‘If we want to live in a ghetto, that’s our right’

'The Jerusalem Post' ventures into haredi neighborhood of Mea She’arim after the 'Tal Law' passes into the annals of history.

HAREDI MEN march to protest ‘Tal Law’ alternatives 370 (photo credit: Screenshot)
HAREDI MEN march to protest ‘Tal Law’ alternatives 370
(photo credit: Screenshot)
With the “Tal Law” having officially passed into the annals of history Tuesday night, tens of thousands of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva students are now subject directly to the decisions of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is authorized by law to draft every man of military age in the country.
With that in mind, The Jerusalem Post ventured into the haredi neighborhood of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem to get some of these yeshiva students’ perspectives on the prospects of enlistment, and their views on the army and national service in general.
Generally reticent to speak to the media at all, the interviewees were unwilling to give their real names and provided alternative handles for themselves.
“Yossi,” 19, lives in Jerusalem and studies in a yeshiva in the haredi settlement of Betar Illit. He would like to study for as long as possible, but acknowledges that practicalities of life can interfere with such plans.
Yossi – from the Lithuanian, or non-hassidic, haredi community – says he does not intend to enlist in the army or for civilian service. If he were to receive enlistment orders from the army, he says, he would have to consult a rabbi about how to respond.
Asked whether or not the country needs an army, he acknowledged that it was a national necessity.
“For sure, King David went to war and needed an army to do so,” he said. “But his was an army and a country governed according to the Torah; the IDF and the state are not.”
He explained that a Jew needed to conduct every aspect of his life according to Halacha (Jewish law), and to do otherwise was unthinkable.
“As someone who follows Halacha to the letter, I can’t follow the orders of someone who has no idea how to conduct himself or the army he commands according to the values of the Torah and Halacha. It’s simply against my beliefs and my conscience,” he said. “The idea that [IDF Chief of Staff Lt.- Gen.] Benny Gantz takes action and operates simply according to what he thinks and feels [without regard for Jewish law] is crazy to my mind.”
The army does not need more soldiers at the moment, he went on to argue, so there is no reason to enter the army on the grounds of pikuah nefesh, a principle of Jewish law that allows the transgression of almost any commandment or halachic precept in order to save a life.
If there were a severe shortage of soldiers and the leading rabbis of the community permitted it, he would enlist, but this is not the situation at the moment, he said.
Asked whether the notion of collective societal responsibility was at all relevant to the situation, he invoked former American president John Adams – if not by name, at least in spirit – arguing that the majority should not be able to tyrannize the minority.
“Why should my beliefs and principles be subverted to that of other people? Are we living in Czarist Russia?” he asked.
“Maybe their beliefs should be subverted to mine? If there were a majority of haredim in this country and we made everyone study Torah eight hours a day or observe Shabbat, would that be okay?” he asked rhetorically. “Just because the majority is the majority does not mean they can do what they want to the minority. If the government outlawed Islam, would that be okay?” Yossi said he could understand the frustration and resentment of broader society that a section of the population did not serve, but added that these feelings were only reasonable on a superficial level.
“It’s not really about the army, it’s that they want haredim to integrate into Israeli society and not to live in a ghetto. But if we want to live in a ghetto, then that’s our right,” he said.
“Avraham,” a married 30- year-old Breslov Hassid living in Musrara, took a generally different line.
“We’re surrounded here in the Land of Israel by hundreds of millions of people who hate us,” he said. “In Iran, they have God knows what kind of weapons – in Syria, too. Anyone who thinks we’re not being protected by God and that His protection is not the most critical to us is absolutely out of their mind.”
At any moment, he said, they could all decide simply to descend on this country and kill us to a man. The only reason they haven’t, he continued, is God’s protection – but we have to merit his protection.
“Moshe,” a 23-year-old Belz Hassid originally from Borough Park in New York and studying in the Mir Yeshiva, said there was a real physical need for a national army to defend the borders of the country.
But following Avraham’s line of argument, he contended that were yeshiva students to be drafted into the army, it would damage the country’s security, not enhance it.
“Surrounding us are 70 wolves ready to tear us limb from limb and devour us,” he said, echoing Avraham’s sentiment that the country’s enemies could destroy it at any moment they chose.
“If someone says that the reason this doesn’t happen is anything other than Gods protection, they’re crazy and need to be taken to a mental asylum,” Moshe said.
But it’s not numbers that matter – it’s deeds and behavior and the Jewish people serving God, he continued.
“The Jewish people survive only through God and adherence to the Torah,” he averred. “Yeshiva students are an integral part of our spiritual defense, and so we must not divert [them] from their spiritual activities.”
Although ranking members of the political and military decision-makers are unlikely to agree with many of the arguments expressed in Mea She’arim, the majority of yeshiva students are for the meantime safe from the draft, given the logistical and practical obstacles that drafting them would entail.
Barak stated on Monday that he had ordered the army to draw up plans within four weeks to begin drafting yeshiva students. He acknowledged, however, that different IDF tracks needed to be increased and expanded to accommodate an influx of new recruits.