JERUSALEM — The ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea She’arim often seems walled off and fortified, almost like a city unto itself. Signs in Hebrew and English remind visitors that the neighborhood is not a tourist site; they ask that women dress modestly and that photography should be avoided. The streets are narrow. The entrances leading down into the inner courtyard where the majority of the residents live, are unmarked and easily hidden. When this community was first built in 1874, entrances were gated and locked to keep the outside world at bay while a community was left to tradition, religion and God. But even though the locks and gates are long gone, the sense of insularity remains.
However, with the recent “draft law” passed in early March by the Israeli Knesset by vote of 65-1, with opposition leaders in abstention, the ultra-Orthodox believe that their historic way of life is under attack. The bill will change the exemption the ultra-Orthodox men and women have customarily used since the founding of Israel in 1948 to circumvent service in the Israeli Defense Forces, or IDF.
During a rally on Sunday, Mar. 1, a reported 300,000 ultra-Orthodox men protested the legislation calling it an abomination. They clogged the streets of Jerusalem in a show of defiance.
Although the law has since passed, the devotion towards rebellion is still brewing at the surface. The ultra-Orthodox are know as Haredim, Hebrew for those who fear God. They fear God but they do not fear the State, as the law would punish those who would be considered draft dodgers.
At Manny’s Bookstore in Mea She’arim, Marlene Samuel works behind the engraving counter where she delicately cuts sheets of gold and silver paper to stamp customers names into books. She is a short wiry 64-year-old French woman who looks down through her thick glasses as she arranges the copper letters on a press. Depending on what has been engraved into the leather book cover thus far, she chooses a precious metal to match. Her bracelets resonate as she makes swift concentrated movements.
“In a democracy a secular government can’t force young Yeshiva boys into the military,” she said as her husband looked on from the payment counter. Yeshiva is a Jewish school, or seminary, that focuses on the study of the Torah and Talmud. To the Haredi community, the study of the Torah is the highest station of worldly existence. The vast majority of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel devote their early adulthood and sometimes beyond that to learning the laws of God, which results in their reluctance, or downright refusal, to take part in military service. Haredi women also do not serve in the army, although they are more likely to find work outside of the home to support their families. Some Haredi men find employment in shops and businesses within the community to supplement their wives’ income.
Samuel echoed a popular Haredi position when she added: “The army should be a professional army. They should have better pay and the draft should be abolished.”
A female customer, who would not give her name, spoke up confrontationally, “But the Haredi don’t work and they make the woman do all work. What do the Haredi contribute to Israel?”
But Samuel came to their defense. “The Torah is the driving force that has kept Jews together over thousands of years. This law undermines what it means to be Jewish.”
Samuel went on to say how the rift that has been formed within Israeli and Jewish society is a polarization that has been coming from the far left. In her opinion this law will only further fragment the country by pushing the left and right further away from each other. “It will make unity impossible and these are dangerous times for Jews.”
One of primary schisms between mainstream Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews is over the identity of the Jewish state, how to propagate the state, and the welfare of the state.
Avi Shafran, a Haredi rabbi who is director of public affairs at Agudath Israeli of America, drew a distinction between nationalism and religion. “The Haredi community in Israel is dedicated above all to Judaism, and so other values like nationalism, which is not a religious one, holds no great importance,” he said.
When the Jewish state was founded on Zionist-secular-socialist principles, the Haredi population was exempt because it was believed that their culture and tradition would fade away through the impact of modernity. They were deemed to be an apolitical minority. Yet, the trends have changed.
Within Israel there is a reported population of 750,000 Haredi Jews out of a total population of 7.5 million. They have an annual growth rate of 6 percent. A projection by the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics forecasts that the Haredi population of Israel could number 1.1 million in 2019. Haredi families have an average of 6.7 children, which is three times the national average, according to the Brookdale Institute.
“The argument for drafting Haredim is based on things like sharing the burden and normalizing Haredi society. It is an affront to their culture, or, better, an attempt at social engineering,” said Shafran. To him it is manipulation by the state that is a direct affront to God. The ideal of nationalism is something that the Haredi do not hold as an ideal. Haredim see the Jew’s purpose in life as keeping to the Torah’s laws, acts of kindness, giving charity, studying the Torah and creating Jewish families to further those religious ideals.
According to Shafran the only way to bring about social change and integration, would be if the rabbis supported a grassroots legislation that did not break any rabbinical laws. However, he does not see this happening because the politics behind change has made the Haredim feel marginalized to the extent that they will resist the state, at all costs, even to the extent of widespread civil disobedience.
“The entire attempt to draft the Haredi is misguided,” he said.
Outside of Manny’s Bookstore school had just been released and young girls in long dresses walk with their backpacks over their shoulders. A Haredi man looked on as two foreign workers on a ladder cut the metal sheathing for electrical wires as the sparks fall to the ground and coolly disappear. There were clotheslines stretched loosely across above the street from balcony to balcony. A woman was hanging damp clothes in the sun. Droplets of water fell down to the street.
Moishon dov Freedlander had finished his studies and was walking along the street, stopping to read the posters that are plastered all over the corrugated sheet metal fencing. He is a 20-year-old yeshiva student who was born in New Jersey, but who moved to Jerusalem with the rest of his family when he was two. He has only known a life in Israel.
“If they try to draft me I will just move back to America. I will stay there until I am 26 or 27. They can’t make me serve in the army and break my Torah studies,” he said.