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Haredim and the draft

Tolstoy was certainly wrong when he wrote the first line of Anna Karenina: Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на друга, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему. “All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Right or wrong, it makes you think, which is the point. The same is true of Pushkin in Mozart and Salieri: Гений со злом несовместимы. “Genius and evil are incompatible.” Yes, they are compatible, and how! objected a Soviet dissident long ago. Pushkin was wrong, too. But he and the other Parnassians of Russian literature are giants even when they are wrong, because they make us think about the juxtapositions we encounter in human life: the happy family and the failure, the spark of human brilliance and its misuse towards evil ends. Happy families can be quite different from each other. Unhappy families, as any sociologist can tell you, often have similar problems and display similar traits. And presiding over it all are evil geniuses.

We Jews are hated all over the world. The momentary embarrassment of the Holocaust that muted anti-Semitism has worn off. Israel’s place in the eyes of the world is in the wrong, no matter what it does. Shouldn’t we be presenting a united front to all this? Hitler was able to sail to power, almost a hundred years ago now, partly because the KPD, the German Communist party, refused to form a united front with other left and centrist parties against the Nazis. It called the Social Democrats “Social Fascists”. Later in the 1930s the Communists saw their mistake and reached out to fellow travelers, but by then it was too late.

Yet before the Hamas invasion of 7 October 2023 Israeli society was split down the middle, divided and polarized as never before. Judicial reform, ostensibly, was the issue, but in reality it was a much broader culture war between religious and secular, conservative and liberal. Now, in the midst of a horrific war of unprecedented length that could spread any day and engulf the whole region, Israel is split again. The law that exempted Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) students at Yeshivas (religious seminaries) from the draft has been repealed. Now they, too, are to be called up for service in Tsahal, the Israel Defense Forces, just like everybody else. Haredim are rioting, their spokesmen are abominating the state, and the police are wading into the black-garbed crowds clubbing protesters. My Dad of blessed memory was a lawyer. There’s a lot of law at the end of a nightstick, he used to say.

I do not suggest the Jewish people attempt to behave as one happy family: Pop comes home from work, parks the Chevy in the two-car garage, and comes through the front door, where Mom, a smiling homemaker, awaits him with a chilled martini.  Their adoring 2.2 children come bounding down the stairs of the suburban home. “Hi, Pop!” says Jack, a little man in his striped shirt, one hand encased in a baseball glove, a curl of blond hair falling over his freckled brow. “Hi, Daddy!” says Jill, cradling her Barbie doll. “Bow wow!” barks their woof-woof dog Fido. This 1950s idyll, or some updated variant thereof, was what most people probably were expecting of the first reality TV show, “An American Family”, back in 1972. Nope, winsome young Lance Loud pranced out of the family house in LA and went to NYC to join the burgeoning gay subculture. Where Dennis, my lifelong partner of blessed memory and an escapee from Texas, knew him.

Jews, and other ethnics, don’t conform to the stereotype. My family appalled dear Dennis, who despite being a habitué of the Warhol Factory, etc., had a WASP upbringing and the manners to go with it. We quarreled about politics at the table. People yelled, threw down napkins, stormed off. But we did get together for dinner more often than Dennis’ family back in the Southwest ever did, and that amazed him.

The reason Haredim were exempt from the draft is that Hitler, though determined to kill all Jews everywhere, reserved particular fury for the religious, the brethren who looked most conspicuously different from our Gentile neighbors. At the end of the war Torah study, the light of the Exile, had become a flickering spark. David Ben Gurion cupped his hands, as it were, around that spark so it might revive a flame: Yeshiva students were exempted from the draft. Wasn’t the Torah, after all, what made the State of Israel Jewish?

The exemption, and other concessions, worked. Orthodox Judaism has revived. But the survival of traditional ultra-Orthodoxy has come at a price: Israel is two societies. The Haredim scorn secular Israelis as apikorsim— followers, as the term originally meant, of the pagan Greek philosopher Epicurus, Hebrew-speaking goyim (literally “nations”, a derisive epithet for Gentiles). Some extreme Haredim (the Neturei Karta are one noxious example), like some ultra-left-wing secular Israelis, reject the very existence of the State of Israel— albeit for different reasons. To many secular Israelis, the Haredim are a sickly parody: pale, physically unfit, unwashed, benighted medieval bigots, welfare cheats, social parasites bizarrely and pointlessly accoutered in the Eastern European garb of the 18th century. The Orthodox political parties are seen as obscurantist and corrupt, making a mockery of democratic government and transforming the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, into a riotous circus.

One does not propose that Israel become a social monolith of either the left or the right. The Aristotelian happy mean between extremes seems the right balance to search for and strike— and since the Rambam (Moses Maimonides, a medieval philosopher and theologian whose writings Orthodox Judaism accepts as authoritative) was an Arabic-speaking Aristotelian himself, I do not apologize for invoking the pagan Greek sage. How is this to be done? One suggests that, instead of forming hostile, competing power blocs, Haredim and modern Israelis (secularists, Neo-Orthodox “traditionalists”, etc.) try to find a common, civil language. Sure, we’ll yell and scream over the plates of brisket and kasha, arguing about sex, money, and politics— all the topics Dennis used to say were unmentionable in polite society— but we are at the table as a family and the family has problems bigger than our disagreements.

I think there must be a way for Haredim to serve in the army in the defense of their country. Tsahal welcomed gays before the US Army did, and the sky didn’t fall. Arab Muslim and Christian citizens of Israel serve in the IDF with honor. Israel is a country for all its inhabitants. The army is the great equalizer. I know, old prejudices die hard. But it’s way past time to overcome them.

***

In February 2009 I broke my leg very badly in a gruesome motorcycle accident in Jerusalem, just a mile or two from home in Ein Kerem, on a ride from Petach Tikvah. I spent a fortnight in the orthopedic ward of Hadassah hospital, and team led by an Arab Israeli surgeon saved my leg. There were Haredi kids in the ward, most of them in for spinal surgery. Their large, noisy, black-garbed families generally ignored the clean-shaven, hatless patient with the Gentile-sounding name in the next bed.

One morning a kid’s Haredi relatives were davening (praying) Shacharis (the morning prayer). I was trying to read an English book, but kept saying “Amen” after each blessing they were chanting. Then I started to cry. They stopped, came over, put a kippa (skullcap) on my head and a siddur (prayer book) in my hands, and stood around companionably, protectively. They ceased to be stereotypes and became friends. At night, when they had to go home to take care of their other children, I was delegated to look after their son as best I could (I had a massive cast on my withered, delicate left leg).

I miss Israel a lot. It is basically a decent country of kind people. I love it. I may never see it again, but I cannot imagine a viable world without Israel in it. I hope we, everybody, really, will learn to see each other, not through a glass darkly but face to face. We are not going to be the fake, cookie-cutter happy family of the American TV series of my boyhood. It was all fiction anyway! Okay, we can argue. But we need to tone down the rhetoric and, as the late, great Rabbi Jonathan Sacks translated Biblical Hebrew shemo’a tishme’u, “Listen. No, really, listen!” to each other. Haredim and secularists. Jews and Arabs. Whites and Blacks. Everybody. Stop. Calm down. Listen.

About the Author
Born New York City to Sephardic Mom and Ashkenazic Dad, educated at Bronx Science HS, Columbia, Oxford, SOAS (Univ. of London), professor of ancient Iranian at Columbia, of Armenian at Harvard, lectured on Jewish studies where now live in retirement: Fresno, California. Published many books & scholarly articles. Belong to Chabad.