This week: Attempts to burn down Jerusalem * Ultra-Orthodox fear recruitment * Israel says goodbye to its seventh Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir

Cutting the baby in two


Forest near Jerusalem. My photo

While Colorado firefighters battled against a huge wildfire, Jerusalem’s firefighters were busy as well. A rash of forest fires has sprouted up over the past weeks in the Jerusalem area, an area mostly covered by forests of highly flammable pine-trees. Last week, authorities revealed that in the past month and a half, over 1000 fires have been extinguished, 70% of which are suspected to be the result of arson.

In one fire, on the eastern slope of Mount Scopus, just outside the Hebrew University campus, Arabs from the village of Issawiya set fire to a field that caused damage to a border patrol base. Several border patrol soldiers suffered smoke related injuries. During my military service I had the pleasure of guarding that base. One of the first things we were warned about when we arrived there was to beware of the frequent attempts by the villagers to burn down the base. That was back in 2005. It appears nothing has changed.

On Tuesday (June 26th), a number of fires were set alongside the highway at the main entrance to Jerusalem from the west. No one could enter or leave Jerusalem from the west for most of the day. The fire very nearly reached the houses at the edge of Mevaseret Tzion, a small town just outside Jerusalem. By evening, the flames were put out, but the beautiful green landscape that greets you when one comes to Jerusalem has been reduced to ashes.

Forest near Jersualem. My photo.

The Bible tells the story of King Solomon who is required to make a decision between two women who call on his assistance in deciding which of the two women is the true mother of a baby. Both women claim the baby is theirs. Solomon suggests they share the baby by cutting it in two, so that each woman can have half of the baby. One woman agrees, the other screams “She can have the baby, as long as he is not harmed”, and thus proves that she is the true mother of the baby.

These fires seem to be a new form of Arab terrorism perpetrated by Arab extremists who would “cut the baby in half”. When Arab terrorists set the Land of Israel on fire, they are actually saying, “If we can’t have the land, neither will the Jews”. But in doing so, they are also proving who is the true ‘mother of the baby’.


Equality in bearing the burden- Military Service

In my last post I mentioned the legal crisis regarding military service in the Ultra-Orthodox community and promised a more detailed explanation. Here it is.

When Israel was founded in 1948, the Jewish people had just emerged from one of the darkest periods in history. The magnificent Jewish communities of Europe, made up mainly of Orthodox Jews who, for centuries, had dedicated their lives to the study of the Torah, had been nearly wiped out in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Following the Declaration of Independence in 1948, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Trans-Jordan and Iraq invaded the tiny newborn country. The leaders of the decimated Ultra-Orthodox community begged Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion to exempt a small number of Torah scholars from military service. Ben-Gurion, recognizing the importance of the study of the Torah to the Jewish people, as the flame that had kept the Jewish people alive for almost 2000 years of living in the Diaspora, granted their request and allowed 500 Ultra-Orthodox youths to be exempt from military service in order for them to dedicate their lives to studying Torah and rekindling the flame that had nearly been put out in the Holocaust.

The War of Independence ended in 1949, Israel survived, but paid a high price: a full 1% of the Jewish population was killed in the war. Israel has fought many defensive wars since then, and three years of military service are mandatory for every 18 year-old boy and two years for every 18 year-old girl. However, some exceptions have been granted:

  • The Arab population was exempted from military service, as the government realized that the Arabs could not be expected to fight their own people. For many years, the Israeli-Arab population itself was considered hostile. However, the Druze minority pledged its allegiance to the state of Israel and Druze men have served in the IDF since 1957. Also, some of the Bedouin population serves in the IDF. I intend to write a full post about the various minorities in Israel sometime in the coming weeks.
  • The modern Orthodox community was also given a partial exemption: Modern-Orthodox boys have the option of studying in a special Yeshiva, called a “Hesder Yeshiva” (“Hesder” means arrangement). In this special program, the student/soldiers spend a total of five years, which are divided between army service and Torah study. The army service part of the program is less than 3 years, and has therefore drawn some criticism. However, “Hesder-Yeshiva” soldiers quite often volunteer to become officers and end up serving for longer than the mandatory three years and are generally recognized as a valuable asset to the IDF.
  • Modern-Orthodox girls are allowed to serve in “National Service” instead of regular military service. This is because military service can lead to religiously-problematic situations in the view of many Modern-Orthodox Rabbis. In “National Service” programs, girls volunteer in various places: schools, hospitals etc. However, the “National Service” program is far less organized than the IDF, and Modern-Orthodox girls can get-away with not serving at all, although most choose to serve the full two years nonetheless. Some girls also serve in the army, and their numbers have been rising lately, with the opening of many programs adapted to meet their needs.
  • The Ultra-Orthodox community’s exemption began with 500 Torah scholars and a complete exemption for Ultra-Orthodox girls. Since 1948, the number of Torah scholars has been rising steadily and it has become socially unacceptable for an Ultra-Orthodox man to serve in the army.

Over the years there have been many attempts to recruit Ultra-Orthodox youth. There have been many appeals to the Supreme Court. Until 2002, the law stated that the Defense Minister has the right to grant exemption to whomever he sees fit. This clause was used to grant a sweeping exemption to the entire Ultra-Orthodox community, causing growing animosity towards them from the direction of the general population who did not have the option of not serving. The “Tal” law was passed in 2002, following a court ruling that stated that the Ultra-Orthodox community could not continue to be exempt from army service without proper legislation. The law was supposed to slowly integrate Ultra-Orthodox men into the IDF or an adjusted version of “National Service”. The law stated that any Ultra-Orthodox man reaching the age of 18 may postpone his military service for one year at a time in order to study in a Yeshiva. They are not allowed to work during this time. In the fifth year (at the age of 23) they have the option of either enlisting, joining “National Service”, leaving the Yeshiva in order to acquire a trade and find a job or they can stay in Yeshiva and continue postponing their army service until the age of 29. At the age of 29 they are completely exempted from military service.

An Ultra-Orthodox man in the IDF. Photo: Cover of a book, by David Zoldan, telling the story of the first Ultra-Orthodox IDF unit. The unit was founded as a result of the “Tal” law and Zoldan was one of the first soldiers to enlist.

The law was limited to a period of five years. At the end of the five years, the court ruled that although the law had not achieved its objective of integrating Ultra-Orthodox men into the IDF, they would allow another five years of trial period. The second period of five years will terminate at the end of July 2012. The results are that a few hundred Ultra-Orthodox men have joined specially adapted programs in the IDF and in the “National Service”. However, there are now 61 thousand Ultra-Orthodox men between the ages of 18 and 29 who have postponed their military service indefinitely and are forbidden by law to work, and are therefore dependent upon welfare services.

The court ruled that the government must come up with a new arrangement by the end of July, to replace the failed “Tal” law. A special committee was formed in the Knesset, headed by Yohanan Plesner, a Kadima MK.

It would have been in the Ultra-Orthodox parties’ best interests to take part in the committee, as they now, for the first time in many decades, have no electoral power to stop it, since Kadima joined the government. Until now, they could have threatened to leave the government if Ultra-Orthodox men were recruited, thus toppling the government. When the government controls 94 of the 120 seats in the Knesset, of which only 16 are Ultra-Orthodox, that is no longer a significant threat. Nevertheless, they opted to bury their heads in the sand and did not take part in the committee. The committee is scheduled to submit its proposals this week. The proposal will include a finite number of exemptions for gifted students, whereas all the rest will be obligated to enlist either in the IDF or in various “National Service” programs.

There seem to be disagreements among the various government parties regarding a number of issues: the sanctions to be imposed on men who refuse to enlist and the inclusion or non-inclusion of the Arab population in the new law.

If the new law is passed, it will be an historical event, ending 64 years of injustice and inequality. The big question is whether the government has the power to enforce it and recruit 61 thousand Ultra-Orthodox men against their will.

Update: an hour ago it was announced that Prime-Minister Netanyahu has decided to disband the “Plesner” committee due to the committee’s inability to reach a decision. Unless a solution is found, on July 31st, the 61 thousand Ultra-Orthodox men who are not serving in the army will be obligated by law to immediately enlist.

I speculate that the disbandment of the committee may be aimed at forcing the Ultra-Orthodox parties into taking part in reaching a solution that can be acceptable to all sides.


Israel Mourns the Passing of Prime-Minister Yitzhak Shamir, 1915-2012

Yitzhak Shamir, 1915-2012. Photo: Wikipedia


 Israel’s seventh Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, died this Saturday at the age of 96. The funeral is taking place at this time, Monday, July 2nd. I don’t intend to write about his biography. You can read about that in wikipedia. Instead, I’d like to write about the time I met Prime-Minister Shamir in person.

The funeral procession leaving from the Knesset. Photo: Screenshot from the Knesset channel.

The funeral procession leaving from the Knesset. Photo: Screenshot from the Knesset channel.

The flags have been lowered in the Knesset. Photo: Screenshot from the Knesset channel.

President Peres at the funeral. Photo: screenshot from Knesset channel.

It was in 1988, I was five and we were living in an absorption center for new immigrants in Tel-Aviv. The Prime-Minister was making a visit, and everyone was excited about seeing him. As a five year-old, I drew him a drawing.

The Prime Minister arrived, and walked through the crowd of “Olim” (new immigrants) who had gathered outside the absorption center to greet him. In those days, before the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995, the Prime Minister wasn’t surrounded by a ring of bodyguards, and the people could walk right up to him.

Shamir was a great man, but rather short, but as a five year-old, I remember looking up at him and handing him my drawing. The Prime-Minister wouldn’t take my drawing. Maybe he was afraid that, as an elected official, he wouldn’t be allowed to keep it, as a gift acquired in office, and he would have had to put my beautiful drawing in a museum. Either way, I was disappointed: The Prime-Minister wouldn’t take my drawing.

This is how it could have been.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir (center right) with American Secretary of State, George Schultz (center left), Foreign Minister Moshe Arens (left) and Cabinet Secretary, Elyakim Rubinstein (right) in March 1988. In just a few Months, the Prime Minister will refuse to accept my drawing. Photo: Knesset website.

Yitzhak Shamir, 1915-2012, R.I.P.

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  1. […] legal crisis, which I plan to write about in more detail sometime during the coming week, actually brought about the enlargement of the coalition from 61 […]

  2. I await your blogs and am never disappointed.
    Keep them coming

  3. […] a high school Yeshiva for boys as well as a Hesder Yeshiva [I explained what a Hesder Yeshiva is in this post, in the second section, in the bullet beginning with the words "The modern Orthodox […]

  4. […] the deadline for finding a replacement for the Tal law draws near, tensions are rising on all sides. The Plesner committee, charged with coming up with a […]

  5. […] written a lot about the Ultra-Orthodox community in previous posts, and as promised, the time has come to set things straight about the various religious groups in […]

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