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Israel’s silent revolutions

Extremists steal the headlines, but the haredim and Arabs who serve without fanfare are the ones changing society

News headlines tend to focus on the extremists on both sides of any issue since they are the ones who make the noise.  However, without much fanfare, moderates in Israel are making real and positive changes to our country.

The ultra-Orthodox (“Haredi”) leadership in Israel has always shunned army and national service for their 18-year-olds, claiming that it endangers the spirituality of their youth.  As a result, these young men remain outsiders in Israeli society, significantly impacting  their prospects for employment.  But one institution, the ultra-Orthodox “hesder” yeshiva Beit Midrash Derech Chaim, seeks to provide these young men with the opportunity and sense of fulfillment that comes with serving — while at the same time shattering the myth that serving the state damages the soul.

The success of this yeshiva, in which the students combine high-level Torah study with IDF service, is quite remarkable.  Let’s start with enrollment. The original army projection foresaw 30 students enrolled by the three-year mark which we are now reaching.  But surprise — there are now 56 students enrolled! Forty-two are in the first two years of the program, during which the boys study religious texts by day and receive computer training at night. Fourteen students are in active IDF service — nine in the Intelligence Corps, and five in combat in the ultra-Orthodox unit of the elite Golani battalion.

The fact that the institution crossed the 40-student mark and passed other criteria — including two years of solvency and audited financial records — enabled Beit Midrash Derech Chaim to obtain Education Ministry approval and receive government funding.

The second-year students recently took the exam for entrance into the cyber unit and 15 out of 16 students passed, with two cracking the top 50 among 4,000 students who took the exam. This is a testimony to the quality of the school’s cyber training program, and the high caliber of the students.

Last week, representatives of three IDF units visited the yeshiva. Both the infantry and communications branches are opening cyber sections, and want the students of this specific program to come to their units.  This competition will allow graduates of the yeshiva to optimize their service in the IDF, and gain the valuable experience they’ll need to become productive citizens.

I was honored to be the Knesset member who pushed Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon to sign his approval for this first-ever Haredi “hesder” yeshiva. The incredible, visionary rabbis who set this program in motion are driving significant change, which has the potential to transform the ultra-Orthodox community for the better, which by extension will also improve all of Israeli society.

Over time, as this Haredi institution produces young men who are talmudic scholars, fervently religious, accomplished and dedicated soldiers, and successful in their careers, more and more young men from this community will join this and other similar programs. The potential is nothing short of a revolution, and based on the success outlined above, that revolution is already on its way. Another moderate group showing tremendous progress comes from the Israeli Arab sector of society. Here, too, extremist leaders have always railed against Arabs who dare take part in serving the state, and this pressure has stunted their integration into Israeli society, similarly preventing the advancement of this population.

But change is in the air.

In the past, Israeli Arabs wanting to explore the option of national service had to hold quiet and private meetings under immense security. But, this past week, hundreds of Israeli Arab boys and girls participated in a public event in Acre where they learned about national service options. Participants listened to fellow Israeli Arabs tell their stories of national service and how it enhanced their lives despite the pressures against doing so from extremist groups.

Muhamad, 22, told the attendees how he completed national service as a firefighter, and decided to turn this into a career. “I believe that everyone in the state must contribute his part,” he told the audience, adding that the people in his village no longer look at him in a negative manner.

A young woman named Firooz told how she volunteered at the courthouse in Tiberias. She explained that she wanted a better future for herself, and taking part in national service gave her more opportunities because it improved her Hebrew, and the fact that she served the country opened doors for her within Israeli society.

Rana told the audience that her service assisting the elderly taught her to be more tolerant towards Israeli society.

Nehila Yosef, a principal in an elementary school in an Arab village, explained that five years ago two Arab girls wanted to do national service at her school, and there was significant opposition to the idea.  Today, she said, that opposition no longer exists.

Ruti Levi, manager of national service volunteers at a hospital in Nahariya, reported that Israeli Arabs rarely volunteered in the past, but that now there are 80 Israeli Arabs doing national service in the hospital.

As more and more Israeli Arabs do national service, and demonstrate to the rest of the youth in their society that doing so enhances their lives and provides them with opportunities for a better future, it will become mainstream.  This, in turn, will do wonders toward improving the relationship between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

Yes, extremists will continue making noise and making headlines. But it is the moderates throughout Israeli society who are driving silent revolutions, which will help heal societal wounds in the starkest of ways as we work towards further improving Israeli society.

About the Author
Dov Lipman was elected to the 19th Knesset in January 2013. He is the author of seven books about Judaism and Israel, and holds rabbinic ordination from Ner Israel Rabbinical College and a masters in education from Johns Hopkins University. He has been at the forefront of combating religious extremism in Israel and is a leader in efforts to create Jewish unity both in Israel and around the world. Former MK Lipman is invited to speak on behalf of the Jewish state both in Israel and around the world and serves as a political commentator for i24 News and ILTV.