D’var Israel January 30, 2016

Rachel Bar Din and Ben Vaknin
D’var Israel 01/30/16

Shabbat shalom, everyone!

This week we want to talk about something very exciting that happened in Israel. It SNOWED! As exciting as that was, there are more serious things going on in Israel right now — and some just as exciting as the snow!

We want to talk to you today about a subject that we care a lot about and a topic that has been very controversial in Israel for the past few years.

As you may know, for many years in Israel, the ultra-Orthodox have been dismissed from their army service if they met certain criteria. Then in 2014, Yair Lapid, head of the political party "Yesh Atid" put forward a law called “shivyon banetel” (sharing the burden). The law provided the government with the ability to evaluate the claims of those who wanted to avoid the draft into the IDF, and especially for those inside the ultra-Orthodox community. The law's main goal was to gradually bring the ultra-Orthodox community into the IDF.

The news we want to talk with you about is how the current government has cancelled the hok shivyon banetel, and now we are back to the previous situation where the ultra-Orthodox can avoid military service — automatically, with no evaluation.

The way in which the ultra-Orthodox have traditionally not joined the army has raised many questions, and this reversal of the law has brought the debate to the front and centre of Israeli society.

Why do they get to “avoid” the army? And at the same time, why do ultra-Orthodox receive money from the government to not work, at the expense of the taxpayers and those who do serve in the IDF? Does their Torah study have to be instead of serving in the army, or instead of working at all?

As Israelis who are about to join the IDF next year, the current situation is a relevant topic that is difficult for us to understand and to accept. We live in a reality where instead of being surrounded by peace, we are in the middle of an unstable area. In the past eight years, we were forced into three military operations, and now we experience terror attacks in the streets on a daily basis.

With such a need for people to aid in the defence of Israel, their lack of military service is hard to understand. And the way in which a high percentage of the ultra-Orthodox also do not work, essentially means the government fully finances their community.

But what can be done in this situation? How is it possible to force such a large group to join the army? How do we get them into the labour market against their will? How can we ask them to betray their beliefs?

Well what you should also know is that not all of the ultra-Orthodox community has refused to join the army. There are ultra-Orthodox who have actually decided to join. Some receive support from their families while others have been rejected from their communities.

These statistics are ones you may not be as familiar with:

Today 4600 ultra-Orthodox serve in the army; it is the largest number in the last thirty years. Ultra-Orthodox serve in all types of units, units that make special accommodations for religious life in the army and units that do not.

In 2015, 2300 ultra-Orthodox actually enlisted — the highest number up to now. Hearing about these numbers, even in a very complicated situation, gives us hope for the future. It takes a lot of courage to go against your family and against your friends, and then go home for weekends to be harassed by the people in your neighbourhood, which is what happens to many. This is a difficult situation, and the brave people who want to make a difference should be acknowledged.

This controversy falls under the category of conflicts or debates between the ultra-Orthodox in Israel and other groups like secular and more pluralist Israelis. And in that spirit, we want to let you know about two other developments that took place this week.

There was a temporary space built for men and women to pray together called “Ezrat Israel.” It was announced this week that it will soon expand and become permanent. The entrance to Ezrat Israel will now be from the main entrance near the Western Wall plaza and not a separate entrance as it had been previously.

In Addition, Ezrat Israel will no longer be supervised by the main Western Wall rabbi. It will be supervised directly by the prime minister's office, and it will be permitted to bring Torah scrolls inside, and women can wear a tallit.

As Israelis, we see this day as another step on the way to Israel becoming a more liberal and democratic country. We want to believe that this is only the beginning and that more and more changes are happening and will happen.

On this same theme, another big development took place in the past month, as a new Likud member, Amir Ohana, joined the Knesset as the first openly gay member of the Likud party. Ohana said that he will work openly to promote LGBT rights in the Knesset.

We are happy to share with you that even though there is still a big dilemma concerning the ultra-orthodox in Israel, there are also big positive steps that change Israel and move her in the other direction — toward a more equal and accepting place.

Thank you and Shabbat Shalom!