Photo: Chaim Goldberg/Flash90

A Supreme Court injunction cuts off, cold-turkey, funding for army-aged, ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva students who learn instead of serve. Couldn’t they have let the turkey get to room-temperature?

This is a segment from The “Sidelocks & Sidearms?” Edition.


And now it’s time for our second discussion.

So, Don, for decades we’ve been fighting about whether and how to draft into the IDF ultra-Orthodox young men and nothing has ever changed.

Could it be that this week finally something actually did change?

And if so, what did it mean?

Last Thursday, three Supreme Court justices issued an interim order barring the government from transferring money as of April 1st to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas and advanced study kolels to subsidize the studies of army-age students.

This because the legal arrangement that provided exemption from the draft for these students lapsed at midnight on March 31st.

The logic behind the decision is that once the yeshiva students become eligible for the draft, they no longer meet their criteria for government support.

One criterion of which is that they be officially exempted from army service.

In a deeper sense, the logic is the government should not fund citizens who ought to be in the army at the time they receiving funding to do anything but be in the army.

Attorney General Gali Baharrav Miara set out this logic to the justices, though the order the justices produced was more draconian than what the Attorney General thought was appropriate.

They ordered the funding to be stopped cold turkey, while what she asked for was a continuation of the funding for a few months so the yeshivas and kolels could find alternatives to government money, probably from philanthropists abroad.

This surprised some as the three judges who gave the order are Noam Solberg, a settler generally considered conservative and sympathetic with the right-wing government, Uzi Fogelman, the rather institutionalist acting president of the Supreme Court, and Yitzhak Amit, the senior member of the court.

The practical impact of the decision is this.

On Monday, 1,257 yeshivas and kolels lost funding for the 49,485 army-eligible students, who together are about one-third of all their students.

Estimates vary, but one reasonable guess is that what was lost in the ruling is about 500 million shekels in funding, or a bit less than a third of the one and a half billion shekels paid out by the government to ultra-Orthodox students each year.

Some schools will be hurt more than others, depending on how many army age students they have and what other sources of income are available to them.

As you might expect, some ultra-Orthodox leaders reacted to the court order with outrage.

The head of the extremist anti-Zionist Pele-Gyur Shalmi, or Jerusalem faction, Rav Tzvi Friedman, said that it is better for a Haredi young man to die than to enlist.

He said, “Secularism for us is beyond death.

It is much more serious.

There is no solution.

Being in such a secular army is worse for us than being forced to break Shabbat and Kashrut.

It is better to eat pork and not be in a place of the secular society.”

Of course, extremists are going to be extreme, and most responses were more moderate than Friedman’s, but still, ultra-Orthodox leaders were piqued.

Rabbi Moshe Hillel Hirsch, the head of the very highly regarded Slabodka Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, the Dartmouth, or maybe the Brown of Haredi higher education, told his students that the court ruling amounted to completely canceling our right to learn Torah in the Land of Israel for the time being.

He said, “There are two types of people behind the ruling, the ones who have no ill will toward the ultra-Orthodox but do not realize that the Torah is what is saving us, the other type hate religion and hate Torah.

They want to destroy us and we will need to stand against them.”

Obviously, Haredi politicians also decried the court order.

Head of the United Torah Judaism Party, Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknapp, called it a “stain and a disgrace that will cause severe harm to those who toil in Torah.”

Aryeh Derry, head of the ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi Shas Party, called the decision “unprecedented maltreatment of Torah study in the Jewish state.”

Alongside this sort of thing, which we’ve learned to expect, there has also been a very marginal, but still interesting, who knows, maybe significant, response of a different sort.

Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer, a former Jerusalem Dayan, a rabbinical judge and congregational rabbi, wrote of his own Haredi society after the Supreme Court ruling that “it is high time we changed our tune.

On the one hand, it is crucial to maintain and even strengthen our isolation from secular values and culture.

On the other hand, this cultural isolation must not create alienation from our shared story with our fellow brethren living in the Holy Land.

Participation in the army is one crucial element of this belonging.”

Of course, the elephant in the room with all this is that after the court’s ruling, the Haredi parties in the government immediately demanded that the coalition, of which they constitute more than 28%, pass a new law exempting young Haredim from the draft and thereby undoing the court’s ruling.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has promised that he will do just that, but there are many in his own party and others in the religious Zionist party who think it is high time for at least some Haredim to get into uniform.

If Netanyahu cannot wrangle the votes, his government may fall.

Allison, what do you make of the Supreme Court ruling and what do you think ought to happen now and what do you expect will happen now?

I’m all for the Supreme Court ruling.

Sounds good to me, sounds right to me, and they are doing what they should be doing, which is pushing the decision into the arms of the government.

The Knesset needs to figure this out, needs to make a decision, and you know it’s not their job to make a decision.

They’re gonna piss someone off either way and you know this is a crucial, central issue in Israeli society and Israeli law and where it has to be going.

It has to be made by the Knesset and by the Parliament and what the Supreme Court is doing is forcing its hand to do so.

Everybody knows what the solution is.

There is no way you can force ultra-Orthodox to go into the army.

There is no way you can force secular society, while they’re sending their kids to the army, to expect that these people are going to be totally exempt from any kind of contribution to the country.

We need to create a national service requirement, which includes the military but isn’t exclusive to the military, that everyone has to do that is compatible with some form of continuation of Torah study at the same time, you know in the the national service mode, and everyone needs to be required to do it.

They can do it in cultural isolation if they want.

They can do their national service in a completely ultra-Orthodox kindergarten or old-age home or ambulance service or whatever, but they need to contribute to the well-being of the country just like everyone else’s.

Benny Gantz had a law in this vein.

The ultra-Orthodox rejected it and what the Supreme Court is doing is providing a stick in addition to whatever carrots in order to get this to happen and obviously at the same time we need more ultra-Orthodox in the actual military.

So I think that you know this program should offer extra incentive whether financial or otherwise to try to attract the ultra-Orthodox to choose serving in the army as opposed to another form of national service but not make it a requirement.

You’re right sir.

Everything you said is exactly right.

The only thing that I would…

Am I thin too?

Because women love to be thin and right.

The only thing that I would add is that I think for the first, I think that probably won’t happen everything that you said, but I think for the first time it’s really possible.

Like I really do, I started, the newspaper guy in my neighborhood started getting the ultra-Orthodox newspapers on Friday so I could buy them.

So I started reading the ultra-Orthodox press and it really sounds different.

I’ve been reading it on and off for 25 years.

It really sounds different now than ever in the past of people saying we know that something has to be done.

We know that some of us need to serve.

And things that I’ve never seen in print in an ultra-Orthodox newspaper.

So I’m not 100% convinced that something like this might not happen to some degree because of the very odd circumstances we have with the war and with the army truly needing to have more hands and everyone realizing it.

I think and with the religious Zionists dying at a much higher rate than anywhere else in this war which is making them more angry at the people who aren’t serving at the ultra-Orthodox and there’s this growing rift between religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox on that basis.

I think something might happen.

Don, what do you think?

Well look, I think the voices you’re talking about within the Haredi world is still quite marginal.

I mean there are some younger rabbis talking like this.

They’re not…

And you’re Ted Naaman.

Yeah, I mean yes.

So that voice is being heard for the first time.

I think some of the questions we’re asking, you know, how is this going to affect, is the government going to fall?

I don’t think that’s likely.

Not right away, although I’m hearing from people I know who work with the ultra-Orthodox community that the leading rabbis who are still the people making most of the decisions in these communities are telling the their political lackeys that they should be getting out of this government this summer.

That if this government can’t deliver, it’s time to say goodbye.

So they may actually bring the government down even at the risk that they’ll be excluded from the next government that’s formed because that’s why they’re there.

I mean I’m also hearing that we shouldn’t be too optimistic.

It’s more likely we’ll see a race to the bottom with ultra-Orthodox leaders out competing each other to see who can cut off the society from the rest of Israel more, more akin to the extreme statements we heard at the beginning of the introduction.

So it’s disturbing, but there’s immediate impact right now if the funding is cut off.

And again, people I know working in this community are telling me a lot of the ultra-Orthodox yeshivas operate in debt, and some of them in very, very significant debt.

If the funding is cut off, that’s millions of shekels a month for some of them that they’re not getting.

It means that debt is getting deeper, and that’s not sustainable.

Now philanthropy could come in with a band-aid, you know, depending on which yeshivas have lines to mega donors who can rescue them.

It’ll only be some of them.

Right, and a lot of them don’t have that at all, and the ones that have it, you know, philanthropy could carry them for a while, but it can’t carry this level of burden for the long term.

So the dynamics really could change.

And the thing you said also, that if there’s a rift between the national religious camp and the ultra-Orthodox, and they start to see each other not as natural allies, or if the ultra-Orthodox starts to see the right-wing Likud, which is, you know, a mixed secular traditional party, not as a natural ally, then the political dynamics could change.

Will that lead to what you’re talking about, Alice, in some form of national service for some part of that community?

I don’t know.

I mean, it’s possible to do army service that’s designed for ultra-Orthodox, where part of the time is devoted to terrorist study, part of the time is military service, have them isolated from other parts of the army in specific areas in the country, just the men.

All those things are doable if there’s the political will to do it.

That is not evident from within the ultra-Orthodox community, which right now is lashing out at its, you know, one of its traditional punching bags, the high court, who they love to fight against, but also they’re angry that the Netanyahu-led government put the judicial overthrow ahead of their agenda and didn’t pass these laws when they might have, you know, a year ago.

Which appeared their coalition view.

No, but they were linked.

Part of the point of the judicial overhaul was in order to take down the barrier of the Supreme Court that when they pass that law it wouldn’t get blocked by the Supreme Court.

Right, that’s also true, right, right, but they failed to do it.

They failed to deliver and now we’re in a national disaster.

And I think, you know, as reservists are getting called back, you know, the ones who were released, even those who were there for four or five months, already are getting their dates to report for duty again, the anger is just going to grow that we are not just carrying the burden, we’re risking our lives again and again.

And this part of the society is simply not part of it.

And they’re not suffering the losses, their lives have not been turned upside down, they’re not contributing, and yet they have the chutzpah to come demand not just exemption but more money at the same point.

Which makes me wonder what the hell the ultra-orthodox political leaders are thinking.

If they want to become the most hated people in this country, they’re doing a good job.

Just in a little bit of blatant self-promotion, on the Haaretz podcast this week I have the leading journalist who specializes in ultra-orthodoxy, Eir Edinger, and we do like super, super deep dive into this issue, which is just endlessly complicated and, you know, difficult to fathom.

I’ll say one last thing.

What could happen and should happen is an authentic dialogue about some of their claims and some of the reasons that the rest of society doesn’t accept those claims with respect to what their own priorities are, their concerns about their society’s continuity in the place of Torah study in a Jewish state, and the obligations and benefits of democracy.

Hallevei, we would have a real discussion about those issues.

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