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Rival Orthodox Parties Battle Over Army Exemptions

JERUSALEM — Tensions are mounting between Israel’s two leading Orthodox parties after Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef suggested it is acceptable to kill members of the rival National Religious Party who criticize army exemptions for yeshiva students.

While Yosef has a long history of making incendiary remarks, last week’s speech brought to the fore the growing acrimony between his Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party and the Modern Orthodox followers of the National Religious Party — and underscored the broader tensions over the place of ultra-Orthodox Jews within Israeli society.

“Anyone who has evil thoughts about the yeshiva students and calls them parasites is a scoundrel, a heretic, and killing him is permitted,” Yosef said last Tuesday night at his Yeheve Da’at Yeshiva in Jersalem’s Har Nof neighborhood. “Even if an NRP man puts two sets of tefillin on his head, one of Rashi and one of Rabeinu Tam, he still has wicked thoughts. What does he say? That the students in the yeshivot and the kollels are parasites and make no contribution to the state? Even if they wear two tefillin — who needs their prayers? They have strange views, views of heresy.”

A complaint was lodged with the State Attorney’s Office saying the statement is “incitement to violence.” A Justice Ministry spokesman said the findings of the investigation of the complaint would be presented to the office of Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein.

Yosef, a former Israeli Sephardic chief rabbi, has in the past compared then-Meretz Party leader Yossi Sarid to the biblical villain Haman, called Arabs snakes and suggested that the Holocaust was punishment for the sins that its victims had committed in past lives.

His latest remarks come against the backdrop of rising anxiety among ultra-Orthodox Jews who have been shut out of Israel’s governing coalition. Members of the coalition, including the National Religious Party and the secularist Shinui Party, have threatened to curtail mass army exemptions for yeshiva students and cut back on government subsidies for large families — reforms that would be anathema to Shas.

Shas Knesset member Nissim Ze’ev, however, was quick to downplay the significance of Yosef’s words. He said that Yosef “did not mean, God forbid, to kill the mafdalniks [those associated with the NRP] in a physical way. The idea was to fight against their opinion that Torah students are parasites.”

But NRP Knesset member Gila Finkelstein said his words are still dangerous. “I’m sure that Rav Ovadia Yosef did not mean real physical hurt when he said ‘we need to kill,’” she said. “But it is enough if we have one crazy person who understands it in this way. Rav Ovadia Yosef is surely aware of his status. Thousands of people admire him and obey his commands; he has great influence on these people. I’m sure he won’t express himself again this way. It is truly a misunderstanding.”

Yossi Shilhav, a professor of political and cultural geography at Bar-Ilan University, likewise said that Yosef’s words should not be taken literally.

“In the Talmud you can find lots of examples where the sages are saying ‘you can kill for this and for that that’ — it’s just a way of expressing a very strong opinion,” he said. “I don’t think anybody will take it as an instruction to take a knife or a gun and kill someone. I wouldn’t consider it incitement; it’s just rude language.”

Nevertheless, Yosef’s attack on the NRP highlights a controversy that goes to the heart of the role of ultra-Orthodox Jews, or charedim, in Israeli society. The NRP represents Modern Orthodox religious Zionists who participate fully in all aspects of society, including the workforce and, among men, the army. Their counterpoint is the burgeoning ultra-Orthodox population, which makes up approximately 15% of the Israeli population, up from no more than 6% 20 years ago.

In the ultra-Orthodox world of Ashkenazim and Sephardim, large proportions of army-eligible men receive exemptions in order to sit and learn in yeshivas, and they are financially supported by the community and significant government stipends. Shilhav said some 10,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews between the ages of 18 and 21 currently receive an army exemption, with another 30,000 to 35,000 exempt from reserve duty.

The NRP’s Finkelstein said she is not dismissive of students who study in yeshiva all day, and in fact appreciated their value, but that there had to be limits.

“The citizens of Israel should understand that we do need people that study Torah; it’s a great contribution for our country,” she said. “But we can’t have everyone doing it — we can [allow for] a certain amount of people doing it, but because we have a small nation, we do need people working.”

A large section of the general public, however, is infuriated by the lack of participation of ultra-Orthodox Jews in society and the army, a position that led the secularist Shinui Party to successfully campaign in opposition to the ultra-Orthodox community and increase its number of Knesset seats from six in 1999 to 15 in the January elections.

Moreover, Shinui’s strong showing enabled Prime Minister Sharon to form a coalition that excluded Shas for the first time since the party was formed in 1984, thus keeping out of reach millions of shekels that Shas over the years had directed to its schools and social service institutions.

“There is no question that until now they were getting subsidies that were not justified by their role in society,” said Efraim Zuroff, a member of the executive committee of K’lavi Yakum, an association that promotes Modern Orthodoxy in Israel. “They were seeking all sorts of preferential treatment that no one thought they deserved — except for them, of course — and they parlayed their role in the Knesset as the balance of power to obtain millions and millions of shekels from the state budget to support their way of life.”

While the budget cuts have affected all Israelis, Shas supporters have been particularly hit hard, with their combination of large families and too few wage-earners. NRP Knesset member Shaul Yahalom said Yosef was attacking the NRP because it is sitting in the government and approving the budget cuts, but he added that the ultra-Orthodox community is largely responsible for its own problems.

“It is the families who are not working, not that they have a lot of children,” he said. “Therefore the majority of their income is coming from the budget of the state. That’s the point — because they are not going to work, and they are learning in the yeshivot all the day, therefore they have no income from salaries.”

But Shilhav said this situation is changing, with upward of 4,000 ultra-Orthodox men and a large number of women taking courses preparing them for the workforce.

Charedi leadership knows that this situation cannot go on very long, so more and more charedi men and women are [preparing] to participate in the economic life and join the labor force,” he said. “It is going very, very slowly, but it is a steady course to enlarge their participation in the social and economic life in Israel. I don’t know what will come first: that more and more will be taking a larger part in economic life or it is going too slowly, and we will face a social and political crisis before the process is complete. It’s a crisis that will tear Israeli society to pieces.”

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