The Charedi refusal to serve in the IDF — the stumbling block in Netanyahu’s inability to form a governing coalition — is rooted in an ideological opposition to Zionism and a reticence to come to terms with modernity.
It was the combination of the French Revolution and the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, that fragmented a hitherto monolithic Judaism.
Ghetto walls in western Europe were torn down and there was an influx of Jews into open societies, leaving Jews with the dilemma of how to fit into this new world.
This choice of identity ranged from rebuilding the ghetto walls and reimagining the past at one extreme, to conversion to Christianity at the other.
The revered defender of ultra-orthodoxy at this time was Moses Schreiber, the Chatam Sofer.
He promoted “the three oaths” as stipulated in the Babylonian Talmud: not to go en masse to the Land of Israel; not to force God’s hand in the coming of the Messiah; not to rebel against the nations of the world.
However some nineteenth century rabbis interpreted the three oaths differently.
For example, if Jews were not permitted to leave en masse, why should they not leave individually? With the rise of Zionism, such rabbis became the progenitors of religious Zionism.
In eastern Europe, Zionism divided religious families and communities. Expulsions and dismissals were not uncommon. One hundred years ago, the Lubavitcher rebbe of the time claimed that the Zionists had “cast off the yoke of the Torah and mitzvot, and hold only to nationalism which will be their Judaism”.
By 1912, the Charedim had formed their first party, Agudat Yisrael.
The Shoah was the great leveller. It swept away the world that was. The great yeshivot of eastern Europe were destroyed, together with its rabbis and students.
The human wreckage of this destruction found new homes after 1945. Some left to live in Palestine, but as a place of refuge and not for Zionist reasons.
The Charedi leadership moved from an anti-Zionist position to a non-Zionist one in an attempt to accommodate this post-war reality. Yet Charedi leaders still regarded Zionism as bringing about “national assimilation”.
There was opposition to the very idea of a state of the Jews and the settlement in Palestine of survivors from displaced persons camps.
The Charedi leader Yitzhak Breuer told the Anglo-American Commission of Inquiry in 1946 that “for us, the state is not a goal in itself”. Agudat Yisrael — apart from Menahem Begin’s Irgun — was the only Jewish group which insisted on its right to appear before UN committees.
Their stand prevented Zionist diplomacy from advocating a united front in the aftermath of the Shoah and it provided political ammunition for the determined opponents of a Hebrew republic.
The price of muting the Strictly Orthodox was a letter of goodwill from Ben-Gurion and Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, the religious Zionist leader, to Yitzhak Meir Levin of Agudat Yisrael that their concerns — halachah (Jewish law), kashrut (dietary laws) and autonomous educational institutions — would be taken into consideration.
Thus Levin testified in a measured fashion before the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine in 1947 and Agudat Yisrael signed the Declaration of Independence.
Into this maelstrom came the question of service in the armed forces. In August 1953, there was concerted Charedi opposition to a bill which ensured conscription of women into auxiliary national service.
The government was able to ignore luminaries such as the Briisker Rav and the Hazon Ish and proceed with the bill.
Since then the Charedim have grown in numbers and political influence, often holding the balance of power in coalitions. Exceptional exemptions from military service for brilliant scholars has evolved into a general acceptance that all students, regardless of their intellectual ability, should not serve.
There has also been an unwritten alliance between non-Zionist Charedim and secular right-wing Zionists.
The late Lubavitcher rebbe opposed the return of land for peace after the Six Day War, condemned Israel’s unwillingness to conquer Damascus during the Yom Kippur war, criticised the Camp David agreement of Begin and Sadat, castigated the government for listening to world opinion during the disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 — and the Lubavitch movement advised its followers to vote for Netanyahu in the 1996 election.
Mr Netanyahu has had to choose between the far-right secular party of Avigdor Lieberman, often supported by Jews from the former USSR, and the increasing demands of the Charedi parties.
He is betting that this longstanding pact of convenience with the Charedim will help him to weaken the powers of the judiciary, avoid trial and win the next election.
Jewish Chronicle 31 May 2019