Jewish Journal


Interpreting Two Fierce Israeli-Jewish Internal Wars

by Shmuel Rosner

May 27, 2013 | 7:57 am

An Ultra Orthodox man walking behind two Israeli soldiers
Photo by Reuters

At last, a whole post on Jewish affairs, but not one concerning the Western Wall (on which I wrote more than enough last week).

The Haredi draft war:

There are two ways to view the crisis that threatens both to prevent the passing of a new Haredi draft plan and the stability of the Netanyahu government- the war within the coalition.

One way would be more cynical: it is all about politics. According to this view, Netanyahu and his friends, in this case Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, are merely “playing politics” and have decided to stick with the strategic alliance between the “right” (Likud, Israel Beiteinu) and the Haredi parties. In blocking Lapid’s pet project they corner him in a way that is quite unpleasant. Will he leave a coalition that he just joined and risk years of sitting in the opposition (that is, if the Labor Party decides to get into the coalition as Lapid’s replacement)? On the other hand, can he compromise on his signature issue of the Haredi draft? Not an easy choice.

Another way of looking at this gives our politicians more credit (maybe more than they deserve): it is not about politics but rather about what’s best for Israel. According to this view, Netanyahu and Yaalon are being consistent. They never thought that a mandatory draft of Haredis, and the sanctions involved in case the draft doesn’t quite succeed, is the best way of moving forward. They believe in change that is more gradual and more in agreement with the leaders of the Haredi sector, and are doing what’s necessary to prevent unnecessary clashes between Jews. 

The public – a majority of it – is surely with Lapid. But he doesn’t yet have the power to force his case upon a reluctant partner like Netanyahu. If you will look back at the very similar political crisis following the establishment of the Plesner Committee - at the end of which Kadima was forced out of the coalition – you’ll understand that the current crisis is serious.

Tuesday Update: Yes, the crisis is temporarily over, but don't be fooled by it. Netanyahu decided to have this battle later in the process rather than now, and the differences between the Likud approach and the Yesh Atid approach to the draft - real differences that will lead to real debates - are still in place.

The Chief Rabbi war

The more it continues the uglier it gets: The race for Israel’s next chief rabbi(s) was never a pretty scene to watch, but recent developments have made it even less appealing. It is, however, very revealing by way of demonstrating the extent to which the Zionist-religious – Tzioni-Dati – stream is in a state of fierce internal war.

You can see it by looking at the politicians. The promise they made- “something new is beginning”- when the Habayit Hayehudi Party was established was no more than a mirage. There’s nothing new about the party, or the message, or the petty politics that it plays. It does it by continuing to fight the old wars of sectarian interests – a recent example is the insistence of Habayit Hayehudi to keep the period of military service for Hesder Yeshiva students (combining study and service) at 17 months, instead of the 20 months recommended by the Perry committee. In other words, while the party keeps preaching for military service for Haredis, it won’t make an “equal share of the burden” a principal by which Zionist-religious yeshivas operate.

Another political example: when the Stern legislation, aimed at adding members to the “electing body” of rabbis, was brought up for a vote at the Knesset, only three members of the party supported it. The others disappeared, embarrassing their leader Naftali Bennet and proving yet again that the party won’t go very far in, say, supporting more representation for women in forums at which “Jewish” matters are decided.

You can also see the internal war by looking at Zionist-religious rabbis. Those who support rabbi Yaakov Ariel for chief rabbi, and those who support rabbi David Stav for chief rabbi. This isn’t a battle based on personal preferences, it is one between two different schools of Zionist-religious thought. The one is more conservative in outlook, less prone to search for compromises that will make the rabbinate acceptable to Israelis. Coercive in its manner, it is a group of Haredi-Leumi rabbis. The other group is more compromising, more accommodating, looking for ways to live in peace with the rest of Israeli society. For reasons beyond me – mostly because of the need to keep the pretence of similar piousness - they say that their strict adherence to the Halacha is just the same. That’s not exactly true: being more accommodating means that these rabbis are willing to consider social sensitivities as an important ingredient in discussing halachic questions. In other words: yes, they feel that they are just as observant as their peers, but the practical outcome will be different in many cases. For example: they way they will rule on questions of conversion.

There is a war between these two factions of rabbis, and between two factions of the Zionist-religious community. They might have one party, but it is one in name only, and it will not have a coherent and unified voice on Judaic questions. That is, unless the “moderate” faction surrenders for fear of losing legitimacy and lets the conservatives lead. Then again, there will be nothing “new” here.

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