I write as someone who is convinced that haredim will one day make large contributions both to the IDF and to the Israeli economy.

When that day will dawn, however, depends to a large extent on the form of the national debate currently taking place under the slogan “equality of the burden” and, more importantly, on the direction the next government takes with respect to the issue.

There are two basic ways to approach the issue of haredi service. The first is as a matter of high principle. The second is as a practical matter. The first approach is currently represented by Yair Lapid, who spent his time in the IDF training for a career in journalism; the second is represented by former chief of staff Moshe Ya’alon.

The argument of high principle was put to me last week by moderator Leah Zinder at the outset of a TV debate on the draft with Yohanan Plesner: “More and more Israelis are asking themselves whether it’s fair that young men like Yohanan Plesner [who served in an elite combat unit] should go at the age of 18, risk their lives, endure great hardship, in order to defend us – all of us – while at the same time 18-year-old yeshiva students are exempted from that burden. Is that fair?” she asked.

I cannot refute the “fairness” argument on its own terms. Any answer would require accepting premises that the general public does not. The fairness argument need not deny that Torah learning is crucial to preserving our identity as a people or to our knowing what we are fighting for. Proponents could even theoretically acknowledge that Torah learning contributes to the Divine protection without which Israel’s survival since 1948 is hard to explain.

Rather, it focuses on an emotional argument – no one was ever killed studying Torah in a study hall – and a fundamental distinction between IDF recruits and yeshiva students, no matter how dedicated. A soldier serving in the IDF is serving at the compulsion of the state (even though he might have volunteered absent that compulsion); a yeshiva student is doing exactly what he professes to want to do most – studying Torah. He is not under compulsion.

Yet the haredi public hears a different message: “We will break you until you submit to the dictates of the state. It does not matter whether the IDF wants or needs you or is capable of absorbing you. The only thing that matters is that you cannot do what you want at age 18 and that you close your Talmud.”

That understanding is reinforced every time we hear: “We understand why you can’t serve in IDF, but why can’t you do national service?” Most forms of national service would be make-work, costing the state far more than they are worth. And closing one’s Talmud to perform such tasks would be a bigger disgrace to Torah in a way that serving as a combat soldier is not.

THE PRACTICAL approach starts from a different place. It, too, admits that there is a problem: As haredim constitute an ever larger share of each draft cohort, the IDF will face serious manpower shortages. Moreover, as the percentage of those not serving grows, the rest of the population will not submit to a draft.

But this approach acknowledges that arrangements that have been in place for 64 years will not be changed overnight. It further acknowledges that there is a lot of mutual suspicion, and “confidence-building” steps will be required. In particular, the haredi community must be convinced that the goal of the larger society is not to destroy Torah learning and with it the haredi community for whom the study of Torah is the highest societal value. The haredim must be assured that service in the IDF is not designed to fashion them into “new Jews,” the creation of which was indeed the highest aspiration of many of the founding fathers of Zionism.

The practical approach searches for points on which there is a wide consensus. One point of general agreement is that birth into a haredi home does not confer an automatic exemption from national service. Most haredim agree that those not learning Torah should theoretically serve in the IDF. At the same time, most Israeli Jews would agree that the state should not place citizens in frameworks in which they are compelled to transgress their deepest religious convictions. Nor should it place young people in frameworks that make it unlikely that they can sustain their religious identity.

Pragmatists also recognize that the haredi community has been undergoing rapid change over the last decade. Large numbers of haredim are seeking vocational and academic education. Approximately 10,000 haredim are currently enrolled in academic degree granting programs. In addition, there has been a substantial jump in the number of haredi men serving in the IDF – both unmarried men of draft age, who are not interested in or are for whatever reason not suited to the rigors of a full day of yeshiva studies, and older married men in the various Shahar programs, in which they are trained in a variety of technical fields.

The focus of the pragmatists is on finding ways to encourage the present trends and expand the points of entry into the IDF or some other form of national service for haredim. They are thinking about new frameworks – e.g. a hesder track for haredim – and expansion of programs that offer haredim the training they seek and help the IDF meet some of its critical needs. Their concern is not primarily with unmarried 18-year-olds.

Of no less concern to the pragmatists is the ability and the eagerness of the army to absorb large numbers of haredim in suitable frameworks, like the current Nahal Haredi. Both are far from certain. At present, the number of young men from haredi homes seeking to enlist is greater than the IDF’s ability to integrate them. The IDF has consistently resisted efforts to expand Nahal Haredi by adding new units and is turning away potential recruits.

Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, one of the moving forces behind Nahal Haredi, said in a recent interview that the IDF has too often shown itself unable to keep its promises to haredi recruits. An elite frogmen unit for haredim was closed shortly after opening for that reason.

AS LONG as the debate is being conducted in the context of election campaigns and the posturing of coalition negotiations, the voices of those who stand on principle will be dominant. That is not surprising. The “principled position” is easily articulated and emotionally appealing, and its negative consequences are less immediately obvious.

The pragmatists are more likely to be found in the manpower division of the army or working behind the scenes in the Knesset. Any compromises they might work out would be messy and fail to satisfy just about everyone.

Yet, if a fuller integration of haredim into the IDF and economic spheres is to take place, it is necessary that the pragmatists prevail. If the battle becomes an ideological one – submission versus resistance – the IDF will become in haredi eyes an instrument of coercion. Haredim will never agree that the laws of the state take precedence over those of God. No religious person, no matter what his religion, could agree to that proposition, even as he acknowledges the right of the state to punish him for his civil disobedience.

Reversal of the growing acceptance of the IDF by the haredi public would be a tragedy for both the State of Israel and the haredi community. It would bring to a halt the trend toward greater haredi integration.

Nahal Haredi has proven to be of great benefit for many young men from haredi homes who never found themselves in the mainstream yeshiva system. And the Shahar programs have helped make the IDF the optimal employer for haredi married men seeking to support their families. The Shahar programs provide on-the-job training in technical fields that ever larger numbers of haredim seek. And the work environment in the IDF for married haredi men is in many respects more suitable than they would find in the private sector. Those in the Shahar programs with whom I’ve spoken have generally expressed a high degree of satisfaction.

At the same time, haredim offer a potential solution to the IDF’s most critical manpower needs. Modern warfare is fought as much on the computer as on the battle front, and some of the greatest current manpower needs of the IDF are in technical areas. Young draftees, who in general leave the IDF after three years, are expensive to train. Married haredim are for that reason often a better investment for the IDF. They tend to put a greater emphasis on job stability and work conditions over obtaining the highest possible salary, and the re-enlistment rates for the Shahar programs have been among the highest in the IDF.

Standing on principle is always satisfying – for those on both sides of the barricades. But that satisfaction will be short-lived and any victories Pyrrhic if they prevent the pragmatists on both sides from working things out.

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.

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