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J.J Gross

Understanding and resolving the haredi issue by facing the truth

Most of us understand that the issue of judicial reform – and it is definitely an issue – is very secondary to the issue of the haredi draft. Even if the judicial reform challenge were to be resolved through capitulation or compromise, the real 500 lb gorilla will remain in the room – namely a rapidly expanding sector of inhabitants who are not only disproportionately dependent on taxpayer largesse, but who categorically refuse to partake in the country’s defense.

Left unchecked, this situation will make Israel unviable. A decreasing percentage of the population cannot realistically continue to support and protect an expanding sector of dependents. Functioning citizens are refusing to remain sanguine about this situation. Eventually a critical mass will simply leave Israel. There is much talk of this already.

In order to clear the air, and find the starting point for resolving this crisis, we must first be honest with ourselves about the facts, two facts specifically:

  1. Haredim do not avoid military service in order to learn Torah. To the extent they are learning Torah at all, most are doing so in order to avoid military service;
  2. Haredi political parties are not, as Bibi would have us believe, “natural partners to a rightwing coalition”. Politically, haredim have only one agenda: to rent out their rubber stamp on policies that do not affect them directly in exchange for billions of shekels to support a constituency among whom only 50% of men, at best, are gainfully employed.

It should be made patently clear that haredim would just as soon partner with a leftwing government if the payoff were better.  And a leftwing government would sell out to haredim just as readily as Likud in order to achieve the simulacrum of a majority of their own.

All this makes the haredi bloc very powerful indeed. Because of the dismal way in which our parliamentary majority has to be cobbled together, haredim have to do absolutely nothing at all while constantly upping the ante for their ostensible “partnership”.

In a rare moment of honesty, Haredi MK Moshe Gafni, head of the Knesset Finance Committee, said last week that his constituents should not involve themselves in the judicial reform imbroglio as it doesn’t really affect them. Exactly! What affects them is the payoff to vote along Likud party lines in exchange for another few hundred million shekels over and above what was agreed to during the initial coalition horse-trading.

Yet it would be disingenuous to believe, even for a moment, that Benny Ganz or Yair Lapid would not be ready to pay the same price if the shoe were on the other foot.

Before attempting a go at finding a solution to the problem, it makes sense to first understand the substance of haredi resistance to the draft.

There is an old adage;

אלף נכנסים לתלמוד ואחד יוצא להוראה 

of a thousand men who start learning Talmud only one ends up with the ability to teach it.

While this may have been an exaggeration in Talmudic times, it is an understatement in ours. The idea that every male born under the umbra of a black Borsalino or shtreimel is cut out for full-time Torah scholarship is absurd on its face. It is as ridiculous as arguing that every child born within a kilometer of Philharmonic Hall is cut out to become a concert violinist.

A 12 hour day devoted to Talmud is something very few people can manage at all, and even fewer can do successfully. To force hundreds of thousands of young men to live lives of frustration and mediocrity, never knowing what they might have actually excelled at, is a staggering crime. Hence the main victims of the status quo are not the ‘freiers’ who subsidize these unfortunates. No, the real victim is the haredi young man who is forced to spin his wheels pretending to learn Torah, or lie about his whereabouts, or both, in order to obey his rabbinic or Hassidic masters and stay out of the military.

But the question is why? And the answer is really very simple.

Haredi life, whether in Brooklyn, Lakewood, Stamford Hill, Antwerp, Jerusalem or Bnei Brak is meant to be a simulacrum of pre-war ‘golus’ existence.  Here in Israel too – perhaps here in Israel especially – haredim actually believe they are living in the golus.

No haredi would EVER serve in ANY ‘goyish’ army. Most haredim have always considered their host societies fair game for fiscal shenanigans and chicanery (a holdover from really bad times in the past). And this is precisely how they feel about life in Israel. Normative Israeli citizens are the “goyim”, the government is a malchus ha-resha – an evil monarchy –, the army is an an army of “shmad” (forced apostasy) and they, the haredim, must do everything possible to disengage from the greater society and live the fiction of the shtetl and yeshivish past.

Hence haredim, regardless of sect or yeshiva, dress golus, speak a golus language, eschew any education that might render them capable of functioning appropriately in golus society, name all of their sects and yeshivas after cities and hamlets in the golus, and travel overseas in order to prostrate themselves in supplication on the graves of dead golus rabbis.

Haredim do NOT live in Israel. They want no part of Israel other than what they can take, much as they do in America or England or Belgium. And they never, ever, use the word Israel in their regular discourse.  For purposes of location, they refer to their current golus as Eretz Yisroel, real estate on which, unfortunately, the Zionist State of Israel exists as well.

Hence haredim are not actual citizens of Israel. Citizenship is based on a social contract whereby civil rights are directly connected to civic responsibilities. Unfortunately, virtually none of this obtains with regard to the haredi population in Israel.

That haredi refusal to serve in the IDF has nothing to do with Torah study is being made patently clear right at this very moment.  Until recently the argument for haredi exemption was the claim of ‘Toratam umanutam’ that Torah study is the haredi profession. That argument is now proven to be ridiculous as haredim are now insisting that their young men be exempted from further Torah study as soon as they turn 21 or 22, e.g. the age when soldiers complete their army service. Thus, haredim would be free to enter the business world and pursue material comfort having never for a moment done military or national service of any kind.  If Torah were indeed their profession it would be something they would want to pursue for their entire lives.  They would need no exemptions or incentives if this were truly their calling.

The demand for blanket haredi exemption until age 21 followed by the freedom to do as they please, is ironclad proof – if proof were even needed – that normative Israeli citizens have been bamboozled for 75 years. Bamboozled not only by the haredim, but ESPECIALLY by a self-serving secular political leadership.

Now let it be perfectly clear, true haredi Torah scholars should ABSOLUTELY be granted military exemptions, just as we grant exemptions to the most talented violinists, pianists and athletes. Surely there are a few hundred such exemplary young men who deserve our support and admiration for their promising futures as Torah scholars and teachers.

As for the rest, the time has come to demand basic reciprocity.  If one lives in this country one has obligations to the greater society. Should the haredi leadership prevent this from happening ­–and they WILL prevent it from happening – then the haredi constituency should no longer be entitled to the social services accorded to normative citizens. Medical care, funding for education, subsidized housing, sanitation, police protection should be withheld.

Alternatively, or additionally, an exemption tax should be levied whereby every haredi draft avoider pays a sum of 250,000 shekels for his exemption. Once paid, he no longer has to engage in the charade of Torah study, and can begin his pursuit of money without let or hindrance.  The exemption fees would go into a fund for combat soldiers to help them get established in civilian life.

Anyone who doubts that the haredim can come up with this money is ignorant of haredinomics. Yes, it is remarkable how so many haredi families can purchase apartments for their children, travel overseas for family celebrations and prayers at the graves of their tzaddikim, take vacations at hotels here in Israel, drive cars and otherwise indulge in a middle-class existence.

Among other things, hundreds of millions of dollars are sent to ‘Eretz Yisroel’ every year to help support haredi families – none of it declared or taxed. Every year, Hasidic rebbes (in all the goluses) received hundreds of millions of dollars in ‘pidyonos’, cash gifts in exchange for access and blessings. Yet not one cent of this is ever taxed, or appears on any ledger in any country.

In hassidic circles, as is the case with gypsy clans in Europe, the government is the leader of the sect. The taxes are paid to that leader. The allegiance is to him alone, and the laws are dictated by him. Borders are porous. The surrounding society is the enemy. The lingua franca is not theirs except as absolutely necessary. The holidays and celebrations of the greater society – be it Thanksgsiving  and Independence Days in America or Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut in Israel – are of zero relevance.

We cannot change this. We cannot impose our will on people who absolutely reject our legitimacy and believe it is perfectly ok to use their demographic weight to help themselves to whatever they can.  But we CAN take measures to protect ourselves, our finances, our citizens and ABOVE ALL our future, by ending the free lunch.  If haredim want something from us, they can buy it.

The question of course is how to make this happen, considering our prevailing system of government and coalition building.  A ground-up restructuring of our political system would be most ideal, but unlikely to happen. Our Knesset members are not honorable enough to vote themselves out of their jobs by, for example, legislating direct elections.

But what CAN be done is for all the major political parties to sign a pact whereby not one of them would, now or ever, include haredi parties in any coalition they might form.  Initially, this would make forming a coalition very difficult. it might take an obscene number of repeat elections for the voters to finally understand that a ballot cast for a fringe party is a ballot wasted. But ultimately a coalition would be formed – or better yet, a true national unity government

Eventually we would end up with a more or less two-party system, and a governing majority that could actually complete a full term and prove what it can do without having to appoint academic and cultural illiterates, as well as outright criminals, as health ministers, housing ministers and finance ministers.

Once they are excluded from the governing coalition, haredi parties will have their day of reckoning and can decide whether they want to relocate from Eretz Yisroel to Israel, or whether they prefer, instead, to pay a fair price for living as foreigners in our land.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.