The Ultra-Orthodox and Army Service in Israel: a Response
By Fred Skolnik
The current debate in Israel about the extension of the compulsory draft to the Ultra-Orthodox (haredi) population has yielded a very broad spectrum of opinion, and not a little misinformation. I would like to offer a few thoughts.
There are currently around 100,000 haredi men studying in yeshivot or kolelim in Israel under draft exemptions or deferments and around 2,500 serving in the army. It would be extremely misleading to claim that this has been the situation since 1948. Ben-Gurion, recognizing the need to revive the Torah world, consented to deferments for 400 Ultra-Orthodox men to be defined as "professional religious scholars" (toratam omanutam). This was raised to 800 in 1968, and no one, including the haredim, thought the arrangement was unreasonable. In 1977, however, to put together his coalition, Menachem Begin removed the quotas and in effect gave deferments or exemptions from military service to all Ultra-Orthodox men, which, I must say, contributed to the creation of a culture that has been destructive to Israeli society and to the haredim themselves. (Among the rest of the Jewish population, 12% receive deferments on an individual basis: 3% living abroad, 6% for medical reasons, and 3% for unsuitability.)
Perpetual full-time yeshiva study has never been the norm for Orthodox men. In the East, it was customary to send one son to a yeshiva and the rest to work, and no one would argue about the contribution of Eastern or Sephardi Jews to the Jewish world. Among "national-religious" Jews (kippot serugot), both army service (through the yeshivot hesder) and full integration into the work force are the norm, and even among American haredim or "Litvakim," yeshivah studies are combined with professional training (in the Touro system, for example) and young men rarely remain in yeshivot past the age of 30, while Hasidim usually join the work force by the age of 21. It is only in Eastern Europe, as a reaction to the "threat" of the Haskalah, that a closed Torah world began to develop, which was extended into Israel with the collusion of politicians and even managed to haredize Eastern Jews after Rabbi Shach became the mentor of Ovadia Yosef.
Exemption from military service is a moral issue, however it is rationalized. Rabbi Eliashiv z"l ruled that haredim do not have the moral right to express opinions about security matters precisely because they do not serve in the army. But do they have the moral right not to serve, to sit in a yeshiva while other people are risking their lives to defend them? Arguing that Torah study also protects the Jewish people cannot be a basis for determining civil responsibilities in an organized state, nor will it console a parent who has lost a child on the field of battle. It is in effect "counterproductive," serving to alienate a population that the Ultra-Orthodox would like to see returning to the fold.
No one proposes drafting all draft-age haredi men into the army, though it is the army and no one else that must decide what its needs and capabilities are. The alternative of community service is on the table. There is no reason on earth why haredim should not devote some of their time to helping others the way national-religious girls do. They can work in hospitals, schools, prisons, among the elderly, among immigrants, even in the police. In any case, wherever they are, they can continue to study. It is really not asking too much to require them to give a year or two of their lives (an eight-hour day and no more) to the State that protects and supports them.
Furthermore, just as 100% of all men are obviously not suited to be academic scholars, neither do 100% of haredi men have the temperaments or intellectual ability to be full-time Torah scholars. Obviously all religious people should study but only a select few are capable of studying all the time. Unwittingly, haredi society is placing an enormous burden on its men, forcing them into a way of life that takes a severe emotional toll on them, just as it would on the average man forced to study philosophy and law from morning to night day after day and year after year. One need only observe a group of yeshiva bochers smoking furiously during breaks to understand the strain they are under. Of course they will tell you they are happy (can they say anything else without calling into question their entire way of life?), just as their wives will say they are happy after working themselves to the bone looking after 6, 7 or 8 children, keeping house, shopping, cleaning and maybe even holding a job, with a husband who is rarely around when they need him. It is in fact the women who have exerted the most pressure on the rabbis over the past 20 years to bring about a change in the haredi way of life, and as a result there has been the beginning of an effort to organize vocational frameworks for the men (65% of whom do not work), in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, for example. However, the rabbis have never gotten wholeheartedly behind them and consequently they have only attracted a few thousand students. A case in point was the plan to set up a branch of Touro under the auspices of Bar-Ilan University in the 1990s. Ovadia Yosef had agreed to serve as president but after a prolonged campaign against him by the haredim he backed down and the project fell through.
From the perspective of the State of Israel, the nonparticipation of a growing percentage of its population in national life will produce a crisis of the first magnitude when the Ultra-Orthodox population reaches a certain size. (In 50 years it is projected that haredim will comprise nearly a third of Israel's population.) Simply put, the State will be unable to support a nonworking population of that size. It will not have the means to do so, nor to sustain itself. Then it will be a simple case of biting the hand that feeds you or cutting off your nose to spite your face, for the State will truly be in danger of collapsing economically. The present system gives even those who wish to leave the yeshiva a built-in incentive to remain in order to avoid military service, where they might in fact receive training that would help them get jobs in civilian life. This is a vicious circle that will have grave consequences for the State of Israel.
from the August 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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