“The Identity of the Israeli People is at Stake” - Understanding the Current Situation in Eretz Yisroel
By Rabbi Moshe Boylan
An Interview with Rav Moshe Meiselman
Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Toras Moshe, Yerushalayim
The chareidi community is currently grappling with the plans of the recently elected Israeli government, particularly the efforts to draft bnei hayeshivos into the Israeli army.
As rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Yerushalayim, Rav Moshe Meiselman is directly affected by the situation. His insight and perspective can help us understand the root causes of the current reality and the mindset we must have in standing strong against the proposed legislation of the government coalition.
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What is the proper hashkafic view of the current situation regarding the drafting of yeshiva bochurim into IDF?
In order to understand the current circumstance, we must go back almost 100 years in time. In 1917, the British army conquered Palestine - as it was called at the time - from the Turks. Around 28 years later, in the aftermath of World War II, it became clear that the British could not maintain their control over Palestine and had to give over control to someone else.
In November 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine to two different groups, the Jews and the Arabs. The question was which members of the Jewish community the British would hand control over to. In order for the Jewish Agency to represent a united front, there had to be a status quo that would allow for the continued existence of religious people in Eretz Yisroel. This would allow the religious Jewish community to consent to the Jewish Agency representing them - at least to some extent - in its desire to found a state. The status quo was thus agreed upon at this time, with the consent and participation of many Torah leaders.
The status quo was handed down by David Ben-Gurion in Yerushalayim. In a short letter, which he signed on June 19, 1947, he declared to Agudas Yisroel that the Jewish Agency’s executive empowered him to promise that Shabbos would be the day of rest; kashrus would be observed in the kitchens of all government-related institutions; laws of personal status would be administered so as to prevent the division of Beit Yisrael (in other words, according to the laws of the Torah, in keeping with the Orthodox interpretation); chareidi education, like the other educational streams, would be given autonomy; and the “government would not undermine, in any way, the religious consciousness or religious conscience of any part of the Jewish nation.” (This can be found at http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4339456,00.html.)
In summation, in order for the Zionists to claim to the British that they represented everyone, they had to have a status quo. Ultimately, this status quo, which preceded the founding of the State of Israel, enabled the transition of government from the British to the Zionists. This was also the reason that Agudas Yisroel agreed to sign the Declaration of Independence, as they felt that the special needs of their community would still be represented, even if the state would not be totally religious.
The “social contract” that the whole State of Israel was founded upon was the status quo just discussed.
How long was this status quo to be in effect?
When the State of Israel was founded, a number of major issues came up that required for this status quo to be extended in a number of ways. During the first two years after the founding of the state, the issue of the participation of bnei hayeshivos in the Israeli army was discussed and determined. Prime Minister Ben Gurion decided to allow thebnei hayeshivos to have a dichuy tzava (a deferral from being drafted into the army). As Yair Lapid mentioned in his famous Kiryat Ono speech, the reason that Ben Gurion agreed to this condition was because he thought that the bnei hayeshivos were anyway an endangered species that would go away.
Meanwhile, everyone else in the country - besides the bnei hayeshivos - was expected to serve for three years in the Israeli army. One would think that this was due to security concerns. While this is partially true, there was another, more sinister reason for requiring almost everyone to serve in the Israeli army. Ben Gurion mentioned that the army was the social leveler, enabling all the diverse elements of Israeli society to be united and molded in a new Israeli mentality and nationality.
In what way was the army to impact the culture and atmosphere of the country?
The army served the purpose of allowing Ben Gurion and the Zionists to impose their anti-Torah lifestyle, philosophy and ideology on the thousands who would serve in Tzahal. One must understand that being in the army means that soldiers must totally subjugate themselves to the rules and orders of their superiors. This enables those running the army to create a new social identity.
This was the reason that the gedolim leading the chareidi community insisted very strongly that bnei hayeshivos not go to the Israeli army. They rejected the new social identity that the Zionists were trying to impose on the residents of the country.
Was this the reason that the gedolim felt that joining the army at the time was “yeihoreig ve’al yaavor”?
Indeed. We can now understand the famous story of the Brisker Rov zt”l refusing to sign a statement that sheirut leumi was yeihoreig ve’al yaavor. The Brisker Rov said that if he would sign it, it would sound like only army/sheirut leumi for women was yeihoreig ve’al yaavor, but not army service for men. In fact, the Brisker Rov felt that even for men to go to the Israeli army was yeihoreig ve’al yaavor. We can now appreciate why this is so, as the Israeli army was meant to create a new social identity to replace any commitment to Torah life, and it would therefore be yeihoreig ve’al yaavor.
How effective was Ben Gurion’s plan?
It is important to realize that Ben Gurion’s plan was, in fact, successful to a large extent. Thousands of previously religious immigrants were successfully indoctrinated with Zionism through the army and ultimately lost their commitment to Torah. Even those who remained shomer mitzvos were given a new identity that was antithetical to true Torah values and a true Torah lifestyle. Our society demands that we be more than observant secularists. Torah is also a whole outlook on life that encompasses the whole personality.
The phenomenon of abandonment of mitzvos as a result of the army is not unique to the early period of the founding of the state. In a recent article, Yonason Rosenblum quoted Rabbi Melamed, a religious leader in the Dati Leumi community, as saying that 25% of the Dati Leumi people who enter the Israeli army ultimately become chilonim.
On Lag Ba’omer, Naftali Bennett visited Bnei Brak and declared that the lifestyle of the chareidi community is a greater existential threat to Israel than the Iranian nuclear threat. What Ben Gurion said sixty-five years ago our enemies say today. He declared that he will force us to integrate into secular Israeli society. In fact, one of Bennett’s campaign goals was to make Sunday a day of rest so that the Dati Leumi community could share cultural events with the secular community and achieve cultural unity. While his primary goal is to secularize the chareidim, his secondary goal is to do likewise to the Dati Leumi community.
Were the issue one of national defense, there would not be an option of sheirut leumi, national service. If the goal is one of acculturation, then the army is only one tool. In the words of one activist, “If you serve in sheirut leumi, your children will already serve in the army.”
How about Nachal Chareidi?
Even the Nachal Chareidi units have not been successful in maintaining commitment to Torah. Very high percentages of those who enter Nachal Chareidi have removed themselves from Torah observance. Even among those who have maintained observance, their identity as Torah Jews has been seriously undermined. Even some of the leaders of the Nachal Chareidi units have complained about this and have also mentioned that they are often met with a lack of flexibility from the army people in meeting the needs of chareidi individuals. This has extended to the Shachar group, which is another chareidi segment of the army. Last summer, the chief recruiter for Shachar wanted to resign when he saw the negative impact on the Shachar recruits.
What is the proper response to those in Israeli society who say, “Why should our sons go out on the front lines and put their lives at risk, while your children get to sit in the safe confines of their yeshivos or homes?”
The answer is dual. First, we cannot even discuss this under the current climate. When the issue will be only one of defense, then we can discuss the defense issue. However, since this is not even the major issue, to discuss it on this level is meaningless. Since the government will not in the foreseeable future desist from its historic goal of forcing us into their social mold, I do not see that this question will be relevant for a long time.
Second, we must realize ourselves that the greatest defense of the country is our learning of Torah. The Netziv writes in Haamek Dovor that when society is involved with arayos, Eretz Yisroel spits them out of the land and they will go into golus. The learning of Torah is what protects us from this horrible punishment. However, if those who learn Torah are weakened and adopt the prevailing lifestyle, then this defense is also weakened and the land will spit all of us out. Our learning of Torah and rejection of their lifestyle is what is keeping us safe in Eretz Yisroel.
If the chareidi community doesn’t want the Israeli army to impose its sense of social identity on us, where does our social identity come from instead?
We can answer this question with the words of the maskil, Chaim Nachman Bialik, a former student in Volozhin, who called the yeshivos “beit hayotzer lenishmat haumah” (the place where the soul of the nation is created). By spending our initial years in the environment of the yeshivos hakedoshos, we are able to imbibe and attain the social identity of the chareidi community, which is the ideology and life of true Torah commitment.
Now let us continue to the next part of the social contract. Shortly after the issue of army participation was resolved, another issue had to be dealt with. Where would the chareidi community be educated? The leaders of the Torah community understood that if the secular state would run our system of education, this would prevent us from perpetuating our culture and mesorah. As said before, the yeshivos are the place where our nationality is formed.
How was this accomplished in light of the efforts of the government to impose its social views on its citizens?
This issue was resolved in three ways. Certain schools in the chareidi community (e.g., the Eidah Hachareidis schools) maintained complete and total separation from the secular state. The mainstream chareidi chadorim and yeshivos ketanos initially did not take any money from the government in order to maintain independence. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the government tried to bring a greater part of the chareidi school system under its wing and began funding yeshivos ketanos and chadorim to a large degree. They promised them educational independence. While some were nervous about becoming economically dependent on the government, most chadorim and yeshivos ketanos accepted the governmental offer. Even the Chinuch Atzmai schools, which always received some money from the government, insisted on having their educational system and curriculum independent from the government.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government used the power of their own schools to indoctrinate students with a non-Torah ideology and approach. As mentioned previously, thousands of immigrants - such as the Teimanim, the immigrants from North Africa, the Yaldei Tehran, etc. - were removed from the Torah way of life that they had been accustomed to in the countries they came from. Our Torah leaders from the very beginning insisted that we are the only ones who will dictate the nature of our educational system.
Using the power of indoctrination of the Israeli schools and the Israeli army, the government succeeded in creating a new Israeli social identity that took numerous people away from the way of Torah.
How does this all apply to the current realities in 2013?
Fast-forwarding about sixty years to our current situation, the yeshivos and mosdos hachinuch that continue our mesorah have successfully helped many to maintain the Torah, despite the danger presented by those in the non-Torah community in Eretz Yisroel who want to remove us from it. Meanwhile, many in the non-Torah world have emigrated from Israel and/or have a relatively smaller birth rate compared to the chareidi population.
As Yair Lapid mentioned in one of his speeches, about 50% of the first graders entering schools in Israel are religious. This means that in 25 years, larger and larger percentages of Israel will be religious, with a higher percentage of that being chareidi.
So not all is bleak. There seem to be reasons to be encouraged.
Yes, there are, but while we may be happy to hear this, people like Yair Lapid and his partners are horrified that there may be a chareidi takeover of the country. In order to prevent this from happening, the members of the coalition are planning to destroy the status quo that has enabled chareidi Jews to function and flourish in Eretz Yisroel for the last 65 years.
The way to undo the status quo is to require bnei hayeshivos to join the Israeli army, thus enabling them to be influenced by and indoctrinated with the non-Torah ideology and way of life. Without the “beit hayotzer lenishmat haumah,” the social identity of the chareidi community will be replaced by one that has chareidim becoming like the rest of Israeli society.
In addition to implementing a mandatory draft, how does the government coalition wish to impact the yeshivos and educational institutions?
The current coalition plans on imposing requirements regarding the curriculum of mosdos hachinuch in the chareidi community. This will be in the form of serious adjustments to the curriculum. However, it also represents a destruction of the independence of our educational system. Thus, in addition to trying to influence chareidim through requiring entrance into the Israeli army, the government is attempting to cause the children of chareidim to be influenced by the secular world through the standards imposed by secular and non-Torah individuals. In addition, even chareidi mosdos haTorah which educate talmidim from chutz la’aretz are facing proposed budget cuts.
The secular element in Israel, and even some segments of the religious sector, use the term “share the burden” to express their feelings that the chareidi community is not contributing its fair share.
It must be crystal clear that the ultimate purpose of the new gezeiros of the coalition is not “shivuy netel” - their catch word for saying that everyone must contribute equally in society. Instead, the purpose of these laws and requirements is nothing less than a blatant attempt to undermine the chareidi community.
Part of this modern-day attack on the chareidi community is the fact that Lapid, Bennett and their allies are attempting to demonize and delegitimize the entire chareidi community. Thus, the actions of a few incorrect and misguided individuals in the chareidi community - such as those who acted in a crazy fashion in the Beit Shemesh incident last year - are used to tarnish and paint the entire chareidi community as backwards and illegitimate.
The attempt to portray the chareidi community as being discriminatory toward women, referred to as “hadrat noshim,” is part of this attempted demonization and delegitimization.
A similar campaign has been waged by the secular, leftist community against the mitnachalim, the settler community. Not that long ago, this community was respected in Israeli society. Through a concerted attempt to delegitimize them, the leftists have succeeded in having them viewed negatively by the average Israeli citizen. This began with the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin and ended with the destruction of the community in Gaza.
One has to remember that the settlers’ efforts were undertaken with governmental approval and active encouragement. Without first demonizing them and delegitimizing them, the government would not have had the ability to destroy them. Now the secularists have set their sights on delegitimizing the chareidi community.
What is the proper response to the “share the burden” claim?
In order to counteract the negative publicity campaign against the chareidi community, it is important to realize the falsity of the canard that “chareidim don’t pay their fair share in Israeli society,” otherwise known as “shivuy netel.”
Even if nobody in the chareidi community worked, they would still be paying tremendous amounts of money to the Israeli government. The reason for this is that the Israeli taxation system - unlike the U.S. system - is especially regressive. In Israel, there is a large sales tax called V.A.T of 17% on all goods and services, with the exception until now of fruits and vegetables. Additionally, there is an extremely large tax on land and new construction. This means that whenever any chareidi buys a dirah for his son or son-in-law, which is standard whenever chareidim get married in Israel, they are in effect paying hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxes to the Israeli government. These two represent the largest part of the income of the national government. Income tax is not the major source of national governmental income as it is in the United States.
It is also important to realize that a very large portion of the top financial echelon in Israel is comprised of chareidim. This is in addition to the numerous chareidim who are gainfully employed. (This number has increased in the last number of years.) As an example, in the shul I daven in, Chanichei Hayeshivos in Har Nof, at least 60% of the mispallelim are working.
Shai Piron of the Yesh Atid party, the current Minister of Education, was interviewed by the Israeli press for an Independence Day article. His point was simple: If you don’t listen to me, I won’t give you money. He made a simple mistake. He is a public representative representing the entire citizenry and dispensing public tax money, not his private money. We are all tax-paying citizens entitled to our own lifestyle and a portion of our tax money.
The rosh yeshiva has remarked in the past that the government’s efforts to impose its view on chareidi Jews is unprecedented.
In fact, it is. The attempt of the current Israeli governmental coalition to impose its standards on an entire minority - chareidim - is totally against the concept of democracy as espoused by Jefferson and as practiced in America. While Bennett and Lapid may have the democratic right to believe that chareidim should be educated a certain way, they have no right to try to force this down their throats and prevent them from educating their children and young adults in the way that they have for thousands of years. Hamilton’s idea of the majority electing an elite to manage the affairs of the primitive masses was rejected by the American people as it was rejected by all western democracies.
While Jeffersonian democracy is not “Torah miSinai,” it is important to keep the above point in mind when explaining our position to those outside of the machaneh haTorah.
What exactly should be done by the chareidi community in order to fight against the current suggested plan of the Israeli government?
Clearly, American Torah Jewry, both individually and collectively, must make strong statements that we will not tolerate this non-democratic attempt to uproot and undermine the very existence of the chareidi community in Eretz Yisroel. By voicing one’s opinion, one is not an enabler to the suggested plan of the current government.
Are we to reach out to those in the secular or Religious Zionist camps and try to explain our outlook and hashkafos or are we to ignore them and simply follow our mesorah without bothering to respond to or interact with them?
Obviously, we must reach out. However, it has to be done in a clear way. We want to be able to keep our lifestyle, and the issue is not one of defense or imposing our will on the Israeli secular majority. We want to continue the social contract that has enabled us to exist and flourish over the past sixty-five years. We do not want a social and cultural identity imposed on us. Only when the kulturkampf ceases together with the demonization and delegitimization can we sit down calmly and see how both cultures can coexist. Yair Lapid’s challenge in his speech in Kiryat Ono to jointly share the burden of managing Israeli society is a pipe dream under current circumstances.
Dov Lipman, an MK with Yesh Atid, Lapid’s party, has distorted the views of his rebbi, Rav Yaakov Weinberg zt”l, and the mesorah of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel. As a talmid of the yeshiva, I can personally attest that the roshei yeshiva - both past and present - have nothing whatsoever to do with Lipman’s ideologies and suggested policies.
In fact, Rav Aharon Feldman, current rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, wrote: “The views expressed by MK Dov Lipman do not represent the views or the education of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel. Furthermore, the statements attributed to our former rosh hayeshiva, Rav Yaakov Weinberg zt”l, were taken out of context and misrepresent his opinion.”
Can the rosh yeshiva share any final comments on this matter?
“Mei’oyevai techakmeini mitzvosecha” can be understood as telling us that we can learn from the enemies of Torah what the Torah commands us to do. If a person like Dov Lipman is having a speaking tour in the U.S., including at many Modern Orthodox mosdos hachinuch, this is because he understands correctly the importance of public opinion in the U.S. By influencing public opinion in America, Lipman is trying to help his party succeed in their plans for the chareidi community, r”l.
We can learn from these misguided people the importance of American public opinion and likewise voice our opinion loudly and clearly so as not to enable the enemies of Torah to determine how the chareidi community in Eretz Yisroel should educate the future generations.
Again, I cannot say it enough: We must realize clearly that the issue at hand is not shivuy netel. The real issue is that the very identity of the Israeli people is at stake. Will our identity be formed by the beit hayotzeir lenishmat haumah, our yeshivos hakedoshos, or by the Israeli government and army?
At the very same time, the government is attacking the chareidi community at all angles. This includes, besides drafting yeshiva bochurim into the army, proposing new lower standards for geirus, new requirements for mosdos hachinuch, new standards to be accepted at the Kosel Hamaarovi, and numerous other measures to destroy our community and lifestyle.
These things are all aimed at undermining the social contract - the “status quo” - which has enabled the chareidi community to exist and flourish for the last six and a half decades. We are fighting for our very existence and ability to function.
“Eis tzarah hee l’Yaakov umimenah yivoshei’a.” Chassidishe seforim explain that “mimenah” can be spelled as “meiHaman.” The yeshuah of Klal Yisroel can even come from Haman, as the eis tzarah was reversed - venahafoch hu - and the terrible decrees of Haman led to the rejuvenation of the Jewish people and the reacceptance of Torah - “kimu vekiblu haYehudim.” May we likewise be zocheh to this kiyum, and may the terrible gezeiros of our enemies be reversed, leading to a yeshuah for Klal Yisroel bichlal ubifrat. Thank you to the rosh yeshiva for taking the time to share some of the history related to the matter and for his Torah perspective.