In describing the effects of the new draft bill one month ago, I considered only the response of what we would call the “core” charedi community — families in which both parents and children consider themselves bound to follow the directives of the Gedolei HaDor. An article in Ami Magazine about Rav Ovadiah Yosef zt”l, considered the leading authority of Sephardic Jewry until his passing in October of last year, alerted me that I had not considered the disproportionate impact that the law will have on the Sephardic community.
What I described was accurate, and is already coming to pass. That could almost be a pun, as my statement that “the budding Torah scholars will very happily choose jail, and be fêted as heroes for doing so,” was proven in the person of Yaakov Yisrael Paz, who was arrested for following the directive of HaRav Shmuel Auerbach shlit”a not to report to an induction center. He was released after ten days, and promptly escorted to an audience with Rav Auerbach himself, carried by a crowd of singing and dancing bochurim happy that one of their friends had sanctified G-d’s name by going to jail for his religious beliefs.
Galei Tzahal tried to get Paz to discuss the disagreement between Rav Auerbach and the consensus of Gedolim, or to admit that he didn’t enjoy being in jail. Both times, Paz brushed them off. His final response to the latter question is worth printing in its entirety:
You don’t get it! It isn’t slogans but my belief, our belief. We were 22 in my room and I earned the respect of all. They admired me for sticking with my beliefs. Actually the jail time was uplifting and inspiring. We davened every day and we had a minyan too.
You just do not understand, you will not break us. We are stronger than you and them. We have rabbonim and Torah on our side. We will not serve. We will not fold and we will continue adhering to the words of our gedolim, not the IDF.
Much as I’d like to pat myself on the back for my prescient insight, the only ones surprised by this are those who thought financial or even criminal sanction could measure up to the words of leading Gedolim. Yet as I said, that only pertains to the “core” of the charedi community, which skews Ashkenazic. Thus Rav Moshe Yosef quoted his father, Rav Ovadiah zt”l, as saying that this law is a much bigger problem for Sephardim than Ashekenazim: “The Ashekenazim are strong. They know how to fight against [the government] and they do. But the Sephardim we brought to Torah and to yeshivot can be snatched back more easily. It could bring down the whole level of the Sephardic community.”
For all the attention that we give to American, Russian, and Israeli Ashkenazi Baalei Teshuvah, we could overlook the fact that the Ma’ayan HaChinuch HaTorani, the network of over 130 Sephardic Torah schools in Israel, is having the most transformative impact upon its community. It explains in part why the Sha”s political party is supported by hundreds of thousands of Sephardic Jews who are not traditionally observant themselves. The Sephardic outreach effort is aided by two things: the level of education and overall atmosphere provided by Ma’ayan stands head and shoulders above that of secular Israeli schools, and Sephardim, for the most part, never left Judaism for ideological reasons in the first place.
Why did Sephardim leave observance? Because the Jewish Agency sent children ahead of their parents and planted them on secular kibbutzim, surrounded by Ashkenazi adults committed to rescuing them from themselves (which sounds familiar only because it actually is). In those days, their techniques included offering delicacies for consumption uniquely on Tisha B’Av and Yom Kippur, holding down boys and shaving off their peyos (which Yemenites call Simanim, signs), and confiscating modest clothing from girls to the point that former MK Rabbi Yitchak Peretz, a Moroccan immigrant, reported that his sister slept in her sole remaining skirt for months so that she would wake when they tried to steal it. And let’s not forget the Yemenite Baby Affair.
It is thus unsurprising that so many Sephardic parents are willing to send their children to Torah schools, where those boys who excel naturally wish to continue their studies in senior Yeshivot. At the same time, of course, children from less observant homes who spent more time on secular studies will naturally lag a bit behind for the first year, which makes them perfect targets for Dov Lipman’s infamous skills test. In their case, such a test has all the fairness of poll taxes in the deep South, and would have similar results.
And as Rav Yosef zt”l pointed out, these boys are naturally much more vulnerable to this newest round of inducements and threats from Israel’s enlightened elite, now represented by Yesh Atid. Receiving PM Netanyahu during the shiva of his son Rav Yaakov zt”l, Rav Ovadiah told the Prime Minister that “what is planned for yeshiva students hurts me even more” than losing his son. So it is not merely true that the law deliberately crossed the red lines which both Charedi leaders and thirty “leading experts and analysts of the haredi community” warned would provoke open conflict. The law not merely set back all current efforts to integrate charedim into job training and the work force, coercing them to join an Army that denies any need. The law also singles out an ethnic group that has suffered greatly from Israel’s elite in the past for further degradation.
This is not the first time something like this has happened in Jewish history, and efforts to single out the weakest among us are not recalled favorably: “vayezanev b’cha kol hanechshalim acharecha, v’ata ayef v’yagea,” “and he attacked the weakest among you, those stumbling in the rear, when you were tired and weak” [Deut. 25:18].
Yes, I am quite aware that this is a reference to Amalek, the greatest enemy of the Jews. It is not my fault that the disproportionate, race-based impact of this law makes the shoe such a perfect fit.