It’s Thursday night at the Mahane Yehuda market in west Jerusalem, where the music is thumping and the drinks are flowing. When a bottle breaks, the crowds erupt with a chorus of “mazel tov”, or congratulations.
But as some ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in traditional black suits, side locks, and thick skullcaps pass by, Ad Shamsi’s face sours. “What do they have to do here?” asks the 56-year-old Jewish Israeli, who is kicking off the weekend at an outside bar.
This is a glimpse of the intra-religious tension that in part led Israel’s parliament last week to dissolve itself and hold a fresh election – just seven weeks after the last one – following a deadlock between two rightwing factions at odds over a proposal to draft the ultra-Orthodox into Israel’s military.
Since Israel’s founding, the ultra-Orthodox – also called the Haredim – have been exempted from military service, which is mandatory for all Jewish Israeli school leavers. The various ultra-Orthodox sects see it as a religious commandment to only study Jewish texts and separate themselves from modern society. They consequently receive government subsidies to study rather than work, along with general social services and benefits relating to unemployment, poverty and their large numbers of children.
Today the ultra-Orthodox, an umbrella term for different sects and communities, are 10% of Israel’s population of more than 8.5 million – and are growing fast.
They have strategically cultivated a role as kingmakers in Israeli politics, making or breaking coalitions based on which politicians best support their interests.
The military symbolises the antithesis of traditional ultra-Orthodox principles. It represents time away from studying, a mixing of genders against religious prohibitions and a vast melting pot in which young people are taught to be a certain kind of Israeli. For average Jewish Israelis, to be a good citizen is to serve in the military. (Palestinian citizens of Israel, who make up 20% of the population, are exempt from service because of the ongoing conflict.)
Shamsi is an avid supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and his rightwing, national religious policies. He wears a kippa, or Jewish head covering, thinks shops should close on the Sabbath in keeping with strict Jewish law, and supports Israel’s presence in the occupied Palestinian Territories. He lives in Ramot, an increasingly ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem considered an illegal settlement under international law.
He has no patience with the ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not serve in the military yet receive subsidies from the government, all while not actually studying — in his mind epitomised by the young Haredi men coming to check out the secular bar scene on a Thursday night. “Why do I need to do three years [in the military] and him not?” Shamsi asks. “Why do I need to pay for everything and not them?”
A few minutes’ walk from the bars of Mahane Yehuda is Mea She’arim, historically the most intense ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem. Here, men dress in various styles of black hats and suits, depending on their sect, and walk fast, so as not to appear to be wasting time away from studying. Plastered on walls along narrow streets are posters listing deaths and other notices – a key source of information for communities that shun the internet.
A sign near a bustling supermarket informs passers-by: “It is forbidden to participate in elections.”
Some ultra-Orthodox sects do not recognise the state of Israel, saying the Bible prescribes that it can only come into existence with the coming of the Messiah. For others, there is a more pointed boycott of elections now in protest over what they see as the Haredi parties’ failure to be hardline enough on the issue of conscription.
In places like Mea She’arim, it is also frowned upon to talk to people from outside the community, explains Tal Sapir, 32. He has stopped to buy pastries on his way home to Givat Ze’ev, a settlement near Jerusalem which is popular among the ultra-religious.
Sapir – wearing a black suit and hat, with traditional side locks – says he does not take part in protests against the draft and the opening of shops on the Sabbath, as other Haredim do. In fact, he is one of the few ultra-Orthodox Jews who have undertaken national service, by working at a youth centre for a year.
But he opposes the draft law put forward by Avigdor Lieberman, the staunchly rightwing and secular minister who led one side of the political deadlock of recent weeks. Lieberman’s proposal included small quotas for conscription and financial sanctions on seminaries if they were unfulfilled. The three main ultra-Orthodox parties have rejected quotas of any kind.
“Only those who don’t want to study should go [to the military],” said Sapir. Forcing people to serve was seen as an attack on Haredi life.
In his opinion, Lieberman had used the ultra-Orthodox as pawns in his own political battles with Netanyahu. “He’s a leftist,” he says of Lieberman, parroting Netanyahu. “Whoever brings down a rightwing government, he’s a leftist.”
If the ultra-Orthodox are forced to conscript, “it will be a war of brothers”, he says.
The divide between ultra-religious and secular or less religious Israelis runs deep. But the pushback to the draft law also signals how much is changing. “On the one hand there is a modernising, opening-up trend within Haredi society,” explains Rabbi Yehoshua Pfeffer of the Tikvah Fund, a thinktank. He cites increased integration of Haredim into the workforce and higher education. But this “also triggers a reactionary movement in Haredi society becoming more extreme”.
“It all comes to a head in the issue of the army,” adds Pfeffer. While other forms of integration – such as Haredim working in secular employment – are tolerated as necessary for the communities’ sustainability, the ultra-Orthodox do not see military service as either useful for them or an imperative for the state.
The issues of conscription and economic subsidies shape the way in which many Israelis outside the communities view the ultra-Orthodox. But for Etsy Shushan, this also makes her work at Nichvarot, an organisation that pushes for more female leaders in the ultra-Orthodox community, harder as community leaders close in on any movement for change.
Shushan, 41, describes herself as “Haredi Israeli” – a mix of the two traditional binaries: “People who see themselves as part of the Haredi society and also see themselves as part of life in Israel,” she explains. It is a complicated third way.
“For me it’s very important to save the values of Judaism to protect ourselves from the western world. But I understand that we have to make changes in the places that are not really against the Halacha [Jewish law], and those changes will really protect Judaism and our traditions.
“The core perspective of the Haredi community is to deny any changes,” she says. Talk of conscription feels “like an attack on their values”. Consequently, leaders push back, rejecting all change, “no matter whether it’s really forbidden under Jewish law or not”.
The current political crisis, she says, “is because of the army, but it’s not only the army. [It’s] how we want to define life here in Israel.”
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