By Harriet P. Gross
In less than a week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is supposed to honor the demand of his country’s Supreme Court: Solve the painful, ongoing problem of draft exemptions for Israel’s Orthodox young men, the ones who spend all day in prayer and study of sacred texts.
I’m not a person much involved with politics of any kind. And I believe that as Americans, even Jewish Americans, we have no right to tell another country, even Israel, how to run itself. But we all have opinions, don’t we?
The best analysis I’ve read of this sticky matter was written by Aron Heller for the Associated Press, who gave these statistics: Israel has a population of 8 million, but only 10 percent of that number are ultra-Orthodox. Theirs are the children who not only are not required to do the defense service demanded of all others, but who are subsidized by the government so they can continue their lives of prayer and study uninterrupted.
According to Heller, “Polls show that the vast majority of Israelis, who risk their lives and put their careers on hold while serving in the military, object strongly to the arrangement, and many see it as the essence of everything that is wrong with their country. The fight centers on whether ultra-Orthodox males should be drafted along with other Jews, but it really is about a much deeper issue: the place of Judaism in the Jewish state.”
This philosophical schism both creates and reflects the issue because of its practical ramifications. The Orthodox strive for closeness to God through Torah, and it’s this goal that sets the Jewish nation apart from all others. But in the real world, prayer and study alone cannot assure Israel’s continued existence; it takes warriors to do that.
Zionism was the practical movement that built the basis of this modern Jewish homeland, but many traditionalists are not Zionists; they still believe Judaism can have no authentic home until the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the Temple. These are the ends toward which Israel’s Orthodox young men, far removed from the state’s physical defenses, are dedicating their lives. So, are they already doing their part?
Heller calls theirs “a cloistered community.” When I read that, I immediately recalled reading “Holy Days,” the 1995 book by New Yorker magazine’s Lis Harris, a secular Jew who went to live for a lengthy period of time with a Hasidic family in Brooklyn and told of her experiences afterward. One thing she wrote has stayed with me ever since, and I think it has a bearing on Israel’s current contentious question:
The children of the Orthodox, Harris maintained, do not have the kind of youth experienced by secular Jewish kids. Rather, they are raised as little men and women almost from birth. Because their families are usually large, girls are enlisted at an early age to help their mothers with the smaller children, becoming little mothers themselves, while the boys go off with their fathers to shul for long hours of prayer and study.
Toddlers can already see what their lives as adults will be. In the most Orthodox enclaves of Israel, a yeshiva-centered childhood morphs into a young man’s full-time job.
I personally don’t see how such a young man could be integrated successfully into the physicality of army life for which he has been so ill-prepared. But that is a reality begging the philosophical question that’s tearing Israel apart, what Heller calls “a clash between tradition and modernity, religion and democracy.”
Israel is a place so Jewish that the majority of its Jews are able to be secular. Many don’t feel the necessity to join synagogues, keep kosher or observe Shabbat because Judaism is in the very air they breathe. They know they are Jews and are comfortable with that, relaxed about it. But — is it actually the Orthodoxy’s devotion that has made such relaxed comfort possible?
The Israeli question now is a political one: Can Netanyahu emerge successful in forging coalitions, spearheading agreements, putting together some sort of compromise in a manner that will satisfy the Supreme Court’s demands? He’s been working at it, but time is running out: the date for action is Aug. 1 — six short days away. The secularists are vocal in their demands that everyone needs to serve Israel just as they do, while the Orthodox continue to pray. I really doubt that they are directing their fervent prayers toward an answer to this very earthly question.