Letter of support for the ultra-Orthodox struggle against draft law

Over 70 Israeli activists publish an open letter in support of the ultra-Orthodox community, as it struggles against a new law that would draft its young men into the army or national civil service.

(Translated from Hebrew by Asaf Shalev)

About 30,000 Ultra-Orthodox came to anti-draft rally (Oren Ziv / Activestills)
About 30,000 Ultra-Orthodox came to anti-draft rally (Oren Ziv / Activestills)

We, civilians and activists – religious, masorti (tradition-committed) and secular – wish to express our support for the struggle of the ultra-Orthodox community against forced military enlistment.

There must be an end to the empty rhetoric employed by the Israeli government and its constituent parties that are calling for the “sharing of the burden” of military service, by which they are deceiving the public. Such rhetoric is designed to divert public attention from real inequality in Israel:

Inequality among various segments of the population (including the ultra-Orthodox, whose members suffer from dire poverty);

Inequality in educational and employment opportunities in Israel;

Inequality in the moving of certain groups to the country’s periphery as opposed to the concentration of other segments of the population in the geographic center (the economic and cultural center of Israel);

Inequality in the budget allocation for Western cultural activity in Tel Aviv, as opposed to the lack of allocation for Arab, Mizrahi and Ethiopian cultural activity or for cultural activity outside of Tel Aviv in general;

Inequality in the surplus of Jewish Ashkenazi secular men in government, academia, the justice system, and in the economic elite, and in the surplus of Mizrahis, Arabs, Ethiopians and Russians in boarding schools for youth at risk and prisons, in the employment of independent contractors, and in the lower economic classes.

It appears that there is glaring inequality in every area. However, centering the debate on “equality” around the question of military service makes a mockery of the very concept of equality. This process is smokescreen to conceal the truth about severe inequality in economic opportunity, education, employment, funding for arts and culture, and other areas – inequality that does not affect the members of Knesset who spearheaded the very issue of “sharing the burden.”

It is clear to us that conscripting the ultra-Orthodox in Israel would severely compromise their ability to uphold their religious values, while forcing upon them a militaristic Zionist nationalism, which they oppose. It is lamentable that the only context in which the debate on inequality becomes popular is in a nationalist-militaristic one, in an attempt to coerce an insular community to integrate.

It is hard to avoid the feeling that those who are pushing for Haredi conscription are motivated to a large extent by the evolution of that same anti-Semitic desire in Europe to correct the Jew – to erase his repellent strangeness and “Christianize” him. In Israel, this intention returns out of deep hatred for and fear of Haredim and their strangeness – one that reminds many people of the Jews depicted in anti-Semitic cartoons. They seek to correct the Haredim by turning them into new Israelis and making them part of the nation through the military.

However, as Rabbi Saadia Gaon argued, “Our nation is only a nation by virtue of its Torahs,” the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. It must be noted that Jewish-Zionist definitions of nationalism, which are based on secular-European ideas of nationalism from past generations, are foreign to a large portion of the Jewish tradition and to the world of the Torah.

Conscription of Haredim would constitute a profound spiritual crisis (forced conversion from Judaism, in their words) in the same way that drafting Palestinian citizens of Israel would constitute a crisis of their national identity and would pit them against their brothers. This situation has already existed for many decades with the drafting of Bedouin and Druze citizens, whose enlistment proves that integration into the military, in and of itself, does not further their acceptance as equal citizens in Israel. Enlistment does not curb the racism experienced by these communities, help obtain recognition for the unrecognized villages of the Bedouin, fix the underfunding of the Druze towns, or help with the lack of opportunities in education and employment.

It should also be noted that the drafting of Mizrahis caused a deep crisis when they were assigned to low-status positions (which helped push them into the lower classes upon completing military service), and when they were used as cannon fodder in the recent wars. According to recent statistics, it turns out that most of those who die during military service come from the social, economic, and geographic periphery of the country.

In this context, it appears that the connection between the neoliberalism of the Yesh Atid party and the notion of drafting Haredim as a “return of Zionism” is designed to push Haredim (after their release from the army) into the same job market that has largely been reserved for Mizrahis. This would mean working for independent contractors and making minimum wage, which would keep them below the poverty line.

It must be clearly stated: Haredim must be absolved from military service, which would allow those who wish to work to do so. Until now, the deferral of enlistment has left the ultra-Orthodox in a void between yeshiva studies and working illegally, keeping them stuck in the informal economy.

The propagandists and politicians of Yesh Atid should be reminded that many of the ultra-Orthodox do indeed work (many of whom work difficult jobs for poverty wages). Those who fail to see their work must not live in their neighborhoods, but rather drive SUVs between the Ramat Aviv neighborhood of north Tel Aviv and the government halls in Jerusalem. It is obvious that the current scheming against Haredim, the incitement and demonization, are part of a strategy of divide and conquer vis-a-vis various communities in the country – residents of the periphery, Arabs, ultra-Orthodox, Mizrahis, Ethiopians, Russians, poor people, and others – so that they do not engage in joint struggle against those who exploit them economically. The propaganda around military service also defers public debate on fundamental questions such as the role of the military in Israeli society, or what the government is doing to settle the conflict and diminish the need for a military.

Government support for higher education is a badge of honor for a state, and reform is necessary to reach an equitable policy. The government must create truly equitable criteria for higher religious education for members of various faiths – with scholarships for students or institutions – for Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, and Bahais. Similar criteria should be applied to universities, conservatories, and other institutions of education and training, while ensuring admission is not restricted to one ethnic, geographic or economic group but is instead open to a diverse set of students.

Most of the undersigned are not ultra-Orthodox in our daily way of life, but some of our relatives belong to various Haredi communities, as do some of our neighbors, coworkers, and allies. We may often raise questions about the Haredi ethos, for example from the masorti, or tradition-committed, point of view that some of us share, or from the Jewish-feminist worldview some of us hold. Some of us participated in the struggle against the separation of Mizrahi girls in Emmanuel, since we are partners in feminist and Mizrahi struggles as well as in struggles in other segments of Israeli society. We have critiques of all the different segments of Israeli society – they all require positive change. But we believe that we must offer our hand in solidarity in the ultra-Orthodox community’s struggle. Haredim are fighting government attempts to oppress their community through militarism, hatred and the silencing of an alternative economic/political agenda than that of the government. We feel that Haredi resistance to conscription, as well as the community’s prioritizing the value of learning, is not foreign to the traditional Jewish stance with a long-standing history.

We express our support for the struggle of the Haredi community against conscription and demand of the government a real equal share of the burden:

The burden of poverty;

The burden on the periphery, and the burden of unequal distribution of land among development towns, Arab cities, and regional councils;

The burden of limited and limiting educational and economic opportunities;

And the burden of racism, of hatred of the other, and of stereotypes.

Yonit Naaman, Yuval Ivry, Naama Katiee, Tomer Gardi, Rajaa Natour, Meir Amor, Rachel Getz-Salomon, Gerardo Leibner, Shira Ohayon, Naftali Shem-Tov, Yael Aharonov, Mazal Moyal Cohen, Rafram Chaddad, Iris Hefets Amsalaem, Asher Idan, Yael Ben-Yefet, Zvi Ben-Dor, Yali Hashash, Rami Adut, Yael Gidanyan, Tom Fogel, Efrat Shani-Shitrit, Gadi Algazi, Yifal Bistry, Ron Cahlili, Mariana Janin, Shiko Bahar, Liron Mor, Israel Dadon, Zehava Greenfeld, Rafael Balulu, Avi Shavit, Tammy Riklis, Yossi Loss, Hana Vazana Grunwald, Avi Blecherman, Aya Michlin, Roy Hasan, Lital Bar, Shlomi Hatuka, Zohar Elmakias, Diana Ahdout, Hagar Shezaf, Sapir Sluzker-amran, Ortal Ben Dayan, Eitam Tubul, Khen Elmaleh, Avi H Mottahedèh, Orly Noy, Eyal Sagui Bizawe, Yosef Cohen, Tsafi Saar, Shula Keshet, Barak Cohen, Or Sujunov, Carmen Elmakiyes Amos, Yoram Blumenkrantz, Mirit Barashi, Ophir Toubul, Sahar Ades, Almog Behar, Oded Erez, Amos Noy, Edan Ring, Merav Livneh-dill, Zehava Goldstien, Assaf Tamari.

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