Mistakes Foretold – Sadly
Almost exactly one year ago, I wrote in these pages: "The citadels of Torah study are the very raison d'etre of the haredi community. [A]nything perceived as an effort to destroy them will harden haredi resistance and halt the salutary trends of the last ten years toward haredi academic study and entry into the workforce and the IDF" ("Advice for the Plesner Committee: Minimize Confrontation," June 22, 2012). That prophecy, unfortunately, is well on the way to fulfillment.
Over the last decade, there have been dramatic changes in Israeli haredi society. Between 2008-2012, for instance, the number of students pursuing advanced vocational training – architecture, structural engineering, interior design, computer programming and networking – at the Mercaz HaChareidi for Technological Studies, the largest institution of its kind, tripled to 1,800 students on five campuses.
A variety of platforms have been created for haredim to pursue academic degrees via Israel's leading universities, and large scale funding of scholarships for students – many of them still learning in kollel – has been secured through private donors. On the distaff side, new tracks are opening up in post-high school seminaries every year – in accounting, computers, graphics, architecture, speech and occupational therapy, dance, art and music therapy.
Changes have taken place in the IDF as well. Nahal Haredi has been approved for the addition of a second battalion over the next few years, starting with an additional company this year, and now has its own reserve unit. More important, in the long run, has been the development by the IDF of new frameworks for (mostly) married haredi men in their mid-to-late-'20s. These programs have proven to be a win-win for the IDF and the haredi community. Haredim receive training in fields of general applicability, and in return are filling some of the IDF's critical manpower needs. Re-enlistment rates have been among the highest in the IDF.
THESE CHANGES HAVE BEEN dictated by the internal needs of the haredi community. Yet like all social change, particularly that emanating from below in the form of the individual decisions of thousands of individual haredim, the various trends described have generated a backlash as well.
That there would be such a backlash is predictable in a conservative society, in which all change is evolutionary in nature. And to some extent it is also serves as a necessary corrective against moving too quickly and in the process destroying the ideal of long-term Torah learning for men that made possible the astonishing renaissance of Torah learning after the Holocaust. The passion for Torah instilled by the immediate post-Holocaust generation is the lifeblood of the Jewish people.
But the backlash has also opened up fissures within haredi society. The creation of a second daily newspaper serving the community identified with the Lithuanian yeshivot symbolizes those fissures. One of those papers has an unpleasant habit of hectoring those who seek the education to support their families with derogatory terms like "new chareidim" and "chareidi-lite." And warnings of spiritual decline in the workplace or academia can, for some, become self-fulfilling prophecies.
Until recently, the backlash did not succeed in arresting the overall trends, which have in large part been dictated by economic necessity. Part of the reason for the relatively slight impact of the delegitimizing efforts is that it is difficult to make a case based on Torah sources that earning a livelihood or protecting Jewish lives are not elevated activities, though like every other permitted activity, they can be done in forbidden fashion – e.g., men and women serving together in combat units.
ENTER YAIR LAPID. Lapid has wittingly or unwittingly provided the forces of the backlash with the one tool that they could never have provided themselves: Evidence that the Torah community and the haredi way of life is under direct assault. Never mind all the protestations of brotherly love and respect. When Lapid uses haredim as the scapegoats for every budgetary shortfall and deflects every criticism of his economic policies with reference to the haredim, the protestations ring hollow.
The proposed cuts of benefits to haredim come from so many directions all at once and are so draconian in nature that no family headed by a man learning in kollel could every hope to make up a fraction of the shortfall in the time allotted. The only result will be the further impoverization of the poorest sector of the Jewish population. These cuts will be understood – and rightly so – as punitive in nature – i.e., designed to punish kollel families for past "bad behavior."
The proposed limitation of government-subsidized nursery schools and kindergartens to families in which both parents are working would either serve as a disincentive to kollel wives working or make kollel learning impossible for all but newlyweds and the richest haredi couples. All haredi schools – including Chinuch Atzmai and Ma'ayan HaTorah, both of which generally teach the LIBA subjects – are slated for across the board 25% cuts in funding. Even today, haredi schools receive only 61% per cent of the per capita government support that students in the state school system receive.
Lapid's insistence via the Peri Committee on criminalizing non-service in the IDF, however, clinched the case. Already a month ago, I heard from murmurings from a left-leaning religious member of the Peri Committee, who will never be accused of too great sympathy for haredim, that the Committee was pursuing a vendetta.
As Defense Minister Moshe "Boogie" Ya'alon pointed out, the coalition guidelines made no mention of criminal sanctions. Ya'alon knows very well that the IDF has no interest at present in absorbing 5,000 haredi teenagers a year. Already in 2011, the IDF was turning away new haredi recruits because it had no place to put them. (Interestingly, I cannot recall as single word from Lapid on how the absorption of haredim would be achieved in a manner consistent with their religious requirements.)
At a time when the demands on the IDF are multiplying, even as the available resources are being cut, Ya'alon has no wish to devote any portion of the IDF's budget to a vast expansion of gender-separate units.
So criminalization has precious little to do with solving the manpower needs of the IDF. It does, however, turn every man learning in kollel into an outlaw. That is not step forward towards haredi integration into the economy or IDF nor towards greater societal amity.
By even raising the specter of jail, Lapid plays into a certain haredi impulse for martyrdom. Haredim are raised on stories of ancestors who gave up their lives rather than betray their religion. Many may fear that they are not on the level of previous generations, and would be only too delighted to be given the opportunity to prove their mettle. Standing firm in the face of government threats, including that of imprisonment, now becomes a means of doing so.
It is well known that a Jew is only required to give up his life rather than transgress any of the three cardinal sins – murder, idol worship, and certain forbidden sexual relationships. But the Talmud also states that at a time when the ruling authority seeks to wipe out religious observance that the Jews must give up their lives rather than even change the color of their shoelaces to that customarily worn by gentiles.
Lapid has succeeded in turning government decrees perceived as threatening all long-term Torah learning into the metaphorical command to don "red shoelaces," and agreement to the government's expressed goals into a form of capitulation.
THAT THIS WILL HAPPEN is no longer in the realm of speculation. It has happened. Wall posters mocking the "new haredim" have proliferated in some (not all) haredi neighborhoods. And married men in uniform have been accosted in shuls and made to feel not welcome. They and those who might otherwise have followed in their path will now have to balance fears of not getting their children into the schools they wanted.
Over the last five years, the sight of former kollel students in uniform in haredi neighborhoods has become commonplace. And when people saw them with their tzitzis still out, still praying with fervor, still using their nights to learn, still serving as the Torah reader on Shabbat, it sent a message that the IDF, at least for married men, need not be viewed as hostile territory or as environment of great danger.
That message made it easier for unmarried young men, whose self-image and self-discipline would benefit greatly from service in a crack anti-terrorist unit in the gender-segregated Nahal Haredi, and for older married men seeking training in technical fields and stable post-service employment to sign up.
What Lapid has done is to conjure up older haredi images of the IDF as an instrument of coercion and socialization of haredim into an Israeli culture of which they have no wish to be part, and thereby helped set back, if not reverse, entirely trends he claims to want to encourage.
I only wish I had not been proven right.