historical context in which Torah Jews in America and Israel dwell. Just as Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland still live with intense memories of religious wars fought between the two groups more than three centuries ago, even though most Catholics and Protestants are no longer be religious, so too secular-religious disputes in Israel today take place in the context of a more than 100-year-"civil war" between the Zionist movement and the chareidi community.
In America, the Torah community does not generally suspect governments at either the local, state or federal level of acting to "uproot" traditional Judaism. At worst, government regulations are regarded as nuisances, and occasionally they are honored more in the breach than the observance. But American Torah Jews do not generally view the government as motivated by a special animus towards religious Jews, certainly not by a desire to uproot Torah Judaism. Even in the cases in which government regulation is viewed as overly invasive – e.g., NYC's informed consent form for metzizah b'peh – most Torah Jews assume that the government's intentions are benign – i.e., to protect the health of infants – even where the impact is not.
No such presumption exists in the Torah community in Israel. As Professor Moshe Halbertal of the Hebrew University wrote recently in Ha'aretz, chareidim are perfectly right in their belief that modern Zionism was a movement to supplant the traditional religious criteria of Jewish identity with nationalistic ones. The early Zionists sought to create a "new Jew" to replace the traditional Jew, whose existence, in the eyes of the early Zionists, was one of humiliation and degradation. Yair Lapid alluded to that goal in his speech to chareidi law students at Kiryat Ono when he said, "We thought we could build a state without you."
The desire to supplant Torah Judaism with something new did not remain at the level of the theoretical, but became the basis of Zionist policy in both the pre-State period and after the creation of the state. During the Holocaust, for instance, the Jewish Agency brought to Palestine a group of Polish refugee children who had made it to Teheran, the so-called Yeldai Teheran. Close to ninety percent of the children came from religious homes in Poland, many of them from chareidi homes. Yet the counselors assigned to this group actively discouraged them from religious observance – wearing yarmulkes, reciting berachot, observing Shabbos, and marking the yahrzeits of parents murdered by the Nazis, ym"sh. Once they arrived in Israel, only about 10% of the children were placed in religious institutions of any kind, and almost none in chareidi institutions, even though many places had been prepared for them.
Similarly, in the early days of the State, when hundreds of thousands of Jews fled Arab lands, Jewish Agency policy favored bringing children in advance of their often religious parents, and placing them on non-religious kibbutzim. Yemenite immigrants were placed in barbed wire absorption centers, children removed from their parents and placed in special children's homes, their peyot – the sign of their traditional religious identity – cut, places of worship padlocked and religious teachers denied entry to the camps. That situation led to the creation of the Peylim rescue movement, which was manned by yeshiva bochurim, who often dug their way into the absorption centers under cover of darkness and threat of imprisonment if caught.
Even after the immigrants left the absorption centers, every effort was made to deprive the young of religious education. Parents who sent their kids to religious schools were denied Histadrut work cards, which in those days was tantamount to a sentence of starvation.
Israel's first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, viewed the IDF as an instrument of socialization to a common national ethos as well as a defense force. That explains, in large part, why Israel is the only democracy with compulsory military service for women.
This very partial and highly condensed history explains the deep suspicion with which the Israeli Torah community views government regulation of its educational system. Even studies for which a plausible argument can be made that they would be of benefit to the general chareidi community – such as English – are rejected whenever proposed by the government. Even the knowledge that the government would greet the introduction of increased secular studies to the curriculum is enough to prevent the Torah community from adopting them of their own accord. The stamp of government approval places secular studies for boys under the suspicion of being designed to uproot Torah.
A sharp observer of my acquaintance noted recently that the Israeli chareidi community was fortunate that United Torah Judaism was not invited into the new coalition. For it could not have entered any conceivable coalition without making some concessions, however cosmetic, on the draft or educational reforms. And the decision to do so would have inevitably triggered bitter accusations of having lent a hand to "gezeiros hashmad," which would have led to a virtual civil war within the Torah community.
THE ISRAELI TORAH COMMUNITY views the guidelines of the new government with respect to the draft issue through the same lens of a century of efforts to uproot Torah. There can be no question that those guidelines, if implemented, will have a profound impact on Israeli chareidi life, primarily in terms of government support of yeshivos and the loss of government benefits for the families of avreichim.
All those who do not receive one of the 1800 draft exemptions (about 25% of the annual chareidi draft cohort of 7,000) will be required to do either military or some other form of national service at 21 (as opposed to the normal draft age of 18). Yeshivos with a significant percentage of talmidim who opt for neither military nor national service will have their government support dramatically cut.
The impact on avreichim will be even greater. Various forms of benefits from which poor avreichim currently benefit -- discounts from municipal property taxes and various income supplements – will be limited to those who can show that they are employed or seeking employment (and, I would guess, to those who have performed some kind of national service.) In addition, new Finance Minister Yair Lapid will almost certainly cut child allowances, a further blow to large chareidi families.
Even the recipients of one of the 1800 exemptions mentioned above would, according to the published reports I have seen, only be entitled to government support and various indirect benefits until the age of 26. Chareidi families will be clobbered from two directions at once. Not only will their disposable income be dramatically reduced, but the yeshivos will be far less able to grant tuition discounts than they are at present.
On the positive side, it appears that the government has no intention of forcing any chareidi men into either the IDF or national service other than through a combination of economic incentives and the penalties mentioned above. None of the enforcement mechanisms in the reports published so far mention imprisonment for failure to sign up for national service at 21. So it all comes down to money.
It should be added that it is far from clear that the plan of the incoming government will ever be instituted, though its very passage will shift the momentum of the national debate going forward. The plan is only to be implemented over a four year period, and it is far from evident that the incoming government will last even four months. The coalition is hardly a model of stability, both because of the disparate policy prescriptions on a number of matters of its constituent parties and because of the evident bad blood between the leaders of the four parties and their conflicting ambitions. Should President Obama pressure Israel for a settlement freeze or other "goodwill" gestures to the Palestinians, the so far rock solid alliance between the secular yuppies of Yair Lapid's Yesh Atid party and the settler supporters of Naftali Bennett's Bayit Yehudi party could come quickly asunder. It took far less to end the short alliance between Likud and Kadima in the last government.
In addition, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, who favored a much more gradual approach on the draft issue, will be dealing with proposed cuts from the defense budget. It is far from clear how eager he will be to invest large sums from the defense budget in accommodating the religious requirements of chareidi recruits. Even the dramatically expanded national service frameworks would be expensive, and difficult to implement at a time when the government is seeking dramatic budget cuts.
There is one aspect of the proposed plans of the new government with respect to the funding of yeshivos that should be of immediate concern to the American Torah community: the proposal for a substantial reduction in government payments to yeshivos for students from abroad. Even if the government were to justify its plans for yeshiva bochurim as nothing more than a version of President Clinton's welfare reforms, designed to increase chareidi participation in the work force, the cuts for foreign students make no sense. Each foreign student spends in Israel far more each month than the amount the government pays his yeshiva or her seminary. And they bring all kinds of additional indirect benefit to Israel's economy – e.g., parental visits, flights on El Al. Many yeshiva students stay in Israel after marriage, adding to the Israeli economy, while receiving only limited government benefits as non-citizens.
Moreover, the proposal to leave the subsidies intact for foreign students -- who, in any event, do not do national service -- for so-called "Zionist" yeshivot, like Shalavim and Keren B'Yavneh, smacks of an outright attack on Mir and other chareidi yeshivos catering to foreign bochurim.
This is an issue around which American Torah Jewry should organize and on which it could likely secure a hearing from the new government. For the issue affects literally thousands of American students a year, and could put yeshiva and seminary tuitions out of reach of many parents.