I do not offer the following thoughts to the members of the Plessner Committee in
order to convince them of the wisdom of the current draft deferment for
full-time yeshiva students. Life is short, and I do not fancy the role of
Sisyphus. Rather my intention is to give the committee members some insight into
the thinking and attitudes of the ultra- Orthodox community.
frequently today of the need to more fully integrate haredim into Israeli
society. It is important to clarify what is meant by “integration,” for the
model of integration chosen will have a large impact on the reaction of the
Full integration is impossible. Haredim cannot fully
integrate into Israeli life without ceasing to be haredim.
model, rather, is something close to historian Jacob Katz’s description of
Jewish society within the larger Christian society in Europe prior to
Jews had extensive contact with the surrounding Christian
society, particularly in the economic sphere. But, at the same time, they looked
almost exclusively toward the internal Jewish society for their sense of
affirmation and values.
Now, the analogy is by no means perfect. Haredi
Jews view themselves as bound to non-haredi Jews by a shared national mission in
a way that Jews in Europe did not feel bound to their gentile neighbors. In the
short term, however, haredim feel that their greatest contribution to the
welfare of their fellow Jews is to retain their distinctiveness and keep the
flame of Torah burning as brightly as possible.
The greatest reason
haredim fear joining the IDF is that it will be used as a melting pot for the
fashioning of a uniform Israeli national culture. They have no wish for their
sons to be socialized to the majority Israeli culture, which strikes them as
antithetical to fundamental Torah values in many ways.
Haredi fears on
this score are by no means irrational.
Israel’s first prime minister,
David Ben-Gurion, often described the IDF’s role in forging a national culture
as no less important than its role in national defense.
When haredim look
at the national-religious community, which has long placed a very high value on
military service, they see a cautionary tale. They note that on almost every
axis of social identification, the majority of the national-religious community
feels far closer to secular Israelis than they do their fellow observant
And in many ways, they are far closer culturally to the secular
community. The dilemmas of the characters on Srugim are viewed by secular
Israelis as, at worst, eccentric, whereas they would be viewed by most haredim,
if they had televisions, as wholly alien.
Recent events have exacerbated
haredi fears of the IDF as an instrument of socialization. The uproar over the
request of a handful of national-religious soldiers to absent themselves from a
women’s singing performance was widely perceived as an attempt to force
nationalreligious recruits to conform to majority cultural norms.
officers’ training candidates did not demand that the IDF only provide
entertainment in accord with their religious norms, but rather that the IDF
accommodate their beliefs, in a context with no conceivable implications for
Matters only grew worse when the chief rabbi of the
Israel Air Force resigned over what he described as the IAF’s failure to adhere
to various commitments he had made to haredi recruits in its highly successful
Shahar program. Those accommodations go to the heart of the IDF’s ability to
voluntarily attract married haredi men in their 20s.
The IDF would be far
wiser to focus its efforts at haredi recruitment initially on the older age
cohort of married men over the age of 22. By 24 or so, there is already a high
degree of self-selection between those who see their future in full-time
learning and those want to enter the workforce. And haredi concerns about
socialization to the majority norms decline with age and marriage.
IDF has been successful in developing programs that provide necessary training
to haredim precisely in areas in which the IDF is experiencing manpower
Those units have had among the highest re-enlistment rates in
the IDF, and there is room for expansion, for instance, by increasing proximity
of the units to haredi population centers.
The sight of thousands of
married haredim in uniform would have a filter-down effect to younger haredim,
lessening the stigma of IDF service as somehow not haredi. As the IDF
demonstrates its willingness and ability to accommodate the religious needs of
haredim, it becomes more attractive to the not insubstantial number of younger,
unmarried men from haredi homes who do not feel cut out for full-time Talmud
study – and, equally important, to their parents, many of whom recognize the
discipline and sense of pride the IDF instills as the best long-range hope for
their sons. Most of the younger group will be drawn to combat units.
on the other hand, the government focuses directly on the draft cohort of
18-year-olds, through heavy financial penalties on those who do not enlist at
that age or the institutions in which they learn, that will be perceived as a
direct frontal attack on the existence of the haredi community. The yeshivot are
the very raison d’etre of the haredi community. And anything perceived as an
effort to destroy them will harden haredi resistance and halt the salutary
trends of the last 10 years toward haredi academic study and entry into the
workforce and the IDF.
If economic pressure is to be applied, putting an
age limit on kollel stipends would be perceived as less of a direct attack on
the community’s continued viability.
The most talented and dedicated will
continue to learn anyhow, and institutions for the elite scholars will find
adequate private funding. And the government has not exhausted its bag of
possible incentives toward greater economic participation by younger married
haredim – e.g., a negative income tax, reform of the tax code to remove the bias
toward women working.
THE IDF will encounter little communal resistance
to the expansion of haredi combat units under the aegis of Nahal Haredi, as long
as they remain voluntary. And the same is true of creating national service
frameworks with appropriate religious environment for youth from haredi homes,,
especially if those frameworks allow for the performance of work that provides a
sense of achievement and include an educational component.
service is no panacea to get around haredi opposition to military service for
all 18-year-olds. “I understand why you [i.e., haredim] can’t serve in the army,
but why can’t you do national service?” I’m frequently asked.
I’m not sure I understand the question.
Yeshiva students are not
incapable of military service.
They would not be any less good soldiers
than the average new recruit. And in any army in which the most important elite
units are increasingly ones in which brains are more important that brawn, many
haredi young men would be prize recruits.
Nor can the lack of physical
danger in national service be the distinguishing factor. Haredim do not claim
that their blood is redder or that they have some special exemption from risking
their lives in defense of the Jews of Israel.
The question shows a
fundamental misunderstanding of the reasons behind the rejection of the draft of
18- year-olds – for those reasons would not be one iota less applicable to
national service. The loss of Torah study that would result from removing young
men between the ages of 18 and 21 from yeshiva would be exactly the same if they
were doing national service instead of serving in the military. Because haredim
marry young, that hiatus would mean for many that they never pick up the solid
basis in Torah learning that they will need no matter what they subsequently do
Some of likeliest forms of national service – Defense Minister
Ehud Barak once suggested painting garbage cans – would be a far greater
disgrace to Torah, as well as an unnecessary drain on national resources. They
would only create the impression that the real goal is to empty the
Contrary to popular opinion, haredim do not deny the necessity
of an army. Most can conceive of situations in which every able-bodied yeshiva
student would pick up arms. But there is no threat that could ever induce anyone
involved in Torah study to pick up a paintbrush.
FAIRNESS IS an important
desideratum for any country.
Its absence saps the willingness to
sacrifice in pursuit of common societal goals. And unquestionably, the ideal of
universal military service has been, and continues to be, an important source of
social cohesion in Israel.
But fairness is not the only societal value.
And its pursuit should not be conducted in a manner that makes the ultimate
goals harder to achieve. The pursuit of perfection – and immediately – is the
habitual enemy of the good. The political process, with its messy compromises,
is well-suited to this process. Now that the new coalition has effectively
neutered haredi political power, the secular majority can engage in this process
without raising panic and without anger clouding judgment.
echelons offer more hope than the judicial.
As Prof. Neri Horowitz has
said, the Supreme Court does not know sociology, and is unsuited to draft
decrees in accord with what it does know.
In recent years, the Education
Ministry has made important strides in improving secular studies in the haredi
sector for boys. (Among the girls it was already above the national average.) It
did so by avoiding a direct confrontation over a core curriculum for yeshivot
ketanot (for ages 14 to 16), and instead concentrating on the elementary school
level and the ever-expanding number of frameworks chosen by haredi parents who
do not want the traditional yeshiva ketana curriculum for their sons. It has
even found ways to introduce English outside of the formal educational
That commonsensical, non-confrontational approach points the way
for the Plessner Committee as well.
The writer is director of Jewish
Media Resources, has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine
since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.