Equalizing the burden – What lies beneath the surface?

Some foolishly believe that legal measures against the haredi offenders will be beneficial.

May 27, 2013 22:01
Haredi IDF soldiers in the Jordan Valley

Haredi IDF soldiers Tal Law 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Handout .)

With each news item concerning the “equal burden” issue, which played a significant role in the past Knesset elections, it becomes abundantly clear that no practical solution will ever pass a Knesset reading and no meaningful change will take place. In fact, the only effect this whole debate will have is possibly a few varying parliament seats and a very heated public debate where on occasions various sides have vented ugly emotional outbursts, revealing that the issue itself represents much more than meets the eye.

On each side there are multiple and contradictory points of view. On the side demanding equalizing the burden, there are too many variations to mention. There are those who insist on including the Arab sector in the process, a self-evident nonstarter.

There are those that want to make changes to the Hesder yeshivot. And some want to make changes which would punish the numerous secular draft dodgers. Some agree to varying numbers of dispensations for yeshiva students, some cannot agree to any deal which endows value to Torah study.

The grievance of those who serve in full is far from new. I remember 30 years back, before making aliya, visiting a once-religious turned self-styled mildly traditional older relative in Tel Aviv. She was respectful of my own religious beliefs and lifestyle but was very quick to make known her disdain for those religious Israelis who abstained from army service. She was the first of many I would meet over the years.

Though the numbers of yeshiva students continued to grow, so did the number of north Tel Aviv-style secular youth who evaded army service, but somehow all the venom was directed at the haredim, and that in itself is very revealing about the nature of the grievance.

Some foolishly believe that legal measures against the haredi offenders will be beneficial.

Hopefully our law-makers will be wise enough to realize that such steps will cost the taxpayer exorbitant sums and that, in the end, the haredim will emerge victorious.

In fact, the only reasonable solution is a financial one; it is not only the most practical but also the most democratic.

Haredim who believe the IDF is comparable to the Russian Army of yesteryear, where young children were taken for 20 years of service, stripped of even the memory of Yiddishkeit, will be prepared to suffer all financial difficulty to escape that lot.

If their leaders really wish to stick to this narrative they will either have to find alternative financiers of their yeshivot or move to other countries en masse. But there are bound to be a substantial number of yeshiva students who yield to the economic imperative and join the IDF or parallel national service. Employing the carrot and the stick together will yield the best results, but cost effectiveness must not be forgotten. Paying older yeshiva students exorbitant salaries commensurate with the number of offspring but without proportion to their contribution will quickly bankrupt the IDF.

But it’s important to remember what really concerns the two sides. From the haredi side we hear mostly about the value of their Torah learning and how those scholars cannot leave their study bench even to earn a living because the merit of their studies sustains the whole world. Some will concede that those not really learning may be drafted.

And the opposing side will claim that the number officially registered in yeshivot but not in fact learning is large. But even if the sides were ready to compromise on this population alone, the only change would be a more serious attempt to hide the fraud.

In a parallel haredi community in New York or New Jersey you have a much smaller number of men registered in yeshiva until middle age (though I’ve heard of strange trends of yeshiva students on welfare there as well.) So the real reason for the common practice here is an ardent desire to remain an untouched, separate community, not influenced by the rest of society in the army or in the workplace.

Though this may sound objectionable to the secular ear, it is quite simple for the secular Israeli to understand. Consider the following thought exercise: Picture a reality where the army is comprised of 80 percent haredi soldiers. Thrice-daily prayer services are held and while they are not officially compulsory, the peer pressure to participate is great for the 18-year-old whose ability to appear different is limited. Torah study groups are similarly commonplace, even in combat units where daily physical demands are exhausting. While army uniforms are the rule, beards and long earlocks (payot) distinguish this bunch from the type known before.

How anxious will any secular parent be to see his young 18-year-old join this group, knowing that it is highly probable that at the end of three years with this group he will emerge with an altered worldview that will not only affect his relationship with his parents but every important life decision he makes, as well as his daily lifestyle. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, it is easy to imagine that many Zionist die-hards would find every way to save their sons from that undesirable fate.

Back to reality. I’ll ask one more question of the secular majority, which will illuminate the real reason the haredi soldier is the target of so much more anger than his secular counterpart. What secular Israelis really want is to erase the haredi boys’ differences and to turn them something closely resembling themselves. They can tolerate people having different beliefs in their hearts, but want everyone to look and act as they do.

And while the same may apply to the other side, haredim know they are a minority so they don’t expect everyone to look and behave as they do; they are satisfied to be left alone, away from the army and workplace so they can escape influence as much as possible (not an easy feat in today’s easily accessed Internet world).

Between these opposing sides, lies the national religious sector. From a halachic point of view, the question about whether to serve is really no question at all. So the question remaining is how to serve while safeguarding precious Torah values and lifestyle? The common frameworks for this population include Hesder, Mechina (prep program preceding regular army), and regular army.

The Hesder program, which combines Torah study with army service, comprises an army component which is substantially shorter than the standard three years, but since the boys remain in the program for at least five years without earning any academic degree, and many marry after finishing the army component of the service, parents often have to help them financially if they wish to go on to higher learning.

Since young couples from this sector do not wait to bear children, in accordance with religious beliefs, the burden is even greater. Typically, parents pay about NIS 1,000 per month for the entire duration of the program, so making the program even longer would be increasing the burden for these families. But since these programs yield a high proportion of strongly-motivated combat soldiers, with a high casualty rate, wrath toward this group is kept in check.

The Mechina program, designed for religious boys who plan to serve but do not wish to engage in the usual yeshiva study program, is usually only one year so. It does not pose a great financial hardship for the participants, but its effectiveness in educating the future soldier to be strong in his religious beliefs and thus a more effective soldier may not quite be strong enough to thwart the need to conform. Sometimes it succeeds, often it does not.

A large percentage of religious boys who go straight to the army remove their kippot before the service ends. The correlation may not be strictly one-to-one, but for the heartbroken parents it makes no difference. And since this phenomenon plagues the national religious sector, it should be easy for them to understand the haredi desire to evade the army.

But in fact, it does not often encourage sympathy at all. They say the closer you are to another worldview the more fervently you’ll contest the differences. And this is why the national religious, in full cognizance of the stakes and risks, but with great hope of enrichment and depth of purpose and unity, who send their dear children to serve, watch this national debate, in the fervent hope that all sides emerge victorious.

The writer is a religious mother of four past, present and future soldiers.

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