The Mir Rabbinical College, Jerusalem. Most of the rabbinical college students looked up from their Torah books, casting curious glances at the secular visitor. The others showed no interest at all in the unusual guest walking through the spacious study hall. A deafening noise filled the air. Hundreds of voices mingling with each other lent the place the feel of an overcrowded Hyde Park parley. Everyone was talking and arguing and shouting over some issue or interpretation of the Talmudic tractate under discussion. Some of the students sat, while others stood. Some listened, while their mates made theatrical gestures, trying to make a point.
Recent political events far from herald good news for the ultra-Orthodox community, so there seems to be no cause for celebration there. For the first time in decades, a coalition government has been established on the strength of several secular parties and a single religious party. The ultra-Orthodox parties were sent into the political wilderness, deeply frustrated.
The new Israel has issued the word, calling on the ultra-Orthodox community to share equally in the burden. Draft dodging will no longer be tolerated. No more state funds will be granted in exchange for nothing. Preferential treatment will no longer be granted to rabbinical college students.
The 2013 election revolved around two key issues: social justice and equal sharing of the burden. The ultra-Orthodox were perceived by the public at-large as slipping under the radar, evading the civilian duties that bind their fellow citizens. Thus, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, against his will and contrary to his political inclination, was forced to part with the ultra-Orthodox parties in favor of new partners, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid and HaBayit HaYehudi chairperson Naftali Bennett, who experienced baptisms of fire in the 2013 election.
As I entered the peeling rabbinical college building, wearing a skullcap that was placed on my head, I was surrounded by a group of young men who led me into the holy of holies — the study halls.
The Mir Yeshiva has for many years been considered the jewel in the crown of the Lithuanian rabbinical college world. It has its origins in the town of Mir in Belarus, where it was established in the early 19th century. It survived the Holocaust, pogroms and persecutions there until it found a new home in Jerusalem's Beit Israel neighborhood, not far from the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Mea Shearim. More than 6,000 students are enrolled in the college, dedicating their days and nights to intensive, around-the-clock studies of the Torah. The lights are never off in the study halls. There is no time of day or night when the place is not teeming with scholarly activity.
“Come and see for yourself what the rabbinical college students are doing all day long,” a 23-year-old student by the name of Yitzhak Pollack asked of me. As of late, he has been busy with a series of dates with a young ultra-Orthodox woman to whom he was introduced through an arranged match. “I am in the stage of inquiries right now. If, with God's help, everything turns out to be all right, there will be a wedding.”
Pollack and his mates invited me to visit the rabbinical college to refute the image of students like him and his fellow learners as “parasites” who live at the expense of the secular public. “Can you possibly imagine us enlisting in the army?”, his friend Yitzhak Friedman asked. Friedman, 22, recently cut ties with the young woman introduced to him because, as he put it, there was no chemistry between them.
“You are totally ignorant. You, the secular, are living in the dark,” Friedman passionately asserted, unable to hide his anger. “Don’t you see it? We just cannot mingle with you. You know nothing about us and, likewise, we know nothing about you. You may not realize it, but we cannot and have no wish to know your world. We, the ultra-Orthodox public, cannot live with your TV, with the obscenities and licentious pictures pervading it. You are uprooting the world of the Torah and faith in God and trampling us and our beliefs. Israel is the state of the Jews, but, unfortunately, it is not a Jewish state.”
We passed through the halls, packed with people and echoing with voices that never go silent, not even for a moment. There are young and old, local students side by side with ultra-Orthodox guests from New York, Antwerp, Paris and Buenos Aires who have dropped by for a study interlude. The young men accompanying me stress, with conviction, that in the absence of all that we see there, there could be no future for the Jewish people. There is not a hint of doubt or skepticism in their words. The world of the Torah has always been the flame keeping the Jewish people alive. It is a truism they sucked along with their mother's milk.
“There is a fundamental problem here,” explained Motti Segal, 22, whose 13 brothers are also yeshiva students. “You, the secular, have to understand that the reality of the military is completely foreign to us. In fact, it is the antithesis to the world of Judaism. When an ultra-Orthodox man enlists in the army, who will he be accountable to — the commanding officer or the master of the Torah who shows him the way? The military is inherently based on authority and discipline. That’s the reality of life in the army. However, we live in another reality, where we have to obey none but our spiritual leaders. Therefore, it will never happen. We will always take orders from our rabbis alone, not from anyone wearing rank insignia. And the truth is, as we both know, that in the end, the ultra-Orthodox will not be recruited into the army. It is psychological warfare that you are waging against us.”
They admit that they did not anticipate the wave of hostility against the ultra-Orthodox community that has swept across the country. Ovadia, 27, said that he had never before encountered such hostile reactions as in the last year. Tel Aviv is off limits for him, and he does not dare to go there, as he feels threatened. His friends, too, say that they cannot recall such an intense tide of anti-ultra-Orthodox sentiment. Segal and Friedman told me that more than once, they have been called “draft dodgers” by secular passersby. “It is certainly unpleasant. They are looking down on us the way Jews in Europe were looked at when anti-Semitism was prevalent.”
These young men, however, are confident that ultimately they will have the upper hand in the struggle and beat the secular by a knockout. Friedman predicts that Zionism will survive no more than two decades, before being beaten for good and vanishing into thin air.
“Secularism is dying,” Friedman said self-assuredly. “And like a dying man, whose body is shaken by convulsions, these are the last spasms of Zionism. Jeremiah talked about ‘broken cisterns, that can hold no water’ [2:13, King James Bible Authorized Version]. And that’s what you are. You have nothing but the pleasures of life and the gratification of the body. Your soul is empty. You are assimilationists, and you are bound to disappear. You live thanks to us. Had it not been for the ultra-Orthodox, the Jewish people would not have survived.”
They are not alarmed by the coalition government established without the ultra-Orthodox parties. Even if budgets are slashed, they will keep going. The five men escorting me live for the noble goal of all — that is, the coming of the Messiah. Everything passes and nothing stays forever, barring the greatest expectation of all for the coming of the Messiah. They are confident that the struggles and troubles weighing on them will fade away once the Messiah appears and introduces a new world order.
“It will be a more beautiful world, a purer and more refined world,” says Pollack, heaving a sigh. “When the Messiah comes, the ultra-Orthodox will take over and be in control here. Once the Messiah comes, it will be an entirely different world. We will study the Torah day and night, as it will be a more spiritual world that we will all live in.”
At the moment, economic hard times can already be seen here and there in the college. The dining room has seen better days. The lunches served to the students consist of the most basic ingredients — bread, vegetables, a small dish of hummus, some fruit and a jug of water. Twice a week, meat is served with the meal. Those who can afford it complement these poor meals outside the college.
In face of the anti-ultra-Orthodox sentiment sweeping secular Israeli society, the rival ultra-Orthodox factions, feeling besieged, have closed ranks. If only for a rare moment, the historic rivalry between the eastern Europe Ashkenazi and Mediterranean Sephardic ultra-Orthodox communities has also been toned down. It is a time of war, and it is thus time to join forces.
“Our consolation,” Segal said, “is that our population is multiplied by two every 17 years, while you, the secular, are steadily diminishing in number. This is why you brought the Russians to Israel although most of them are non-Jews. It is because you know that your end is near.”
Daniel Ben Simon is a former Knesset member from the Labor Party. Prior to his political career, he was a journalist with the Israeli dailies Haaretz and Davar. Ben Simon has written four books on Israeli society and is the recipient of the Sokolov Prize, an Israeli journalism award.
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