The Keshev Committee seeking to replace the unconstitutional Tal Law which protected most Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews from Israel’s universal draft has imploded, apparently due to tensions regarding potential personal sanctions on draft-dodging Yeshiva students. Haredi Knesset members reportedly threatened “all out war” if Ultra Orthodox 18-year-olds are drafted along with their Israeli Jewish peers. These extortionist threats are despicable while imposing group-think and rejecting individual rule of law here is unacceptable.
I am not anti-Haredi, but I am pro-liberal democracy. I respect the Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle. I appreciate the challenge of maintaining their traditional values and rituals amidst modernity’s seductions. The children of my Haredi friends serve in the army. I have written in The New Republic and elsewhere rejecting what we at the Shalom Hartman Institute Engaging Israel project call the Demography of Fear, and I abhor the rampant stereotyping caricaturing this segment of Israeli society. Threats of a Haredi demographic takeover of Israel are exaggerated -- and the attendant hysteria is demonizing. But democracy entails more than consent of the governed expressed through mass voting rights. Every Israeli citizen should have individual rights and responsibilities – even as certain group indulgences occasionally have to be granted too, but under extreme circumstances, and as infrequently as possible.
In the spirit of compromise, I accept different educational systems for Haredi children and Israeli Arab children, even as it offends my Zionist sensibilities and strains Israeli democracy. As a realist, I understand that Israeli Arabs should not be drafted and that a small symbolic group of Haredi Jews may hold onto their community’s historic draft exemption. But every young Israeli should be compelled to serve in the army or complete national service as an individual obligation to the nation, with some getting rare free passes for compelling reasons.
And yes, the need to insulate Israeli Arabs from the complexity of Israel’s military conflict with their Arab cousins is compelling, especially if Israeli Arabs take on national service. By contrast, the claim that Haredi draft dodging defends Israel by maintaining the Lord’s good graces through Torah study is an absurd fig leaf – despite my veneration for the Torah and traditional Judaism.
In Israel today, 114,000 students learn in government-funded Torah institutions. Even if all 54,000 full-time yeshiva students exempted from military service under the Tal Law enlisted immediately, approximately 60,000 full-time, government-subsidized Torah scholars could still provide the divine protection they believe their studies deliver. These scholarly masses are joined by tens of thousands of others, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, who are shaping the extraordinary Torah study renaissance occurring today throughout Israel.
Modern Israel 2012, particularly Jerusalem, has a scale and intensity of learning that rivals the historic Babylonian Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita, Maimonides’ Egypt, the Baal Shem Tov’s Poland, or the Gaon’s Vilna. I am not daring to suggest that we have greats to equal those gedolim, those giants – I cannot judge. But I acknowledge the great work so many serious Jews and the Israeli government have done to revive Jewish learning on a mass scale after the Holocaust. And I resent the implication that this vast, impressive Torah study effort is so fragile it will collapse or fail to achieve its holy mission, if Haredi 18-year-olds do not serve in the army as other Israeli youngsters do.
More profoundly, this Haredi exemption is based on a misreading of Jewish history, the Bible, and, dare I say it, the Torah and Talmud too. Jews were rarely Spartans reveling in blood and violence to celebrate our values. Jews have long been reluctant fighters, who understood, however, that we could not shirk our duties when history imposed the burden of fighting on us. The Bible is filled with famous fighters who defended Israel and the Jewish people, including David and Joshua, Barak and Gideon. Less well known are Biblical figures such as Benayahu ben Yehoyada and Adino HaEtzni, King David’s fierce warriors – like lions, who were leading Torah scholars of their generation.
In the Torah, Deuteronomy 20 exempts from military duty cowards as well as willing soldiers who did not yet dedicate their homes, enjoy the fruits of their vineyards, or marry their betrothed. Yet, the Mishnah in Sotah 8:8 rules that an obligatory war overrides even those exemptions for males over 20. Maimonides himself in the Mishnah Torah writes that anyone who could save a fellow Jew yet fails to do so violates Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not stand aside while your fellow''s blood is shed” (Hilchot Rotzeach 1:14), while the standard codification of the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim (329:6) justifies desecrating the Sabbath to save lives if the community is attacked.Haredi draft dodging implicitly accepts the anti-Israel position that Israel’s wars are not obligatory.
A frustrated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared, "Let us take the reins and bring about a solution." I would love to see Bibi grow a backbone on this crucial issue – and then use it for solving other problems as well. Netanyahu’s wall-to-wall coalition gives him the power to make historic changes. He can revise the basic Israeli social contract, emphasizing individual rights and responsibilities, with just enough group protection to acknowledge Israel’s special status, unique history, and fragile constellation of constituent groups. But he should not succumb to political blackmail. Israel should draft Haredim as individual citizens and proud Jews. The Jewish people must reject a medieval, misleading, and misanthropic reading of our Bible, our heritage, our history, and our unfortunate burden today, wherein too many of us must send our precious children into the army, not because we delight in violence but because we know the consequences of cowering, dodging, and shirking this most painful yet noble of responsibilities.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.