Giving Yeshivot a Bad Name

A summer of football and flags has enabled tens of millions to proclaim their patriotism in a relatively harmless fashion. Big business, royalty and organised religion all jumped on this acceptable bandwagon. Jews, up and down the land, followed the team, for the Crusaders’ Cross no longer inspires fear. Nine hundred years after the slaughter of whole communities, the image transmits a different message. The memory of those murders committed under that vengeful symbol which is preserved so well in the Yom Kippur tehillim, today represents the aspirations of the England Football Squad. No longer ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ marching to a pogrom, but ‘Football’s Coming Home’.

The Jews, too, have moved on. As a rootless people, at one time they regarded a flag as a shmutter tied to a pole. With the advent of Zionism and the rise of the Jewish State, the Jews, too, now have their flag — as well as their football teams. Yet there are those — the non-Zionist and anti-Zionist ultra-orthodox — who do not recognise the State and regard it and all its works as an abomination. Since the Messiah did not arrive in 1948, Israel is clearly not a Jewish State. And yet the recognition that Israel is their temporal homeland has been slow but sure. While the blue and white national flag is never flown, the party of the Lithuanian mitnagdim is called, significantly, De HaTorah — the Flag of the Torah. And this flag flies over many citadels of separation and non-cooperation in Israel. Nowhere is this distancing process more self-evident than in the refusal of many yeshiva bocherim to serve in the Israel Defence Forces.

This summer has also seen an attempt to confront this issue by the Labour Party leader, Ehud Barak. No doubt, there is an element of electoral politics in this, but it is an issue which irritates many Israelis and confirms them in their secularism.

The issue was raised at the beginning of the year, when the head of the IDF Conscription Department released figures to a 1Cnesset committee. Colonel Avi Zamir stated that since Ben-Gurion originally allowed 400 yeshiva students to defer their national service in 1948, 63,000 have actually received that privilege. 12000 ultimately enlisted, 22,000 received permanent release from active service, leaving 29,000 still on the books at the end of last year. No doubt, a couple of thousand belong to the national-religious camp have deferred their service for good reasons and are ideologically committed to the State and its defence forces. In 1995, this figure stood at 24,000. Clearly, this large increase has coincided with the attainment of power by several ultra-orthodox parties in Netanyahu’s Government

The present situation is a far cry from Ben-Gurion’s original intention that yeshiva students should undergo military training which would allow them to participate in local defence. Yet this intention remained only an intention and was never acted upon. Instead, Labour administrations in the 1960s and 1970s gradually gave way in extending the number of eligible yeshivot while the Likud cancelled all restrictions on the number of students requesting deferment. In 1968, 135 yeshivot were recognised by a ministerial committee; today, the Ministry of Defence acknowledges 650 eligible yeshivot. By the millennium, it is estimated, 10 per cent of each annual intake of conscripts will apply for deferment for one year and subsequently renew that deferment. And this probably does not take into account the number of graduates that will stream from the network of schools and educational institutions recently established by Shas, the party of the Sephardim.

In 1988, the Cohen Commission recommended that deferment be limited to six years and that 200 exceptionally gifted students would never have to serve in the IDF. Yitzhak Shamir’s government, worried that it would antagonise some components of its grand anti-Labour coalition, acknowledged its publication — and did nothing about it. The Cohen Commission also observed that deferment was tantamount to permanent release from service.

There is also little surveillance and punishment of yeshiva students who do not keep to the terms of their deferment. The leading Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz discovered that the IDF initiated only a few dozen investigations each year.

As far as is known, the most severe punishment handed down in the past few years to a student caught violating the terms of the arrangement, working instead of studying, for example, was a suspended prison term of four months. Most of the punishments are fines ranging between

150 and 1000 shekels. In theory, on discovery of a breach, the IDF is supposed to call up the guilty party immediately. In fact, 92 per cent of all yeshiva students caught working or violating the terms are given a permanent exemption, which enables them to work legally. (Ha’aretz 26 May 1998)

The isolation of students in yeshivot for long periods has profound consequences for the world of work. Two papers published this year by Jerusalem academics indicate a large increase in the number of haredi men who do not participate in the work force. Between 1980 and 1993, the percentage of yeshiva students outside the work force has doubled. Based on figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics, the research indicated that, in 1970, 6.5 per cent of Israeli men aged 25-54 were defined as non-participants in the work force. By 1993, this figure had reached 14.3 per cent. The parallel increase in the United States and other parts of the Western world has been a half of one per cent. Dr. Momi Dahan of the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies found that only 31 per cent of haredi men work full time — this fell to 17% in Jerusalem — while 61 per cent of non-haredi men work full time. Since 1980 the number of haredi non-participants in the work force has risen from one half to two thirds. It is estimated that by the year 2006, some 10 per cent of all Israeli children will have non-working fathers.

The non-Zionist haredim have taken advantage of Zionism’s success, in that their experience is unique to Israel. In the United States, the age at which full-time study stops is 25 — in Israel it is 42. Thus, yeshiva bocherim in the United States combine a career with study. In Israel, this is dearly not the case and it has dire consequences.

Professor Eli Berman of the University of Boston, who is also researching these questions, has commented,

The haredi population is doing something very strange. Their needs are growing because of their natural growth of 4-5 per cent a year. But they leave the men in yeshivot until the age of 42 on average. They are placing themselves in a state of poverty, while requiring not only that their men do not earn a living at the present time, but also that they destroy any chance of doing so in the future. They cannot learn a profession or gain experience. This has never happened before in history — not in the Jewish world nor in the world at large. (Ha’aretz 17 March 1998)

This also has a knock-on effect on the cost of child benefit. For a family of six children, a non-working father saw his allowance, based on a percentage of the average national wage, rise from 18 per cent in 1970 to 43 per cent in 1995. It therefore becomes worthwhile for a non-working yeshiva student to have a large family as his standard of living will increase. Dr. Dahan points out

The formal reasoning for the granting of child benefit is to create equality in taxation of income among families of different size. In the case of the haredim however, the allowance is given to those whose income from work is zero.

The irony of this terrible situation is that the haredi community, often anti-Zionist and fearing any contact with the secular world, is thus totally dependent on the secular Zionist State. It needs its help to maintain a separation from the values of that State and even to oppose its ideological raison d’etre. On the other hand, the Israeli Right, ultranationalist and often secularist, is dependent on the haredim to achieve a blocking majority of 61 seats in the Knesset to remain in power. Only the Jews could have devised such a Kafkaesque scenario.

Significantly, there have been some among the ultra-orthodox who have recognised the problems which confront the haredi community and of the inherent contradictions in its position. Recently, representatives from the ultra-orthodox parties have participated in talks with leading members of the Likud and Labour, despite strong opposition from leading rabbis. Ehud Barak’s Bill failed in the Knesset as expected, but it strengthened the opponents of dialogue and provided the excuse for the haredim to pull out of the talks. Plans such as the establishment of a military training scheme under orthodox supervision, integrated with Torah studies for a three-year period, have been placed in abeyance. Even so, these issues can no longer be ignored or marginalised. If there is no negotiated solution then should the Labour Party and its allies win the next election, a solution will certainly be imposed.

All this gives yeshivot a bad name. It dishonours those who take upon themselves the noble task of learning Torah. It truly places a moral stumbling block before the blind. Diaspora Jews of all shades of religious opinion have managed to study Torah — and still fend for themselves. The Israeli haredim are learning the hard way that charity does not begin at home.

Judaism Today Autumn 1998


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.