What kept a government from being formed after the April elections, and what is keeping a government from being formed now, is the standoff between Avigdor Liberman and the Haredi parties of Shas and UTJ. There is — literally — no middle ground in the current paradigm. There can’t be.
Allow me to explain.
For centuries, we lived in exile. Always at the mercy of the local government. Kings, despots. Our strategy for surviving this was simple. Find a way to keep the wolves at bay. Provide some needed service to the people in charge so that they would, at the very least, keep us from being murdered, and in a best case scenario, would even help us financially.
Anyone who thinks this was a bad strategy… well, if you’re Jewish, odds are, you wouldn’t be alive right now had we not adopted this strategy.
But then came Zionism. And it is worth recalling that the anti-religious attitude of Avigdor Liberman is tame compared to that of David Ben Gurion and those who preceded and followed him in the Zionist movement. Faced with a powerful group of people in charge who, while technically Jewish, treated them not all that differently than various non-Jewish regimes we’d lived under over the centuries, there was an obvious path forward. Yes, the Zionists wanted the Haredim to assimilate. Ben Gurion was absolutely certain that within a generation or two, there wouldn’t be a religious Jew left anywhere. And to him, this was a good thing. But that was never going to happen. The quasi-messianic fervor of the ultra-secularists, and yes, the irony of the term doesn’t escape me, positioned them as the paritz in the eyes of the Haredim. The overlord. Someone to be feared and manipulated.
What did the Haredim have to offer this new paritz? One thing only. Their support in the Knesset. And they leveraged that for everything they could. How could anyone blame them? Here was a country with an open public policy that was against religious Jews. The fact that the leaders were themselves Jewish didn’t make it any different. Certainly no better, and possibly worse.
From the standpoint of anyone outside of the Haredi community, particularly as time went on and the government stopped being as virulently anti-religious, the Haredim were insular leeches. Kind of the way non-Jews felt about Jews from time immemorial. This bred hated.
I remember back when Yair Lapid’s father Tommy, as the head of the Shinui Party, put out glossy flyers in the Jerusalem Post (and I imagine in the Hebrew press as well), with a map of Israel, and scary black blotches everywhere there was a residential concentration of Haredim. It was the most vile use of antisemitic tropes and techniques I’d seen in my lifetime. Today, his inheritor is Avigdor Liberman.
It isn’t hard to see their point of view, either. They can’t possibly see themelves as the wicked goyische ruler and the Haredim as the poor Jews just trying to survive, because they honestly believe that this is a new world. One in which there’s no room for the Haredi way of life. And it’s insulting. “What, we aren’t as good as you as Jews? You think we’re goyim?”
So they do everything they can to break the Haredim. To force them to acculturate. To assimilate. And one of the biggest tools to this end is the army.
In a normal country, the purpose of the armed forces is defense. Plain and simple. In Israel, the fact that the IDF is a tool of socialization is no secret. Defense, sure. But we don’t need every 18 year old to go into the army for years for the sake of defense. We’re far too technically advanced at this point. We continue to do it in order to maintain social coherence. To shape young Israelis into the approved model. To take immigrants and shape them into Israelis.
My daughter is in the Air Force. Her Hebrew has improved drastically. And the work she’s doing is going to guarantee her employment when she gets out. Which is lovely. But that’s not the purpose of the military. And it doesn’t justify a draft. Worse, from the point of view of the Haredim, it’s not new.
In Czarist Russia, they used to draft Jews into the army for terms of 25 years. Different in length, but not so different in kind. Jews did anything – and I mean anything – to get out of this draft. They worked every possible loophole. Bribed anyone they could. Because you couldn’t maintain yourself as an religious Jew in the Russian Army. And certainly for most of the history of the State of Israel, it was equally impossible to maintain yourself as a Haredi Jew in the Israeli army.
Non-Haredim are offended by this. “The army is kosher!” they cry. “Anyone who wants to pray is given time off to pray!” they point out. But this is cultural blindness. You might as well stick them in a night club that happens to serve kosher food. Which may not even be kosher by their standards.
The Haredim have never been given reason to believe that their way of life will be respected as equal. And even if they were given this, well, it was accepting Jews as equals that led to the plague of mass assimilation. The Haredim aren’t stupid. They know that this is actually a desirable end in the eyes of most Israelis.
So Avigdor Liberman has decided to force the issue. Does he really care about the issue? I’m skeptical. His style is that of a bully and a strongman. People like that require an enemy to scapegoat. At one time, for Liberman, that was the Arabs. But today, when a significant majority of Israel is right wing as far as the Arabs are concerned, it’s not particularly useful. But Haredim… ah, that’s useful. That’s very useful.
So Liberman is insisting, once and for all, on breaking the Haredim. Or rendering them irrelevant. One of his non-negotiable demands is for local rabbis to be able to perform conversions that are recognized by the state. Another is civil marriage, to be recognized by the state. And finishing up the trifecta, Liberman insists that the Haredim perform army or national service, and that within a fairly short time, that this will apply to 100% of the Haredim. And the Haredim know, as every religious Jew should know, that even one generation of that will fracture the Jewish People irreparably. They can’t accept this. And Liberman will accept nothing else.
There is a solution to this problem. It’s an out-of-the-box solution, but it’s a fair and just solution, and one which can be applied to most areas of Israeli life. But in this particular case, its utility is most apparent. And it is the solution offered by the Zehut Party.
A global draft is no longer necessary. The IDF must go back to being for defense, and not for socialization. No more army education corps. No more wasting money babysitting adults. Forceably socializing citizens is a tool of totalitarianism. It’s shameful for Israel, a modern, developed country, to still be using it.
The following passages are taken from the section in the Zehut platform on the IDF recruitment model.
The great changes in military technology since the establishment of the state, as well as the great demographic change in Israel’s situation since then, have changed both the “demand” and the “supply” of manpower for the IDF …. because of this change in the needs of the IDF, there are now more and more compulsory recruits that the IDF does not really need, but has been forced to keep in service for two or three years, in non-essential positions, to the point that it creates “hidden unemployment.”
Our vision is to shorten the compulsory service that applies to everyone – meaning everyone – to basic training only. Anyone who wishes to continue serving in the professional army will be able to apply, and the army will choose those it truly needs out of those candidates.
In order avoid rapid upsets in IDF recruitment that could endanger our existence, the change described here will be implemented gradually, in a process that will take years, in full coordination with the IDF, and with all necessary caution. We will advance this process only so long as it strengthens the power of the IDF.
The current impass could be resolved if Moshe Feiglin were to mediate between Liberman and the Haredim. The question is only whether Liberman or the Haredi leadership can afford to have the problem solved. After all, it is their bread and butter. The Haredi political leadership exists in order to play the government. To protect their constituency from assimilation and to extract every concession and every shekel of aid that they can. As far as Liberman goes… a bully and strongman without a scapegoat is just a thug.
But sufficient Haredim have indeed enlisted and served in the IDF that the Haredim could go through an abbreviated basic training in an all male, all Haredi environment that would be respectful of their way of life. And questions of “equality of burden” would no longer matter once most non-Haredi Israelis were also only going through basic training.
There are other issues of contention between the Haredim and secular Israeli society, such as the fact that secular tax money helps support yeshivot and Haredi tax money helps support opera and dance festivals and liberal arts programs, which can also be solved by the simple means of taking the government out of the equation. The greatest advantage of Zehut’s positions is that they provide the means for different, and even opposing segments of society, to stop resenting each other, and to learn to coexist.