By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Last December, Jerusalem was under siege because of the snowstorm; today Sunday it’s under siege because of the half-a-million or more ultra-Orthodox haredim due to come out to demonstrate against the proposed conscription law that would not only compel their young men to serve in the army like every other Jewish Israeli but to be treated as deserters if they refuse.
The haredim see this as an attack on the Torah the study of which they say contributes more to the defense of the Jewish people and to Jewish continuity than the armed forces that defend Israel’s borders. Haredi propaganda warns against Jews being jailed in the ostensibly Jewish state as punishment for their service to Torah.
Whatever else haredim learn in their studies, obedience to those they regard as their masters and betters is paramount. Because their luminaries have decreed that there will be a mass demonstration, virtually all their male followers, even young children, will be there. Later today or tomorrow the world will see pictures of a sea of black hats swaying on the streets and squares at the entrance to the city. Haredim from all over the country are expected: the city will be inaccessible to everybody else.
Haredi leaders don’t apologize for it. Instead, they remind us that Tel Aviv was virtually closed off last Friday because of the marathon, the pagan antithesis to Torah study reflected even in the Greek allusion used to describe the race.
The purpose of the haredi equivalent is, of course, to show the numeric and thus political clout of the ultra-Orthodox community in this country in order to make sure that politicians who want to stay in power take note.
At the time of the demonstration, the prime minister will be on his way to the United States to speak with Obama, to address the annual conference of the Israel Lobby (AIPAC) and to urge the tycoons in Silicon Valley to cooperate with and invest in Israel. But he’ll be well briefed about the demonstration and, no doubt, reminded of the high price he may have to pay by having in his government the notionally liberal Yesh Atid – the staunch advocate of the conscription law – and not, as before, the haredim.
He’ll probably cave in, because secular though he seems to be, he has much more in common with the right-wing politics of the religious right than with secular liberals. It’s, therefore, reasonable that the demonstration will yield unwelcome results and religious extremism will have a great day. Its clout will soon be manifest, inter alia, in the election of a chief rabbi of Jerusalem. The secular mayor’s favorite candidate is said to be known for his rabidly racist views but reputed to be very learned in the things that matter to haredim and for which they’ll be demonstrating today. By virtue of his learning he’s considered to be a defender of Israel, perhaps even more crucial for the security of Israel than the chief of staff or the minister of defense, who once was the chief of staff.
I’m among those religious Jews who believe that knowledge of Torah in all its manifestations is essential in making Israel a Jewish state. But I also believe that every citizen of suitable age and good health must defend the country. I want the haredi boys (and girls) to serve as my grandchildren have served and are serving. And I claim that my reasons are no less religious – in terms of Israel’s and the Jewish people’s precarious situation in the world, perhaps even more religious – than those claimed by the haredim.