Uproar over Ultra-Orthodox Military Service Deepens Old Israeli Rift
Journalist and documentarian Lia Tarachansky discusses the decision by the Israeli Supreme Court to overturn a law exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. A major rift has opened up inside Israel over ending the exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews from military service. Joining me to discuss is Lia Tarachansky, journalist and documentary filmmaker. Lia, hello.
LIA TARACHANSKY: Thanks for having me, Aaron.
AARON MATÉ: So let’s talk about what’s going on. On Sunday, you had this protest in Jerusalem of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting a recent Supreme Court decision that would end their decades-long exemption from serving in the Israeli military. Can you talk about what’s …
LIA TARACHANSKY: Sure. I think if you put this in its proper context, what’s actually happening right now are the end throes of a gap that opened up back in 2012. What happened was that in July 2011, the biggest demonstrations in Israel’s history started happening around big gaps between the rich and the poor in Israel. And the socioeconomic situation that most Israelis live through is actually quite difficult considering that the middle class has more or less been destroyed. And so we saw in July 2011 the rise of a tent-city protest that led to demonstrations that were the biggest demonstrations in the country’s history at a time when there was demonstrations happening in much of the region, including Europe, of course the Arab Spring was happening.
Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister then and also now, saw that there was a big threat coming to his power, because this was not Palestinians demonstrating against decades of occupation, this was not a minority group demonstrating, this was the young, the middle class. And so what he did was actually quite brilliant in retrospect, was that he appeased them. And he basically created a committee that was going to review their complaints about the stagnant wages, the mushrooming real estate market and the cost of living. And he basically said whatever the committee comes up with, I will accept. Of course the committee was staffed by inside people. It led to conclusions that were never followed through, and a year later when the same movement saw that nothing was happening, they had another uprise in protests, this one much quieter. And so what happened in the next elections was that there was a new party that was born somewhat out of this protest, but more or less by an elite group that tried to co-opt this protest movement, and what they basically said was, the problem with the economy in Israel is not the fact that we are an economy based on the arms industry, it’s not the fact that we have huge exemptions for settlers in the West Bank, it’s not all of these conflict-related problems. The real issue for economy in Israel is the Jewish Orthodox, who are already a marginalized group. So, basically the Orthodox religious groups in Israel were scapegoated for Israel’s economic woes and this movement called Equality in the Burden was born.
What you’re seeing today with this Supreme Court decision is basically the last stages of that movement. So, the first stage was that an Israeli news anchor known as Yair Lapid rose to power basically agitating the secular Israelis against the religious Israelis, and he was basically blaming the religious Israelis, who are currently exempt from the army and also get government subsidies because they pray all day long, at least the men do, and therefore do not work, most of them. He was basically saying we’re going to end this special exemption that was created back in the early days of the state. And of course, this garnered a lot of support from Israel’s secular population, which is the majority, and so the weak, the poor were once again basically scapegoated.
Now, what followed immediately after him actually rising to power and promising to put into force what he was campaigning on was that the Orthodox said “Hell, no,” and went out onto the streets. We actually saw bigger protests than even the socioeconomic protests on the streets of Jerusalem with what is historically fractured religious groups uniting and basically saying, “We do not believe in this army. We are not going to send our children to fight in this army. Our children are religious Yeshiva students and they are going to continue being Yeshiva students. We’re not going to send anybody into the army.” So that was basically the response of the Orthodox. This was a few years ago, but what we’re seeing now is actually that the antagonization of the Orthodox religious community backfired, as usually these scapegoating measures do. And what was already a rising trend in the Orthodox and the religious joining the ranks in the army, their main contention was not so much the oppression of Palestinians by the Israeli army, but that the Israeli army did not offer accommodations for religious Jews. And so the Israeli army over the years, starting all the way back in 2000 started accommodating religious Jews, and as a result there was a rise in the enlistment of religious and Orthodox Yeshiva students. However, when they were antagonized with this new party, they basically, the numbers plummeted. They started lobbying. They started protesting. And what you’re seeing now is the end tail of that historic moment.
AARON MATÉ: Okay. Lia, that’s really interesting. I just want to clarify for anyone who doesn’t understand the different types of Jews inside Israel. You have secular Jews, you have religious Jews, Orthodox Jews and then the ultra-Orthodox Jews, who we’re talking about, who as you said study in Yeshivas, in religious schools all day. And for decades, for decades, they’ve been exempted from military service. Now, that means tens of thousands of them don’t serve in the military. So, for someone who doesn’t know about all these distinctions, can you just explain why that is? Why this group gets an exemption and how that’s played out for the last, more than fifty years?
LIA TARACHANSKY: Shortly after the 1948 ethnic cleansing of the majority of Palestinians and the creation of the state of Israel by a movement that was secular and socialist. There was a historic meeting between the first prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion and one of the chief rabbis of the Orthodox community which at the time numbered less than 1,000 individuals. And in that meeting the rabbi basically said, “Look, you guys are secular. You don’t even believe in God, most of you. We are Orthodox and in the long tradition of Judaism, which spans 4,000 years, we believe that we must pray for the redemption of our collective soul. Therefore, why don’t you give us an exemption? We are not going to serve in your secular army. We are going to dedicate ourselves to praying on everybody’s behalf.” At the time, like I said, the number of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox in Israel was less than a 1,000, and Ben-Gurion basically agreed.
Today, we’re looking at a percentage of basically a quarter of children in Israeli schools are ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox. We’re looking at of the larger population they are about 16% percent of the population. So now fast forward almost 70 years, and we’re looking at a population which is growing much faster than the secular population. The average Orthodox home has seven children. This community is still exempt. The men don’t work in the majority of cases and they don’t serve in the Israeli army, which means that in their families either the women work or the family is dependent on their community, on donations, or on the state for welfare. Naturally, this has created a rift between the secular and the religious in the sense that secular feel that they are subsidizing the religious practices of the Orthodox. Now, this could be reformed if it was properly analyzed and if the government came up with a series of plans. But what instead happens is that various political forces use this rift in order to basically propel themselves into power.
AARON MATÉ: Lia, you mentioned earlier that the ultra-Orthodox were scapegoated to serve political ends. I’m wondering now if there is a similar sort of utility on the other side when it comes to Netanyahu. He’s facing a major corruption investigation. Could he turn to the ultra-Orthodox for support and meet their demands, try to negate this Supreme Court order through whatever means he can in exchange for their help in keeping him in power?
LIA TARACHANSKY: Yeah, well, we’ve seen from Netanyahu’s previous record that he uses various groups in the parliament for various purposes, and over his four elections, he’s actually manipulated the Orthodox groups one way or another. At one point he included them and used their parties for his advantage and other times he excluded them. So, you’re exactly right. The Orthodox here being largely unrepresented in Israeli politics. The parties that do represent them tend to be small and have very little access to power. We’re not talking about the national religious who are the settlers; we’re talking about the Orthodox and the ultra-Orthodox. And so they’re basically being used as an addendum to one coalition or another: first the opposition, then the ruling coalition, then the opposition again. So, I have no doubt that this, once again, flare-up of this decades-long conflict is going to be manipulated by both sides.
AARON MATÉ: Finally, Lia, I’m wondering if you could talk about this in the context of the difficulties and the internal contradictions of having a Jewish state, a state based around the supremacy of a certain religion. The main issue with Israel in this regard that most people recognize, is that establishing a Jewish state has meant suppressing the indigenous population, expelling them from their homes, giving them second-class status inside Israel and then ruling over them in the occupied territories.
But in the early Zionist movement, there were people who were considered Zionists who didn’t want to have a expressly Jewish state for this reason because when you have a Jewish state, then the question, well, one of the question that comes up is how do you define a Jew? And even inside the Jewish state you have different categories of Jews and that leads to a separation and hierarchy of rights. I wanna get your thoughts on that.
LIA TARACHANSKY: Yeah, and to add to that ambiguity, Judaism, unlike Christianity or other religions, is not strictly a religion. Unlike other religions, we as Jews do not hold one’s belief in God as the central tenet of being a member of our community. It’s an ethnicity. It’s a civilization. Many different people define Jewishness in different ways. And the majority of Jews in Israel are actually secular, so what does that mean?
Israel was created as what the Israeli political scientist, Oren Yiftachel calls an ethnocracy. Ethnocracy by definition means that it’s one ethnic group controlling other ethnic groups usually with a veneer of democracy. And he uses other kinds of states, which are also ethnocracies, the most powerful of them of course is Japan to demonstrate what are the issues with that kind of system of power. What you have inevitably in Israel dozens of laws that in their very language distinguish between Jewish citizenship and non-Jewish citizenship and many, many more that in practice distinguish between Jewish citizens and non-Jewish citizens. And I’m not even talking about the residents of East Jerusalem who are not citizens and of course, the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who have no state that they belong to because they are under military occupation, and the millions of Palestinian refugees around the world who are still tied to this land and have zero status. This is the kind of effect that is created when you have an ethnocracy.
Now, the reason I make the point that Judaism is not only a religion is because Israel, as you said, was created by secular Jews. However, a portion of the Jewish community, which is religious, has always seen Zionism as a stepping stone towards something more important, which is theocracy. And what we’re seeing in Israel today unfolding is basically the rise of a theocratic movement, which used to be just a small number of individuals following a Kahanist, meaning the ideology of Rabbi Meir Kahane, an idea that Israel should be a Jewish-only state and that that state should be a theocracy based on the biblical Halakhah laws, which are very similar to Sharia law. Today, this kind of idea of a theocracy in Israel is actually on the rise to the point where it’s becoming a majority amongst the religious Jews. And we’re now seeing a strong coalition in parliament that believes in a theocratic movement for the state of Israel, which of course would mean the end of a secular state there.
These kinds of dangerous trends are possible because Israel was created on exactly this ambiguity. Its Declaration of Independence calls itself a Jewish and democratic state. But of course, Israel does not define anywhere what it means to be Jewish, what it’s going to mean when it says democratic or how it’s going to rule everyone who lives from the river to the sea, meaning the state portion.
AARON MATÉ: Lia Tarachansky, journalist, documentary filmmaker, thanks very much.
LIA TARACHANSKY: Thank you for having me.
AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.