Satmar Brothers Divided Over How to Cope with Conscription of Yeshivists

It would have been hard to imagine this a few years back, but R. Aaron is now emphatically opposed to activist campaigns to protest the conscription of yeshiva students in Israel, such as the demonstration his brother R. Zalman organized in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in June. Despite his fealty to the Satmar dynasty’s legacy opposition to all things Zionist, Aaron believes that mass demonstrations against Yeshivah conscription –whether in Israel or the United States– are futile so long as key Rabbis in Israel are acquiescent to the practice, as evidenced from their silence on the matter.

Background.

Conscription of Yeshiva students in Israel is nothing radically new. Compulsory conscription of all military-aged Jewish men to the armed forces (known as tzahal) has been normative in Israel since its foundation in 1948. At the time, however, a concession was quietly granted to the small haredi leadership at the time that so long as its students were engaged in torah study they were to receive a dihuy (postponement). But haredim had a deeper motive to evade military service: a fear of assimilation into the mainstream non-observant Israeli culture that would likely stem from serving alongside hilonim (non-religious folk).

Hence the practice emerged for haredi boys to keep renewing their yeshiva-based postponement until they were married with children and old enough for the armed forces to permanently exempt them from service. The practice was somewhat cumbersome, requiring students to annually check in with the local conscription office and prove they were still in Yeshiva. If a yeshiva student sought an early exemption, e.g. based on a medical condition, the process was even more exacting, requiring a much-scrutinized examination and report from a doctor attesting to the matter.

Another tactic often adopted was for the yeshiva boy to agree to enroll in the military but to then immediately and persistently request accommodations for their haredi lifestyle, e.g. the attendance of mikveh every day or edah-haharedis-certified food. This caviling attitude usually was effective and such yeshiva men typically succeeded in obtaining the much-coveted petur (exemption) in a matter of days. That’s because the Israeli military recognized that service in the armed forces required that soldiers be willing and patriotic; there was no point in coercing someone to serve, especially when they acted eccentric and were uncooperative thus compromising the order and discipline in the ranks.

In recent decades, however, a growing chorus among mainstream Israelis began demanding reform in this practice. The original concession, not codified in law, was meant to apply to a small coterie of sincere Torah students (which, incidentally, the seculars did not believe would survive into modernity) and only temporarily until they could finish their studies. Over the decades, as the haredi community grew in size and proportion to the general population, and as the custom solidified for no haredi men to ever serve regardless of whether they were sincere about their studies or not, the matter raised eyebrows. “Why should we risk our lives for our country and the haredim be absolved?” railed non-haredi society indignantly.

The Tal Committee was formed in 1999 to find a formal legislative solution to the dilemma. The Tal Law that was consequently passed gave yeshiva-study-based postponements legal validity but it also stipulated that at age 22 yeshiva students should get job training and either enlist in the military for an abridged 16-month period or perform “national service”, albeit with no penalty for failure to comply. Many seculars were irate at this unequal treatment now officially granted to haredim under the dubious “toratom umanutom” (torah is their trade) doctrine. When it became apparent that haredim were not enlisting even for a short stint at age 22 and in special haredi units, the law was doomed. The Israeli High Court declared it unconstitutional in 2012 and instructed the government to revamp it. The High Court was okay if the law treated haredim differently from seculars, but only if the objective was an eventual more equal sharing of the burden.

The new conscription law enacted in 2014, titled “Equality of Burden”, calls for a gradual annual increase in the number of haredi enlistees. If that quota is not met then all haredi military-aged men (except for 1,800 most gifted) are subject to immediate compulsory conscription. The law thus encourages yeshiva deans to prompt the bottom ~20% of its body to enlist thereby saving the rest from conscription. The law was attenuated by an initial “adaptation period” of three years before enforcement would begin, making 2017 the first enforcement year.

Haredi Reaction In Israel.

The haredi sector was alarmed and furious when the new law was first enacted in March 2014. A massive demonstration against the law was organized in Jerusalem by an unprecedented ad-hoc consortium of the assorted divisions, factions, and sects within haredi jewry.

But the unity was not to last. The leader of the Lithuanian division of haredi Jewry in Israel (organized politically within the UTJ party as Degel Hatorah), R. Yehuda Leib Shteinman, was unperturbed by the “decree against torah” emanating from the Israeli government. He apparently decided that the government’s conscription demands were not unreasonable and he therefore refused to participate or condone any resistance to the law. While he demurred from openly sanctioning enlistment, he did not contest it either, thus permitting fertile ground for government efforts to bear fruit: it soon became normative for tzahal-uniform-dressed young men to appear in the synagogue to partake in prayer and study sessions. Some even had the hutzpah, under government inducement, to attempt to recruit their fellow haredim. A special unit within tzahal dedicated to the needs of haredi soldiers was formed: nahal haredi.

Moreover, the reaction from other rabbis, including the hasidic ones affiliated with the Agudas Israel party, soon became muted as well. It did not behoove them to openly denounce R. Shteinman a leader of tens of thousands and universally recognized for his piety and erudition. What’s more, the government and other parties (primarily Yesh Atid, the one that campaigned for the new conscription law) kept an attentive ear to any open criticism of the new law emanating from the haredi sector and were poised to strike back with threats of withholding government funds or otherwise proposing legislation to scale back the haredi welfare state. With nothing to gain and everything to lose from open resistance to the law, an eerily ambivalent silence soon became normative for most haredim even for those who quietly exhorted their own not to be coaxed into enlistment by the roving bands of haredi-dressed soldiers. (Defiantly public denunciation of the law by a dean subjects his yeshiva to be delisted and its students to become ineligible for a dihuy).

Enter R. Shmuel Auerbach.

After the passing of Degel Hatorah’s 1990’s leader, R. Shach, an open rift had emerged within the Ponevezher Yeshiva and its thousands of Lithuanian alumni: the Kahaneman faction (affiliated with the family that originally founded the yeshiva) eventually appointed Rav Shteinman as the dean, and the Shmuel Markowitz faction (Markowitz being a brother-in-law of Kahaneman) revered R. shmuel Auerbach, son of R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach.

R. Auerbach and his supporters –not bound by any comity after decades of wrangling with the Kahaneman wing of the Lithuanian sector– balked. R. Auerbach came out openly against R. Shteinman and the latter’s acquiescence to conscription. Other Old Yishuv sects followed his lead, including the Edoh-Haharedis-affiliated Toldos Aharon, Toldos Avrohom Yitzhok, and Dushinsky; as well as Satmar.

In the battle between Auerbach and Shteinman on Yeshvist Consciption the daily newspaper Hapeles has taken Auerbach’s zealous stance, while Yated Neeman (official Degel Hatorah publication) has taken the Shteinman side.

American Response

Whereas the Auerbach faction in Israel is in the minority and somewhat wary of dissent toward the preeminent R. Shteinman, the Lithuanian sector in America is more emboldened. Under the hegemony of R. Malkiel Kotler, dean of the famous Bais Medrash Gavoah (BMG) Yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J., a bevy of Rabbis arrayed themselves in vocal opposition to haredi conscription on behalf of their Israeli brethren. A formal missive was composed in May 2017 by the rabbinical members of the Council of Torah Sages (Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah) asking their Israeli counterparts why there is silence in the face of such an oppressive law and what the American communities can do to help. Signatories to the letter include Eliyoho Ber Vachtfogel, dean of S. Fallsburg yeshiva; R. Aaron Feldman, dean of Ner Yisral yeshiva in Baltimore; R. Aaron Schechter, dean of the Hayyim Berlin yeshiva; and the Novominsker Rebbe, president of the Council.

While the Lithuanians were awaiting a formal response from the Israeli Council of Torah Sages, R. Zalman Leib Teitelbaum launched a resistance campaign of his own in the spirit of an abiding Satmar hostility to everything Zionist. More than a half century ago, during the lifetime of R. Joel Teitelbaum, the first anti-Zionist campaign was launched and it was on an issue very similar to the current one, namely, the conscription of women (giyus bonos). At the time Satmar argued that the real intention of the Zionists was lascivious in nature, as it was then not yet normative globally for women to serve in the military. Under immense opposition from Satmar, the government eventually caved and agreed to excuse women who claimed an exemption due to their religion. Triumphant in victory, the Satmars had followed that campaign with a number of others to mixed success, including one against the “apostasy of the Yemenite children”, the destruction of allegedly millennia-old Jewish graves, and against profanation of the sabbath in Jerusalem.

R. Zalman, as an heir to the Satmar throne, no doubt felt that the current campaign against conscription of yeshiva students naturally aligned with the Satmar Opinion (known as the shittoh). Accordingly, he organized a mass rally at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to demonstrate against it. The theory went that the Israeli haredim are muzzled either because they are partners in the government or because they are afraid of the political consequencesBesides, the Zionist regime did not care about its own people and the turmoil they may cause internally but would be embarrassed by vocal resistance stemming from American Jews and be impelled to capitulate.

The rally was the first of its kind in modern times. Demonstrations against Israel by Satmar in previous decades were held in public streets in Manhattan (an exception is the one held in MSG in the late 70’s). The campaign for the rally was meticulously well organized and was to include other haredi sects, who, surely –it was believed– would go along with a protest against such a detestable practice as conscription of yeshiva students. Money was raised, logistics were arranged, and diplomacy was conducted with other sects to negotiate the terms of a consortium of haredi sects united in their opposition to yeshivah conscription.

To the consternation of the rally organizers, however, no outside endorsements were to be had. The expected Lithuanian support for such a campaign turned out to be a mirage. While many of them were brave enough to commit their signature on the letter sent to the Israeli Council of Torah Sages, they did not have the gall to partake of a rally openly defiant of R. Shteinman. Some of the small Satmar-aligned hasidic sects hemmed and hawed before giving an answer, wary of being the only ones following a Satmar initiative. They all ultimately wriggled out, including such classic Satmar-aligned stalwarts as Pupa, R. Mottele-Vizhnitz, Bobov-45, and Skolen, the latter of which had issued a lukewarm letter endorsing the rally but his followers were a no-show at the rally. The only Lithuanian leader to “beautify the oyven-uhn” was R. Aaron Schechter but his followers did not appear either.

Zalman’s rival brother and adversary R. Aaron Teitelbaum also declined to partake in the event. He nominally took the position –as published in Der Blatt– that mass anti-zionist demonstrations must encompass a panoply of haredi sects, as is traditional; that since the Lithuanians are not on board with the program it is better not to embark on it; that open protests would derail any effort that was allegedly quietly being made to soften the conscription decree. As he later put it: “Trump phones Bibi and asks him ‘what do you say to what is going on with all the protesting over conscription? why are you doing this to your Torah students?’ and Bibi responds ‘nothing is going on. Nobody is being forcefully removed the besmedrash. If you don’t believe me, you are welcome to tour the hundreds of yeshivot and kolelim here in Israel. They are filled to the brim with an unprecedented high number of tens of thousands students.”

(Critics have now detected a pattern of the Satmar brothers automatically rejecting any public initiative launched by the other thus precluding Aaronite support for this rally regardless of its merit. Another theory attributes Aaron’s antipathy for the rally to a decades-old enmity toward the rally’s chief advocate in Israel, R. Shmuel Auerbach. Back in the 1990’s when R. Aaron was Rabbi of Kiryas Joel and had approved the formation of the Kiryas Joel independent school district in order to qualify for full state education funding for its Shaare Hemlah school, some haredi elements (Kashau, R. Mottele-Vizhnitz) had voiced outrage at Aaron’s removal of the mezuzos from the school’s facilities. When R. Aaron sought an endorsement from the generally lenient R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, it was Shmuel Auerbach –R. Shlomo’s son– who dissuaded his father from issuing the dispensation.)

The Zalmanites found themselves at the brink of doom. They faced the specter of embarrassment at a failed rally to the glee of its Aaronite enemy. But it was too late to try to pull out either. They therefore gave it all they had, pulling out all stops within their ranks to fill the seats of the Barclays stadium. It was all hands on deck for the bohorim, yungerleit and senior citizens in Zalman’s community and all who were close enough to Zalmanites to save them from embarrassment. The Zalmanites were thus able to fill the stadium and could boastfully point to photos of the event showing a sea of black grab and hats as proof of its success.

A short while after the Barclays rally, it was Aaron’s turn to celebrate. The American Moetzes had received an official response to its letter from its Israeli counterpart. In it, R. Dov Landau, dean of the eminent Slabodka Yeshivah, and others, declare that there is no grave conscription problem; that the American Rabbis should not believe the lies and propaganda promulgated by the agitators; that their interest is best served by silence on the part of the Americans. In consequence of the response, R. Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, who had been one of the signatories of the original American letter now issued an apology and recanted his critique of the Israeli leadership on the matter.

Summary

On the question of whether there is a “decree of conscription against yeshiva students”, the camps are diametrically opposed to one another, not just ideologically but factually. Aaron Teitelbaum and the Shteinman folk believe there is no problem. Zalman Teitelbaum and the Auerbach folk believe there is.

Be Sociable, Share!

2 Responses to Satmar Brothers Divided Over How to Cope with Conscription of Yeshivists

  1. Moshe Friedman says:

    Thanks for such a beautiful indepth weighty analysis and enlightening tackling of the latest hasidic news regarding this issue.

    But i need to orect you with one small detail.

    You say the Zalmen won’t attend protests his brother Aron organizes – This is factually wrong he attended the wall street anti israel protest Aron organized 2 years ago r so.

    only Aron is such a petty child, throws away his Satmar anti-Zionism Shita for petty politics not to make his brother look good, in the process acting like the buffoon he is.

    Thank you Aron for showing the world why Satmar had brought your younger brother Zalmen out of nowhere to make him your competitor.

    And as this article shows, – as well the one before about the france kids, – Zalmen is winning this brotherly war big time!

  2. Aron Pro-Bib-Bum says:

    Israel is like a third world country. It forces its citizens to fight the Palestinians – Look how even its most opposed citizens to Zionism – the Haredim want it silenced because of petty politics and money!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *