Last Sunday, over 300,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Jerusalem in a mass rally, protesting the forced draft of yeshiva students into the IDF. Much of the city’s center was shut down for most of the day, while those gathered called for an end to the “evil decree,” threatening to evade the draft and serve time in jail, some threatening to sabotage Israel or leave the country. One speaker even compared Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the wicked King Ahasuerus.
Those advocating exemptions for yeshiva students argue that the students provide “spiritual protection” through their study and repeat the canard that Jewish law prohibits them from serving in the IDF; that Torah and army service are incompatible.
They will tell you that last Sunday’s mass rally was in defense of the honor of the Torah.
But in reality, they are protesting against the Torah. The rally was a desecration of the Torah’s honor.
Jewish Law is clear that all citizens must participate in the war effort when we are engaged in a milhemet mitzvah, or “obligatory war,” defined by Maimonides as “assisting Israel from the hand of the enemy who comes up against them.” With a nuclear threat from Iran looming, political unrest in Syria, enemy states on our borders, and the constant threat of terrorism from within, anyone who is intellectually honest must admit that we find ourselves today embroiled in a national security situation that demands everyone’s help. No exceptions.
What’s missing is a sense of shared responsibility and shared destiny. The State of Israel was born by religious and non-religious alike, as Jews of every stripe and political or religious affiliation fought in Israel’s War of Independence. They had not the luxury to sit back and be sectarian. How things have changed. The exemption of some 400 yeshiva students during the early days of statehood has ballooned to over 40,000.
And while Israelis seldom agree on anything, all agree that the current situation has become untenable. Indignant and frustrated, most Israelis see the inequality of serving in the IDF while their haredi coreligionists benefit from exemptions. Moses’ words of rebuke of the Tribes of Reuven and Gad, “Shall your brothers go out to battle while you sit here?” (Numbers 32:6), resonate today with those who see the imbalance in the current situation.
But forcing a draft on the haredi community will not work. To think it will is to be naïve. We have seen the face of coercion, religious or otherwise, in the State of Israel and it is ugly.
Instead, what’s necessary is a change in culture; a reexamination of Jewish law and Jewish values.
The haredi community needs to accept and embrace their role and responsibility in the fate of the Jewish state. They must encourage their young people to balance their religious and civic duties. Even a minimal commitment of service would go far in changing public opinion.
Precedent for such a balance has been set by Hesder, which includes a serious commitment to both Torah study and military service. Hesder units are comprised of the best and brightest, mostly from the Religious Zionist camp, serving in elite combat units; many of who rise in rank due to their devotion and passion. They typify, as the Midrash teaches, that the sword and the sefer (book), are bound together. Hesder is a living, breathing example that a healthy balance between Torah and army service can be achieved.
What is encouraging is that a “Haredi Hadash,” or “New Haredi,” is emerging today in the State of Israel. Recent years have seen a gradual shift in attitude toward military service. Haredi units, which offer special religious accommodations to soldiers, are growing in size due to the educational and career opportunities they offer young people.
In addition, new technical schools, catering to haredi men and women, encourage greater integration into Israel’s workforce. While only a small percentage of the haredi community currently takes advantage of these programs, there is movement in a positive direction. This step forward needs to be applauded and commended, embraced and encouraged.
Rabbis and communal leaders must be honest with their flock about what Jewish Law demands, and encourage their community to join together in solidarity and brotherhood, sharing the burden of military service. It would go a long way to heal deep wounds.
The author lives and teaches in Jerusalem.