The biggest disappointment – Haredi rabbinic leadership

On Sunday March 2nd at 4 PM the Haredi (i.e. ultra-orthodox) rabbinic leadership has called for a mass demonstration at the entrance to Jerusalem to protest the actions of the Israeli government in attempting to draft Haredi youth into the military and the concomitant criminalization of those who are called but refuse to serve.

I first heard about this on Thursday when the organization that operates the tech park where we office sent out a notice with a copy of the call to the demonstration. The notice indicated that while the demonstration was scheduled for 4 PM many roads in the area would be closed starting at 2 PM (including the main road from Tel Aviv to the city as well as the Central Bus Station) thus making it virtually impossible for us to stay in our office past 1 PM or so. The same situation applies to all of the 20,000 people working in the park, including those who work for Intel, TEVA, AVX and RAD among others.

The demonstration, according to the papers, is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people from all over the country as all of the Haredi rabbinic leadership has endorsed the campaign and has urged all males from the age of nine onward to come to Jerusalem from throughout the country in order to let the government know that the Haredi community is outraged about the government’s intentions.

Some facts of course would be useful to put this entire situation into perspective. First of all, the plan being promoted by the government gives a blanket and permanent exemption from military service to all Haredi men until 2017. That means 27,000 men 21 years of age and older who will never serve in the military along with 7,000 additional Haredi boys who will turn 18 each year between now and 2017.  Secondly, beginning in 2017 quotas for the drafting of Haredim have been established. But these quotas have been set so low (and the definition of Haredi in the law is so porous) that the massive bulk of Haredi youth will continue to escape military and national service of any type.

But if this is the case, and this is what the law says, what is the real issue? The real issue most likely is the fear on the part of the leadership that more Haredi youth will leave the Yeshivot and Kollelim (i.e. institutions of higher Torah learning) for the working world.  Which, by the way, would be a wonderful thing for Israel as we have the lowest percentage of eligible workers actually in the work force of any OECD country, bar none. Israel really could use the minds of these people added to the productive intellectual capital of the country.

But let us assume for the moment that the Haredi rabbinic leadership really believes that this concern is justified. Is the only way to address that concern is to take hundreds of thousands of people away from the study halls that the leadership deem are so important to the future spiritual life of the country and put them on the street to disrupt the city and the lives of those of us whose taxes go to pay for all the services provided to the Haredim without the benefit of their payroll taxes? I don’t think so.

There is a better way of course and it is sad that the rabbinic leadership doesn’t see it. Yes, there is a problem which needs to be solved. While it may be true that, as some say, 50% of the children of secular parents find a way to avoid military service, the fact is that 95% of the children of Haredi parents avoid military service and that is not sustainable. While it may be true that people who study religious texts all day are part and parcel of the nation’s need for spiritual sustenance, Jewish tradition teaches that while study is important so is making a living and contributing to the financial well-being of the community. Historically it was never a matter of pride to have the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community studying and not working.

It may be true that the secular leadership of Israel does not understand all of the aspects of the concern of the Haredi community. But the way to address these issues is not to paralyze the city on a workday. The way to address the issue, and what I would expect of the Haredi rabbinic leadership, is to convey to the government in the strongest possible terms the concerns that this community has about the new legislation.  But more importantly, to do that in the context of a face to face summit session where the government ministers involved would be invited to meet with the Haredi rabbinic leadership to hammer out a solution that, somehow or other, balances the real needs of the country as a whole against the real needs of the Haredi community as the leadership sees those needs. After all, the real problem, if indeed there is one, does not begin until three years from now in any event.

For those cynics who say this cannot be done I would point to pretty much every other country in the world where there are Jews and where the balance has been worked out. Perhaps it’s because in other countries we behave ourselves or we simply don’t want to rock the boat.  But it is here, in Israel, where the future of the Jewish people is put to the test every day, that it is even more important to develop a forum for dialogue that permits concern and compromise to find an operative balance. 

My disappointment with the Haredi rabbinic leadership is that they have chosen not to go down the path of dialogue but rather to call out the troops as it were which will, in my considered opinion, result in nothing more than getting the very people they need to cooperate with them to be angry. 

In my opinion, that is plain stupidity only exceeded by the statement issued by the Belzer Hasidim who on Friday indicated publicly that they are making plans for the mass evacuation of their community to the US in order to avoid the drafting of their students. Further, that they intend to speak with US senators to assist them in getting refugee status when they leave. (There is some evidence, by the way, that an earlier Belzer Rebbe warned his people not to go to Israel as this was not in their best long term interests. Amazing!)     

Author Romain Rolland wrote in Above the Battle, “Discussion is impossible with someone who claims not to seek the truth, but already to possess it.” Sad that this is where we have come to as Jews living in our own land.

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 33 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, Ontario and Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Chairperson of the Israel Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.