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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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