Moshe Prigan starts his day just like many other men in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, with his morning prayer. It is only later that he does the unexpected, when he puts on his air force uniform and heads to the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv.
In this photo taken April 30, 2014, Capt. Moshe Prigan wraps himself in a tallit and prays – Photo: AP
The 30-year-old captain does not just serve in the military. He also recruits other ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to enlist, something the cloistered community has traditionally avoided.
But with Israel recently passing a contentious law to gradually increase ultra-Orthodox enlistment, soldiers like Prigan could symbolize a historic shift among the haredim.
“The haredi community is a thinking community. They realize that what was cannot continue being,” Prigan said. “The ‘Arab Spring’ is also happening in the haredi community. There is a ‘Haredi Spring’ taking place as the Internet and smartphones develop. You can’t avoid it.”
Throughout Israel’s 66 years, the ultra-Orthodox have mostly kept their distance from mainstream society by sticking close to their insular neighborhoods and dedicating their lives to study and prayer. With government acquiescence, they also have skipped military service, which is compulsory for most Jewish men.
The issue of military service is at the core of a cultural war over the place of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israeli society today.
Draft exemptions go back to Israel’s establishment in 1948, when the government allowed several hundred gifted students to pursue religious studies. The number of exemptions has grown over the years, with thousands of young religious men evading the draft to pursue seminary studies while most other Jewish men are conscripted for three years of mandatory service.
The exemptions have caused widespread resentment toward the ultra-Orthodox and were a central issue in parliamentary elections last year.
Ultra-Orthodox leaders have vowed to resist the new law. They insist their young men serve the nation through prayer and study, thus preserving Jewish learning and heritage, and by maintaining a pious way of life that has kept the Jewish faith alive through centuries of persecution. They fear that integration into the secular military will undermine their lifestyle, in which older men often avoid the workforce and collect welfare stipends while continuing to study full time.
Leaders of the community say their ancient brand of Judaism is under siege and their followers would rather sit in prison than join the military. Tens of thousands have staged large demonstrations against the new law and warn of an uprising if it is carried out.
But quietly, the number of ultra-Orthodox soldiers has been growing. According to the military, some 1,860 joined last year, up from 288 in 2007.
It’s a far cry from the high participation rates among secular and modern Orthodox youth, but nonetheless reflects a new openness in the community.
Due to its high birthrate and the relatively low participation in the workforce, the ultra-Orthodox community suffers from high unemployment and poverty. There have been increasing questions over the ultra-Orthodox education system, which teaches students about Judaism but very little math, English or science.
More than a quarter of all Israeli first-graders are ultra-Orthodox, and government statistics project that if this trend continues, the ultra-Orthodox could make up 15 percent of the country’s population by 2025. Currently, the community comprises less than 10% of Israel’s more than 8 million people.
The ultra-Orthodox have shown a growing willingness to allow those who are not full-time seminary students to join the military. But Yerach Tucker, a spokesman for the community, said that trend would likely reverse now that they feel under fire.
“Things were changing quietly behind the scenes, but now it’s a war,” Tucker said.
Some of those serving in the military have been branded as collaborators and have faced harassment and assaults by haredi extremists. Prigan said insults had been hurled his way, and his 5-year-old son was even told that his father was a “hardak” — an insulting combination of “haredi” and “insect.”
But he says he is not deterred and that he represents the wave of the future.
“I tell my son that Daddy is protecting the people of Israel, Daddy is doing what is needed, and that is what’s important,” Prigan said.
“What the rabbis are afraid of is [their] culture changing. Incrementally, it is seeping through. Rome was not built in a day. It’s a change that seeps through as the concept collapses. The walls of the ghetto will fall one day.
“It is possible. We must do it. This is our war. From this unit a battle is starting. It’s a battle for unity, a battle to bring people together.”
View original Israel Hayom publication at: http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=17293