Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

The above adage, attributed to the little known, 19th century French literary literary critic, novelist and journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr is said to have first appeared in the Jan 1849 issue of his Les Guêpes (“The Wasps”).

Literally, it means “The more it changes, the more it stays the same.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose is such a truism that it has become a cliched part of the French language. I had such trouble trying to find it on my Google, which of course is “personalized,” that I had to get an assist from a native speaker who is a developer in Paris. Apparently, his Search facilities are bent the right way.

In any case, I’ve chosen it as a header for further discussion of the taut relationship between the Israeli Ultra-orthodox community that is ever so loosely gathered under the classification chareidim and the non-observant majority that I began in my first blog entry on TOI.

And even though another TOI blogger has already used “The more it changes” as the title for some reminiscences of his first article about how many hamentaschen are consumed in Israel, I am going to stick by my guns.

Chareidi Coercion

Ever since I came to Israel in the mid 70’s and joined the chareidi camp, the subject of chareidi coercion has never ceased to reappear as a bone of contention.

Most often, the issue was Shabbos observance, though just now the main issue is, of course, army service.

What’s peculiar about the secular/chareidi tug-of-war is that the chareidim are consistently accused of forcing their non-observant brethren to do something, hence chareidi coercion.

But, oddity of oddities, generally it has been the other way around.

Despite the fact that intelligent bloggers such as Gabi Danon take it for granted that Israel is a modern, secular, even democratic society, they seem intent on forcing the recalcitrant chareidim to toe the line.

Separation of Church and State

What I have as a point of information is my high school or progressive junior high school knowledge of how the American government is supposed to work.

Discounting Greek city state democracy or the Swiss canton version as a form of local government tantamount to an ongoing plebiscite, I suppose one has to take the American system — direct election of representatives who must answer to geographical rather than ideological sectors — as the mother of all democratic models.

And sidestepping the Constitution proper, not because President Obama considers it arcane but because it has no place in a discussion centering on a parliamentary system where the leader of government is not necessary at the head the party that got the most votes, we next encounter the First Amendment, which Obama simply ignores.

As we all know, the Pilgrims and the Huguenots came to the New World looking for religious freedom. Thus, whether historic or mythic, freedom of religion has been viewed as a basic human right.

Yet when Dorit Beinisch’s court, in what will be perhaps the only significant ruling of her soon to end tenure, declared the Tal law granting exemption from IDF service for yeshiva students unacceptable as not in accord with the Basic Laws, she was denying the Israeli chareidi sector that right.

Further, though the secular sector declares that Israel as a democracy on the American model must have separation of church and state, Ms. Beinisch has lead her court to a decision that now requires the Israeli government to interfere with how a high-profile minority of its citizens will conduct their private lives.

Nothing New

All of this has been going on for sometime, as I’m sure the reader is well aware.

Ben Gurion is said to have made light of draft exemptions for chareidim, not because there were so few of them around, but because he expected the whole lot of them to disappear off the face of the earth.

Probably his line of thinking was 1) Ultra-orthodox practice is an extension of the Diaspora, which was now over; 2) a handful of religious zealots wouldn’t be able to hold out in the face of a growing, viral secular society.

But as recently as the beginning of PM Netanyahu’s second round as leader of the Jewish State, a move was made to have the Chief Rabbi’s office be an adjunct to the Prime Minister’s office.

Pretty obviously, the prime minister expected that he could get away with effecting a state religion just as his predecessors had seen the rabbinical courts relegated the same status as the judicial system.

Some Confusion

Yet it seems that there is some confusion as to why the chareidim should be in uniform.

One fellow lady TOI blogger seems to think that there is actually a shortage of IDF manpower, though since successive governments have ceded the Sinai, the Gaza Strip and gotten out of Lebanon, I haven’t really heard that line before.

Another compatriot, Jeremy Saltan, jokingly suggests that the excess of draftees coming from the outrageously birth-productive chareidi sector would have to be farmed out to National Service jobs of some kind.

And in a particularly obnoxious Haaretz article, Yehuda Ben Meir declares universal conscription “a sacred principle,” yet a day later writing at the same venue Yagil Levy announces that voluntary, paid-for army service is on the way.

What Is At Stake

It can’t just be that the Israeli establishment is up in arms because the chareidi boys are not fulfilling their patriotic duty. I seem to remember that only 40% of the general secular population actually serve in the IDF.

What’s more, a major concern among the mainstream, Leftist Israeli press is that an untoward percentage of conscripts to the crack Golani and Duvduvan units are coming from the chareidi Judeah and Samaria regions.

So why is the thinking secular public so dreadfully concerned about the fact that we don’t see more paiyos among our boys in green?

The answer is plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The Israeli Defense Forces, like the American Army circa 1950, is the great educator. It functions not only to separate the men from the boys, but also to make them act like responsible human beings.

Yet in many ways, army service leaves an indelible mark on Israeli society. That’s not only because you can’t really run a business or entrepreneur a startup if you have to do 6-week miluim duty four times a year, but because the IDF trains to kill and fosters a guy code that permeates the corporate side of this country.

Having served at the same base becomes a local substitute for alma mater camaraderie, just like having been at the same yeshiva. But being army educated may also have something to do with domestic violence and marital promiscuity.

Is this what is behind the High Court, secular sector push to get everyone to shut their gemaras? Do they really just want those hoity-toity frummers to be just like everybody else?

No wonder the boys in black are not queuing up to sign on.

About the Author
Y.B. Fishel holds cum laude degrees from Princeton and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as written ordinations from members of Israel's highest, ultra-Orthodox authorities. His reason for being around ToI is to provide a chareidi insider's view of what's happening in Israel.