As the Israeli government prepares to present the Knesset with its bill to draft yeshiva students into the army, the Haredi community is seething. But even as it kicks into reactionary mode, you’ve got to wonder whether, paradoxically, this could present an opportunity for some limited advancement among Haredi women.
The Haredi media in Israel is abuzz with talk of a possible “march of the million” against the plans to get currently-exempt Haredi men into uniform and criminalize those who ignore draft orders.
The Haredi leaders who are talking about a march saw the “march of the million” during the social protests of 2011 (which was big but didn’t quite reach a million). They believe that if their community can replicate that kind of mass activism, Israeli society and the government will need to take notice.
But there’s an obvious problem. In secular society, if you have a million people, you have a million potential demonstrators. In Haredi society, a million people gives you just 500,000 potential demonstrators.
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish volunteer to the Israeli Army’s Nahal Haredi brigade. / Getty Images
Plans to draft ultra-Orthodox men to Israel’s army are moving ahead — complete with a surprise.
There has been lots of tough talk regarding the need for universal service, but there was a widespread expectation that the government would stop short of criminalizing yeshiva students who refuse to serve. However, yesterday a committee formatting the draft law decided that draft refusers could face jail.
This has proved intensely controversial — and not only with Haredim, who are determined that they won’t be forced into the army. That’s because it raises a question mark about how realistic it really is to get Haredim into uniform.
A schoolgirl listens to language class on November 4, 2002 in Jerusalem. / Getty Images
An Israeli high school teacher faces dismissal after a student complained that he expressed radical “leftist” views in the classroom. In a letter to Education Minister Shay Piron, 12th-grade student Sapir Sabah accused Adam Verete — who teaches philosophy in the small northern Israeli town of Kiryat Tivon — of saying the IDF is “unusually brutal” and uses rhetoric in class that disparages the state.
Since news broke, Verete has received threats to his life and other forms of slander and incitement, for which he has filed a complaint with the police. It didn’t help that former MK Michael Ben Ari — a right-wing Kahanist notorious for his Jewish supremacist and incendiary views — posted Sabah’s letter on his Facebook page, immediately turning the issue into a public left-right political battle. Sabah herself has in the past argued in class that all Arabs should be thrown into the sea and also called Verete a traitor, adding that treasonous citizens like him are punished by death. No one from the school has condemned her hate speech or her incitement against Verete, instead chalking it up to “her opinion.”
In what can only be described as a modern-day Israeli McCarthy-style tribunal, administrators from ORT — the non-profit network of state-subsidized schools that employs Verete — held a hearing last week with him to discuss the allegations. Portions of the audio recording of the hearing released on news sites reveal a hostile group of administrators uninterested in getting to the bottom of the issue, or in discussing the boundaries of democracy and critical thinking in school.
By all accounts, it was a nerve-wracking time for the 75,000 Israeli reservists called up in preparation for a ground offensive in Gaza last week.
“The next days were an emotional roller coaster ride,” wrote Marc Goldberg, who reported to duty on November 18, in a blog post for The Times of Israel. “I was prepped to go in and then stood down, only to be prepped to go back in again and stood down again and again…most of the time was spent hanging around waiting for something to happen, waiting for the final decision to get us moving.”
And when soldiers spend their time hanging around and waiting, things happen. Things like a bunch of reservists doing a khaki-clad rendition of the international smash hit “Gangnam Style.” Ariel Maoz, apparently one of the dancing soldiers, posted the video on his Facebook page and it went viral, attracting the attention of the news media.
On a more serious note, Goldberg wrote of arguments among members of his units as to whether the IDF should and would actually enter Gaza. “Then word came down about the ceasefire. Though there many who were angry that we wouldn’t be going in, the sense of relief that slowly swept through the company was palpable,” he wrote.
A few days before the anniversary of Gilad Shalit’s return home from captivity in Gaza, the story of another missing Israeli soldier has come to an altogether more tragic end.
Majdy Halabi, an ethnic Druze, disappeared in May 2005 near his home in northern Israel. Today, in a brief statement, the Israeli military said that his body has been found.
In 2008 his family received a phone call from a prisoner in an Israeli jail suggesting that Halabi had been abducted to the West Bank. Earlier this year three prisoners tried to negotiate a plea bargain in return for information on the location of the body. But in the end, it was a hiker who found the remains in a forest near Halabi’s home, suggesting it was a more mundane crime.
“The remains were discovered approximately two weeks ago, near the town of Usfiya, and were identified by the Institute of Forensic Medicine,” said the statement. “The circumstances of his death are currently under investigation by the Israeli Police.”
Ynet’s Atilla Shomfalvi quotes unnamed government insiders who say Prime Minister Netanyahu can’t order a military strike against Iran, even though it’s his decision to make, because the security establishment is unanimously opposed and the cabinet won’t approve an action over the defense chiefs’ opposition.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared last night [Tuesday] that he is responsible for deciding on military action in Iran, but senior political figures involved in the discussions reckon that in light of the determined opposition at this point of the heads of the security establishment—the chief of staff, the director of the Mossad, the chief of military intelligence, the IDF chief of operations and the heads of Mossad directorates—it is unlikely that ministers asked to vote for an attack will do so.
Shomfalvi writes that although Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak strongly favor an attack, Netanyahu has permitted his ministers to debate the issue freely behind closed doors. The eight-minister security cabinet reportedly is evenly split between advocates and opponents of a strike, as it has been for months.
No one should have been surprised that a photo of two male Israeli soldiers holding hands would have gone viral and provoked a huge response after the IDF posted it on Monday on its Facebook page in honor of Pride Month. As of Tuesday evening, it had garnered 9,500 likes, 7,330 shares, and 1,360 comments. Most of the reactions were pretty much expected, but one was not.
Of course, it didn’t take long for the religious authorities to chime in with their disapproval. While the IDF and the Foreign Ministry were proud that they were declaring to the world that Israel treats all its soldiers equally,” the IDF rabbinate was far less so. Behind closed doors, military rabbis were saying that they thought the posting of the photo was inappropriate, because it was insensitive to the feelings of religious soldiers. Such a public display is “confusing for religious soldiers,” they said. “People need to remember that there are religious and Haredi soldiers in the army, as well.” It’s highly unlikely, though, that anyone has forgotten this fact, given the disproportionate influence the religious authorities have had over military life lately.
Then there was the anti-Israel accusations that this was just “pinkwashing in action”—the notion that Israel promotes its image as a country open to and tolerant of homosexuality in order to draw attention away from its policies toward the Palestinians.
My friend Aviad Stier, who lives in Herzliya, told me that he, as a gay man, wasn’t too thrilled with the photo for other reasons. “I wasn’t wild about the picture to begin with, seeing that the soldiers are shown from behind, like the [closeted] 1980’s all over again,” he wrote to me on Facebook. “But I guess it’s nice to know LGBT people are mainstream enough to be flaunted around by the IDF,” he conceded.
It was a no brainer to predict all three of these reactions. But what threw me for a bit of a loop was the prominently placed article on the homepage of The Times of Israel, its headline screaming, “Army’s ‘gay soldiers’ photo was staged, is misleading.” The reporter did some digging and proved that the scene was not spontaneously captured, but rather staged with two men serving in the IDF Spokesperson’s Office (one actually gay, the other straight) posing as boyfriends (or at least two men close enough to be holding hands).
I guess we can all breathe a sigh of relief now that Andrew Adler has resigned as publisher of the Atlanta Jewish Times. His January 13 column, proposing that Israel might consider assassinating President Obama, was enormously embarrassing to Israel, its supporters and Jews everywhere.
Removing him from his visible position makes life a lot easier for the rest of us, doesn’t it?
One could argue that Adler’s outburst shouldn’t cause Jews to cringe; after all, we know that supporting Israel and loving America are not incompatible. We can’t be blamed collectively for the blathering of one fool, even if he provided fuel for the fevered imaginings of those who believe Jews are disloyal. We should have outgrown the old habit of worrying about what others think of us. Proud Jews do what they need to do, not what the world tells them to do. On the other hand, we also worry that Israel is waging a war against delegitimization and isolation, fighting for its good name and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. That is, we sneer at the opinions of the world, but we’re also worried sick about the opinions of the world. I’m sure those two thoughts fit together somehow, though I’m not sure how.
More and more frequently, I am confronted with alarming examples of the growing chasm between Israeli Jews and American Jews. Sometimes it is the Israeli misperception of American Jewish life that rankles me. On other occasions, I am dumbfounded by the lack of understanding of Israeli realities and sensibilities on the part of American Jews.
I would put an opinion piece by Joshua Bloom, Director of Israel Programs for Rabbis for Human Rights-North America published Tuesday in the Huffington Post into the latter category. In his article, Blum criticizes Gadna experiences for North American teens visiting Israel. Gadna (an acronym for g’dudei noar ivri, which means “the Hebrew youth battalion”), is the Israel Defense Force’s pre-military program for pre-army age teens. Gadna is staffed by IDF soldiers, and a minimum week-long Gadna stint has, in recent years, become a typical component (sometimes optional, sometimes mandatory) of many youth group Israel adventures.
Bloom seems to think that there is no justifiable reason for a week of Gadna on these trips. For him, American Jewish youth learning about life in the army, visiting different kinds of military bases, engaging in physical challenges, learning orienteering and survival skills, getting briefed on IDF history, and training to shoot a weapon amount to “the promotion of violent institutions.”
I beg to differ. I personally did Gadna for three summers in a row when I was a teenager back in the mid-1980’s, well before it was a common thing to do. And I didn’t just do one-week stints — I toughed it out for six weeks at a time. Those 18 weeks were probably the most formative ones of my life. Looking back nearly 30 years later, I can say unequivocally that I emerged from those summers not only more physically fit, but also a different, more aware person. And let me assure you, I did not turn out to be a promoter of violent institutions.