Once again, the nation of Israel is embroiled in fierce debate over the rights of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) students to defer their army service until after they finish their studies. The haredi community wants to maintain the arrangement negotiated in 1948. They argue that drafting their students into the army would deprive them of Torah study during their formative and impressionable years and reduce the overall number of Torah scholars in the nation. The Jewish nation must preserve its collective bank of Torah knowledge to ensure its future. Also, Torah study ushers divine blessing onto the army's efforts to ensure the nation's security and is thus a vital spiritual piece of the nation's defense.

The secular community feels it is unfair to compel the non-haredi to bear the haredi’s burden. When the current arrangement was first reached in 1948, the haredi community was relatively small, but that number has risen exponentially. Today there are hundreds of thousands of haredi youth that do not contribute to the country’s security, increasing the burden manifold on the non-haredi.

The economy also fuels this debate. A large percentage of haredim opt for a career of Torah study. Despite the spiritual and intellectual yield of this growing community, their economic dependence on the government places an increasing burden on the shrinking pool of Israeli tax payers.

Drafting students at a young age would bolster the army’s ranks and distribute the security burden evenly across the nation. It would also broaden the horizon for these students, paving the way for their eventual entry to the work force.

This then is the rub. The haredim claim that the campaign to draft their students is a sinister attempt to shrink the pool of Torah students, without which the nation’s spirit will deplete. The broader community asserts that the issue is economic and the current system is untenable. A more realistic and sustainable system is needed.

In all this there is an undercurrent, a sub text that fuels the heated disagreement. Many in the haredi community reject the legitimacy of the Jewish state. It is their opinion that Jews are forbidden to establish a foothold in Israel until the coming of Moshiach. They refuse to join the army, as they refuse to pay taxes, on principle. But this community, though a minority, is outpacing the secular community in natural growth. With the current trajectory it won’t be long before this group becomes the majority.

The secular chafe at supporting the group that denies them legitimacy and hopes to overthrow them. It is secretly hoped that drafting haredi youth into the army and pulling funding from their institutions will hamper haredi growth and weaken their political muscle. This is precisely what worries the haredi community too. Naturally, they don’t want to be hampered and prefer to grow unimpeded.

Not The First Time
Sitting around our Pesach Table we came to the realization that there is nothing new under the sun. A similar scenario played itself out many centuries ago. The foreign family of a powerful Egyptian viceroy was invited to relocate to Egypt, where they would be supported by the government. Years passed and the small family became a fast growing minority. The natives, worried that with the passage of time they might lose their majority, approached the minority with a proposal: "We have supported you for many years, but now that you have grown so large, it has become untenable. It is time for you to join the work force and give back to the nation that supported you." Concerned that if they were to work alongside the majority, they would quickly lose their identity and assimilate into the majority, the minority’s spiritual leaders rejected the proposal. Notwithstanding this objection, the laity accepted the proposal and went to work. As it happened, the proposal emerged as deceptive; rather than cooperating with the minority, the majority coopted and enslaved them. Indeed, if not for the few spiritual leaders who saw through the farcical proposal and refused to work, electing instead to study Torah, the minority might well have assimilated and lost its identity.

Not The Same
By now you have probably caught on that I am talking about our ancestors’ plight in ancient Egypt and your reaction to my comparison depends on your background. If you are haredi, you are rejoicing over the uncanny resemblance as it makes your point precisely. The Egyptians presented an economic problem, but were really concerned about a hostile takeover. Their proposal to draft the Jews into the work force was a shelter for their sinister plan to subjugate and assimilate them. What a resemblance! If your sympathies don’t lie with the haredim you are probably seething by now. How dare this writer compare me to the ancient Egyptians? They were sinister whereas we are transparently upfront with legitimate concerns and ethical designs. The impertinence of this comparison is unforgivable.

And you would both be right. The two stories bear resemblance, yet it is ridiculous to compare them.

A Family
The difference is that we really aren't on opposing sides. The Egyptians and Jews were two separate nations and were right to fear each other. The Egyptians feared a Jewish majority and the Jewish leaders were suspicious of Egyptian designs. But we are a single people and we tend to forget that. The majority fears a haredi take over, but what is to fear if the new ruler is your brother? The shame lies equally on the haredi. What kind of brother seeks to dismantle the family home, if given the chance? When a husband and wife battle each other to solve a common problem they end up destroying their marriage. When there is a problem, a husband and wife approach it as a team, each bringing their unique perspective to the potential solution. We need to start treating our nation like the family that it is.

So much water has flowed under this bridge. So many encounters, so many offenses, so many insults, so many failures and so many disappointments. It is no wonder that many have thrown up their hands and said: "Enough, we can’t get along even if we tried." But try we must. How can we not? Cooler heads must prevail. Let leaders, who enjoy the esteem of their communities, sit down and negotiate. Each side has legitimate grievances and concerns. Each side has creative and wise solutions. Let’s put our heads together and figure this out as a team. Let’s nip and tuck, compromise and sacrifice.

But this can only happen if we are willing to return to our roots. If we are willing to view the problem as our problem. The haredim cannot shrug off the lack of funds to support their community and the inherent unfairness that chafes the secular public. Non-haredim cannot dismiss the nation’s vital need for Torah students, who preserve Torah for the next generation and keep the nation’s spirit alive. We need both; a sound economy and functioning army as well as a thriving and flourishing Torah community. Each community can reach out and help the other. Each has strengths that complements the other. As the early Zionists put it: “If we will it, it will be” - we can unite in common purpose. Let’s take a lesson from the Torah, “V’ahavta L’reacha Kamocha,” love your fellow as you love yourself. It is easy to love those who look and think like you, the challenge the Torah lays at our feet is to love those who think and dress differently from us. Recognize that he, too is our fellow and they too are our brothers. As always, the old adage applies: “United we stand, divided we fall.”
 
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a respected writer, scholar and speaker, is the spiritual leader of Beth Tefilah congregation in London, Ontario. He is the author of Reaching for God: A Jewish Book on Self Help, and his new book, Mission Possible: Living With Higher Purpose will be released this spring and can be pre-ordered by emailing egurkow@gmail.com

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