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Thursday, January 31, 2013

Civil War and State Sponsored Fundamentalism


On the 25th of January this year a beguiling article was published in Ynet News (an Israeli website).  It was titled "Lapid, prevent civil war”.

It placed the onus for Israel’s future on a secular public that has grown tired of betrayal, is fed up with being abused.  There is a well loved, perhaps too well loved word in Hebrew, “Friar”.  Its meaning is not the portly gentleman with balding pate but a sucker, an easy target, a fool. I will return to this word later. The Israeli public has become used to being told that its history is myth, its religion is nonsense and its rights mortgaged to groups that despise us and whose leaders disrespect us at every turn.  So it is hardly surprising that Israel’s secular population are substantially alienated from their natural faith and grown cynical with the inflated costs they are expected to pay for the contempt they in turn receive as payment from their ultra-orthodox (referred to as ‘Haredi’ from here on in) and Arab brothers and sisters.

But this article is not about our Arab fellow citizens.  It is about the Haredi population of Israel.  According to the dictionary the Haredi are:  “any of several sects of Orthodox Judaism that reject modern secular culture and many of whom do not recognize the spiritual authority of the modern state of Israel.”

The author of this article is a Haredi history teacher so it is instructive that he fails to recognise the condescension in his tone of writing.  ‘Instructive’ because history is the study of the past and is discouraged by the Torah as a distraction.

The particularistic approach to any ideological position is the signature style of any culturally hegemonic world-view. We can and should all live within societies that do not demand absolute cultural conformity. But in authoritarian societies such as those that exist throughout the Muslim world the state exists to demand obedience to a singular approach, to a vortex of ever increasing density of regulation that inexorably draws us in whether we desire it, or not; and if not, then into ever greater conflict with the institutions of the State.

Modern Israel has been battling against this state sponsored fundamentalism since its beginning.

Haredi Judaism came into being within the pressurised environment of the ghetto. The ghetto usually protected the community from antisemitic assault but created a barrier between those forced to live separately and the rest of society. The Enlightenment created strains within this ghettoised existence as contact with the outside world increased and many people left its prison-like confines. Amos Elon viewed the Enlightenment as liberation from “the inability to think for oneself”.  But while it removed the ritual from society, in its place the Enlightenment elevated the intellect above God.  It is hardly surprising then that the reaction to the Enlightenment was one of fear and towards the ‘substantiation’ of a narrow, racially based nationalism that defined the group by its exclusion of others.  The Haredi community, created in rejection and powerlessness,   grew out of the fear that integration could only be achieved by assimilation; that ‘liberation’ from the ghetto would result in the dissolution of the authentic and faithful remnant.  The Haredi (plural Haredim) are neither a cohesive nor a homogeneous group.  In Israel they are split between Agudat Israel which, co-operates with the state, and Eda Haredit which, is fiercely opposed to having any contact with the state.

Prior to the Shoah, a life of religious study was confined to a minute number of exceptional individuals who were privately sponsored by wealthy members of society or private charity. The post Shoah, militantly secular, State of Israel viewed nourishing the remnant of European Jewry as a sacred duty.  It exempted a group of religious scholars from compulsory military service, on condition that they pursue their studies (in 1948 this exemption was for 400 men). Torato Emunato (Torah study is his occupation) rapidly became an inalienable right, but in response to this abuse of process, the non-Haredi community also became corrupted.  There has never been a requirement for objective testing in order to measure suitability for a life of intense study.  Today, many women use a spurious religious identity to avoid the draft and many of the remaining men decide that to enlist in the army, to have ones freedom ‘stolen,’ is an unnecessary imposition on their freedom to choose. They regard national service as the ultimate act of self-abuse; the behaviour of a ‘friar’.

Military conscription was once viewed as the great leveller that equalised the worker and the industrialist.  Only in deciding budget allocations and the timing for armed conflict was civilian input to military strategy necessary.  The politicisation of the Army has created unacceptable pressures that have had a huge and negative impact on the ability of the armed forces to confront an aggressor.

And so I return to what the author of the article wrote.

Mr Ohad Shaked wrote that the issue of drafting yeshiva boys “may exacerbate the religious-secular divide in Israel and lead to civil war”. Mr Shaked places the responsibility for creating the conditions under which civil war will either erupt or, with ‘wisdom’ (coercion), be prevented, on the secular politician a total of four times.

I am going to propose something else. The Status Quo was an agreement under which David Ben-Gurion agreed to provide assurances that the state would not apply coercive pressure on any sector of the diverse public. That was in 1947.  Basing exemption on equal grounds for all permanent residents of the State does not imply universal exemption for any segment of the population. In fact, secular residents do not have an automatic right to refuse national service. Postponement is allowed for exceptional students whose contribution to the state would be better served if they were permitted to complete their area of study. And then they serve their full national service plus additional time in their countries defence.

In 1948, the number of yeshiva students who received a draft deferral was 400, in 2011 it was 71,000.  A deferral almost always becomes an exemption.  The number of yeshiva students performing civilian service in 2011 was 1,080.

In order to return us to the status quo ante all discriminatory tax exemptions and subsidies (for those that refuse to serve) must be cancelled.  The reins of control over who are exempted and who receives deferment from national service must be returned to military control. The criteria for deferral or exemption must be agreed by government and applied universally.  All those people not engaged in military service must complete an equal period of national service (and reserve duty) regardless of identity.

That they do not risk their life for their nation does not make them less worthy. If they have to clean waterways, dig ditches, learn bricklaying and build hospitals; all people should contribute and if they are unwilling to do so then the states citizens should not pay for their contemptuously expressed unwillingness to contribute to the national endeavour.

There are many clich├ęs that are being thrown around in this ongoing debate, amongst them ‘the desire to create an equal sharing of the burden’ and ‘a need to reduce inequality’. But a life of study without human engagement is a wasted life and no deity would expect it. It is experiencing a life of toil that brings us towards god. Beryl Wajsman (President at the Institute for Public Affairs in Montreal, Canada) has a phrase: “suffocating self-absorption” and that is the best description I can provide for the “ungracious modernity” that has justified this post-modern individuality and contempt for national endeavour.  Fear of assimilation or dissociation, of contamination or of suffocation, none of these excuses a refusal to be part of the nation that feeds us, clothes us and protects us.  Neither prayer nor apathy provides justification for not contributing towards national service.

It is time the government set guidelines for all Israeli’s and left the army to enforcing the law.  After that, those that refuse do not need to be paid by the state for their principled stand.

The threat of civil war is not just a violation of allegiance to the state; it is an offence against God.  Look at the obscenity that is Civil War Syria. Warnings (threats) are the desperate but very blunt instrument of the demagogue.  Their contribution to the public debate is only of value in highlighting why we must implement the universal draft without political interference and in haste.

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