Prime Minister Netanyahu, this is the time for courage. You face a decision nearly as momentous, and in some ways much more momentous, than the decisions you must make about Iran and about peace with the Palestinians. And while on Iran and peace the people of Israel are divided, on this matter they are not: 85% of Israelis—an unheard of majority—agree that the time for action has come.
I am referring to the need—indeed the demand—that Israelis share the burden of defending the state in a far more equitable fashion than they do now. Israelis love their country and are prepared to give their lives to protect her citizens from the depredations of terrorists and hostile powers on her border. But they are no longer prepared to sit in silence while some distort the teachings of Torah for their own purposes in order to evade their responsibilities to the Jewish State.
I write these words one day before Remembrance Day and two days prior to Independence Day. On those days I will be silent, setting aside political disagreements to remember Israel’s dead and to mourn with their families, and then to celebrate the great miracle that is Israel, which has returned the Jewish people to history after 2000 years, giving them once again control of their destiny.
But today I am distressed. I have just read that 23,000 Israelis have died in defense of their homeland. This terrible burden, growing every year, can only be borne if it is shared by all. And yet nearly 60,000 yeshivas students enjoy exemptions from military service. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, the number was 400. In the early 1970s, it was 800. And yet today it is over 58,000. How can this be?
The idea that in the era of Jewish sovereignty young men should expect to engage in full-time yeshiva study at the expense of the State and to avoid thereby their other duties is wrong. The Rambam states plainly that he who expects to be supported by others in his study “desecrates the name of God, shames the Torah, extinguishes the light of the law, causes evil to himself, and removes his life from the world to come—for it is prohibited to benefit from the words of Torah in this world” (Talmud Torah 3:10).
Those rising up against this in Israel are Orthodox and non-Orthodox, right and left, Sephardi and Ashkenazi. It is an unprecedented coalition, filled with anger and resolve. They bear no ill will to those who embrace and devote themselves to Torah, but they know in their gut that it should not be done at their expense—that is not the Torah’s way—and what is happening is wrong and not sustainable.
And you can change course. There are a number of possible solutions: perhaps a more inclusive draft, perhaps national service for all, perhaps the curtailing of state subsidies for adult yeshiva students. They can be implemented gradually. But the change needs to be real. The burden needs to be shared. The honor of Torah needs to be restored. The injustice needs to be removed.
Most are betting that you won’t do it—that you will go for a cosmetic, meaningless fix. After all, elections are coming. There are coalitions to worry about, deals to be struck with those who benefit from the current system.
But, of course, elections are always coming. Coalition politics always intrude. But this is your moment. You have done great things as Prime Minister and this could be the greatest of all.