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Opinion Articles

The Peri Committee Recommendations: Fanning the Flames of Haredi Extremism

A power struggle is currently underway on the Haredi street between a moderate majority and an extremist minority. Although this is an internal battle within the ultra-Orthodox community, it has critical consequences for all Israelis, since it will impact Israel’s economy, the unity of its society, and our national resilience.

What is the issue at hand? The ultra-Orthodox majority wishes to live their lives in accordance with the traditional model of the relationship between the tribes of Issachar and Zebulun: One-third of the community, those who have intellectual ability and spiritual inclinations, will pattern their lives after Issachar, and will devote their time exclusively to Torah study. The remaining two-thirds will follow the model of Zebulon. They will study Torah until they reach the age of marriage (say, 22). At that point, once their ultra-Orthodox identity has become firmly established, they will be integrated into Israeli society: they will serve in the military, learn a trade, and join the workforce. Zebulun will support Issachar financially, and will thus guarantee the future of the world of Torah.

In contrast, the extremist minority within the Haredi community categorically opposes leaving the confines of the sacred. They see being Issachar as the only possible lifestyle, regardless of the skills or inclinations of the individual. In the eyes of the extremist minority, the 7,000 ultra-Orthodox who have enrolled in institutions of higher education in the last few years, with the approval of the great rabbis of the generation, are “Hellenists.” In advertising campaigns, the extremist minority has dubbed Haredim who have enlisted in the army “Hardakim” (an acronym for “Haredim kalei daat“), deeming them “light minded” or frivolous Haredim who are worthy of condemnation.  Any attempt to encourage integration into Israeli society and the state is seen by these extremists as grounds for a holy war.

The power struggle between these two groups has yet to be decided. In the first round, which took place after the death of the late Rabbi Elyashiv, the moderates prevailed. Further battles, however, await us. If the extremists win, the dream of integrating Haredim into Israeli society will end, the main growth engine for the Israeli economy in the next decade will be lost, and Israeli society will be torn apart from within.

Although this battle is being waged within the Haredi community, it is deeply influenced by the actions and failures of Israeli society as a whole. The leaders of the State of Israel, however, do not seem to be aware of this crucial fact. Tragically, their conduct is blind to the needs of society and is pushing the moderate ultra-Orthodox majority into the arms of the extremists.

The Supreme Court woke the sleeping giant when it decided to strike down the Tal Law precisely at the delicate and fleeting moment when a significant ultra-Orthodox movement advocating social integration had begun to pick up steam. The blatant activism of the repeal of this law sowed the seeds of disaster. We are already seeing the buds of its poisonous fruit, which we will soon reap.

The judiciary forced the political system to become involved in this issue, which does not help the matter. During the recent election campaign, some politicians ran on a Haredi-bashing ticket, and pushing the ultra-Orthodox “parasites” out of the coalition of “brothers” after the election. How terribly sad: In the enlightened and liberal State of Israel, political dividends are distributed to those who disparage the ultra-Orthodox. And how terribly foolish: The rhetoric against the ultra-Orthodox is yielding a dividend for the ultra-Orthodox extremists, and in doing so, is encouraging the entire Haredi community to refuse integration in Israeli society.

The recommendations of the Peri Committee have added fuel to the extremists’ fire.  The Commission has proposed an immediate exemption from military service for all Haredi men who are aged 22 or older when the legislation takes effect. This move is not meant to promote equality (indeed, it is a significant setback); rather, it is intended to “empty the yeshivot.” From the ultra-Orthodox perspective, this is a cynical move designed to test their community’s loyalty to the Torah and they are determined not to fail the test. As a result, from here on in, even the moderate Haredi rabbis are likely to prohibit university studies or military service. The Peri Committee is forcing these moderate forces to speak the language of extremism fluently.

The Peri Committee has proposed that the Haredim themselves should determine which young men of draft age will constitute the 1,800 Torah scholars who are exempt from military service. From the national perspective, this is a scandalous privatization of the authority of the sovereign, which limits the State’s ability to determine who serves in the military. How dare the Committee entrust communal functionaries with the responsibility of deciding who will risk his life in the army and who will be exempt from military service? From the ultra-Orthodox perspective, this is a minefield, as it will clearly lead to trade in army exemptions. The grandson of the Rebbe and the son-in-law of the rich man will undoubtedly be exempt from army service. The result will be a corruption of the process and a desecration of the name of God. Even the most moderate of Haredim will not go along with this.

The wind in the sails of ultra-Orthodox extremism turned into a veritable tornado when the Peri Committee recommended criminal sanctions—imprisonment for years—for Haredim who do not enlist at age 21. The State is thus threatening to use a doomsday weapon—mass incarceration—against a group that includes about one-tenth of the Israeli population. In so doing, the Committee is planting a time bomb in the fabric of Israeli existence. The extremists are rubbing their hands in glee; they have triumphed and their work has been done by others.

Justice Ayala Procaccia said, in speaking about equality in sharing the burden of military service, that achieving this goal requires walking “step by step, without breaking existing systems, without destroying the delicate social-human fabric of society, and without wielding an axe that is likely to cause irreparable damage to society.” It does not seem, however, that anyone is listening. 

Prof. Yedidia Z. Stern is Vice President of Research at the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University.

This op-ed was published in Hebrew in Yedioth Ahronoth on June 6, 2013. An English version of it was published on the Ynet English website on June 14, 2013.