A pragmatic challenge to the haredi draft

The combined army-hesder yeshiva system will remain predominantly untouched, as will the Arab military exemptions.

August 14, 2013 21:03
Haredi soldiers and their families attend event honoring them in Haifa, July 22, 2013.

Haredi soldiers and families 370. (photo credit: Zvi Roger, Haifa Municiplaity)

Upon the recent passing of the first stage of the “Perry Law” to draft young haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men into the army from 2017 onwards, I feel compelled to pen this. Under this law there will be full conscription for haredi men for all but 1,800 exemptions (how these exemptions are to be dished out is a proverbial can of worms), backed by forceful financial and criminal penalties. The combined army-hesder yeshiva system will remain predominantly untouched, as will the Arab military exemptions.

The risks in passing this bill are severalfold.

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According to current statistics, around 8,000 haredi men would be eligible for the draft each year, of which 2,500 (30 percent) are currently engaged in national service (a 50% figure was posted for secular Tel Aviv residents avoiding the draft; the current national avoidance rate is 25% for men and 43% for women). Add the 1,800 granted exemptions, and the number of potential enlisted haredi men the entire bill is fighting about is just 3,700 – for which the army can expect a four-year decrease in voluntary haredi enlistment due to the bill’s tough and alienating measures.

Further, increased reliance on military technology means that the number of soldiers required is decreasing anyway: the army recently advocated cutting its manpower by 5,000 troops and has just sent home thousands of new recruits deemed surplus to requirements to reenlist at a later date. If 5,000 troops are deemed unnecessary, why conscript 3,700 extra haredi troops? More striking is the cost of this entire operation: to train and adapt for a massive haredi influx is a giant operation about which several military figures have expressed their reservations – at a time of budget cuts and fiscal insecurity, too. It speaks volumes that it is the politicians and not the army echelons who proposed the bill. For Lapid to decry the fiscal deficit and irresponsible spending (pointing the finger at the UTJ MKs) and at the same time champion this bill is baffling.

Why is the government insistent on passing this bill despite the above risks? The operative words seem to be “sharing the burden/equality.” That haredi society are “a non-contributing burden” – not that they are not educated (their rigorous 60- hour-a-week study schedule is impressive, hence the South Korean move to institute Talmud into their national curriculum), but the “full-time Torah study” culture (even though in most haredi families one parent engages in full-time work) appears unfair.

Upon deeper inspection, this claim seems untenable. Haredi areas establish local ambulance services and medical care, as well as numerous interest-free loan funds and gemachim (“stocks of household items to borrow for free”). In addition, many national social action and povertyrelief charity organizations, such as Shalva (assisting mentally disabled children), Yad Sarah (providing medical equipment) and Yad Eliezer (soup kitchens) are all products of haredi yeshivot.

In America, where Jewish heritage is constantly being lost to assimilation (an issue inching toward Israel), it is predominantly the haredi-affiliated organizations such as Ohr Somayach and Aish Hatorah that are working tirelessly to stem this tide.

Furthermore, the fact that the divorce rate, crime rates and drug abuse are vastly lower in haredi society is certainly a welcome societal contribution: in terms of both cost and stability (at one point Bnei Brak did not require a police station). True, there are some “wild” elements in haredi society, but every sect of society has their exceptions/dropouts. It’s also true that haredi society is introverted – the general decline in moral standards of contemporary society (increased crime, sexualization, etc.) increases their desire to avoid external influence – but that hardly makes them “a danger to society” and is no reason for conscription.

Israeli girls can replace their army service with national service – some form of positive work for society (hospitals, schools, seminaries, etc.). Does haredi society contribute less than this? It seems that the government would like to dictate that the only contribution that counts is the army.

Some Israeli celebrities receive automatic exemption from army service; do celebrities contribute to society more than a haredi person? With regards to the economic argument that haredim are “leeches on public coffers,” this must be objectively examined, too. While there is considerable public money invested in haredi education institutions, a significant amount is also funded via private donations from the Diaspora.

Most importantly, the haredi system attracts several thousand families from overseas (mostly American) who come to study in premier yeshivot in Israel for several years; the average spending of each of these families is NIS 1 million over the course of five years, totalling approximately NIS 1 billion a year that is pumped into the economy.

Governments spend money on that which is important to them; the Perry Bill and its accompanying measures seem to be issues of priorities, not finances.

It appears that the most convincing argument as to why the government is prepared to go to such lengths to conscript haredi men is because many years down the line haredim will be a much greater proportion of the population and “we’ll need them in the army.”

Yet is the army doing anything to allay the central haredi fear/suspicion about sending their children to an ideologicallychallenging secular army with militantly different priorities (and a background of distrust at past broken promises)? How will the army compensate for tzniut (“modesty”) as well as general attitudes in the army that are distasteful to haredim? Women in the army are crudely referred to as “mattresses,” for example, with the intended sexual connotations, and Hesder soldiers regularly pull out of compulsory immodest military concerts.

If separate units were to be established for haredi soldiers, will the army have the time, money and interest to maintain their independence? If the case for the bill is that in many years’ time haredim will be such a vast proportion of society that they will need to be in the army, will any control in the higher army echelons really be ceded to haredim to keep the parity and equality the bill so preaches? Haredim are not categorically against fighting for their people (in the Torah the Jews in the desert fought), nor are they apathetic to the plight of their fellow Jews.

The hessed (loving-kindness) initiatives outlined above (on a national and international level) and the heartfelt prayers and tears in yeshiva halls upon any war or terrorist attack attest to that. Rather, the central issue is the agenda of those who want to conscript them. Perhaps this agenda has a more to do with ideological differences with the haredim, and less to do with national security (note that the army did not propose this legislation, and that many non-haredi MKs opposed it, too).

This is just the latest round of the ideological disagreements that have plastered the walls of Israeli history. As several sceptics have asked; didn’t Yair Lapid form his Yesh Atid party conveniently soon after starring in an inciting anti-haredi documentary on primetime TV?

The author recently completed a year of yeshiva studies in Israel.

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