I am aghast.
I am seething with rage at the sheer stupidity, political blindness, and tone-deafness of the United Torah Judaism party. There have been many times in the past that I would pull my hair in my frustration at decisions they have made, or not made, when the times were crying out for a forceful statement or action. But this decision today has to be, by far, the worst possible decision that could have been made and will cause incalculable harm to all religious people, let alone be counter-productive to what they are trying to achieve.
Today – not even 24 hours after one of the most contentious Knesset decisions in the history of the State of Israel – is when they decided to drop this bomb into the powder keg that is Israeli society. In an act of sheer idiocy, they determined that this was the time to pass a Basic Law (the Israeli equivalent of a Constitutional Amendment) that seeks to enshrine in law forever the exemption from army service for those who study Torah. “Those who dedicate themselves to studying Torah for an extended period should be viewed as having served a significant service to the State of Israel and the Jewish people.” In other words, the purpose of the law would be to recognize that studying Torah is “a supreme value” to the Jewish people, on par with military service, and this should not only never again be challenged, but that Torah students should be entitled to the same benefits as those who serve the Jewish people by serving in the military.
I do not want to discuss the merits of this claim. Clearly, most in the chareidi world agree with the thesis that Torah study is as (or more) critical in protecting the Jewish people than military service. Whether or not this is true, to what extent it is true, or whether it means that every single man should be studying full-time, regardless of their talent for doing so and economic pressures, is beside the point today. My issue is with the timing of this bill. The timing of this effort is the worst possible that could be imagined.
Those promoting it say that this effort was a significant (perhaps the most important) demand in the coalition agreements and had been planned for some time. “The timing of the bill’s drafting is purely coincidental, and the issue will be discussed as part of agreements between the coalition factions.” Just a coincidence. Sure. It sounds better than stupidity, I guess. For their part, leaders of the other chareidi party, Shas, said “that the party was ‘in shock’ that the proposal was put forward without its knowledge or consent, which causes ‘enormous damage’ to the ‘defense’ of yeshivah students. The official noted that just last week, the coalition decided to convene a team of legal experts and party representatives to develop a comprehensive government bill proposal.”
For those who have been hiding behind a rock, the reason that this is so hurtful has everything to do with the mass upheavals that have been going on in Israel for the past few months. The purported reason for those upheavals was the fierce opposition frenzy that has been whipped up about the Judicial Reform that the government has been trying to pass, including yesterday’s vote to limit the use of the “reasonableness” standard by the Supreme Court. It has been successfully characterized as an attack on the foundations of democracy and attempts by Netanyahu and his henchmen to turn Israel into a dictatorship. Hundreds of thousands have repeatedly protested; major roads, the airport, and shopping centers were shut down, and many sectors went on strike. Most dangerous of all, many have declared that if the reform passes, they will no longer serve in Israel’s Army and Air Force to listen to the dictates of the “illegitimate government.” Those on the pro-reform side fiercely argued that refusing to serve in the military on political grounds is terrible and must be resisted at all costs.
Of course, most of the hysteria was never really about Judicial Reform. From talking to countless people and simple analysis, it is perfectly clear that most of the ire and passion of the Left is driven by their hatred of chareidim and fear of the rising power of the religious parties. The awful leaders of the opposition have spun a tawdry scenario whereby the Judicial Reform is really a precursor to the real objective – turning Israel into a State ruled by Halachah, a theocracy similar to Iran. Moreover, they are sick and tired of feeling like “friars” (an Israeli word meaning naïve dupes), bearing the burden of the country’s defense, taxes, and infrastructure while the chareidim contribute little and demand much from the national coffers. To what extent this is true (and it is at least partially true) is irrelevant; that is what they think and have been whipped into a frenzy about.
Yesterday, the first major battle was lost, as the government passed the reasonability law. The Left is seething. Enormous demonstrations all over the country went on till way into the night. They are sitting today, knowing they have awakened the tiger, and trying to plot their next move. And the very next day, the geniuses of UTJ decided that it was “coincidentally” the right time to promote their bill to exempt hundreds of thousands of their people from the draft. Is it not totally predictable that the leader of the opposition, Yair Lapid, would say (with much justification, I might add), “The day after canceling the reasonableness standard, the most unhinged coalition in the state’s history is beginning to celebrate at our expense. The government of destruction, that does not cease shouting about [reservists] ‘refusals’ [to continue volunteering], proposes the ‘draft-dodging and refusal to serve’ bill and even dares call it ‘Basic Law: Torah Study.”
What has happened to us? We used to be a wise people. But here, on Erev Tish’ah B’Av, the time we are annually called upon to reflect on the destructiveness of hatred between us, with hatred seething at levels that have not been seen in a very long time, is it the time to pour gasoline on the fire in the name of the supreme value of Torah study??
We need Mashiach so very badly. I am at a loss to think who else will be able to undo this damage and help us down from this terrible place we have put ourselves into. Heaven help us this Tish’ah B’Av.
Rabbi Yehuda L. Oppenheimer is a rabbi, attorney, and writer living presently in Forest Hills, and hoping to go on aliyah. He has served as rabbi in several congregations, and helps individuals with wills, trusts, and mediation.