Conscription without religious compulsion

Prof. Yedidia Stern says that haredim who enlist do not become less ultra-Orthodox.

Conscription without religious compulsion (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Conscription without religious compulsion
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
While the citizens of the State of Israel debate precisely how best to integrate a rapidly growing haredi (ultra-Orthodox) minority into the military and economic life of their country, the Keshev Committee, a government task force mandated by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to “promote equality in the [national] burden,” is doing the same.
Prof. Yedidia Stern, vice president of research at the Israeli Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University is one of nine members of the committee whose job it is to recommend a new statute to replace the now-repealed “Tal Law.”
The national-religious professor has written extensively on issues relating to haredim and the state and served as a member of the presidium of the Yachad Council for Reconciliation between Secular and Religious Jews.
While unwilling to discuss specific proposals being bandied about in closed committee meetings, he spoke with In Jerusalem about his qualifications for finding a solution, the IDF’s historic lack of preparedness for the integration of the ultra-Orthodox and why only haredim who are secure in their identity should enlist.
What qualifies you to sit on the Keshev Committee?
I’ve been thinking about this issue for many years, about Israeli society, about the clash of identities within society, about the tension between Halacha [religious law] and Israeli law, and more specifically, I’m familiar with the ultra-Orthodox community. I teach them in a few places and I also directed research dealing with what we call the new haredim, the new ultra-Orthodox, which is a new phenomenon. I know all the relevant [rabbinic] figures, and I’ve talked to them for many years.
Can the ultra-Orthodox be successfully integrated into the armed services?
 I think that our national security and the existence of the State of Israel as we know it depend on the participation of haredim in the economy. I’m not talking about the army now.
I think it’s crucial that the workforce be open for the haredi public, because you have to realize that within a generation, if the current situation continues [and they] do not participate fully in the economy, we will not be able to sustain ourselves economically, and we will not be able to sustain our national security because we will not have enough resources for the army.
Some people, like [Yair] Lapid, say that the government should allow the haredim to enter the workforce, to be employed, without asking them to go to the army.
However, I do not think that this is practical. First of all, because the public will not accept it. There is no convincing argument for the public to allow them as a group not to be part of the national security burden.
Second, it’s very clear to me that if the Supreme Court has already declared that the Tal Law is not valid, it’s even more so with this proposal.
So from this analysis, I come to the conclusion that we must have haredim in the army, even for economic reasons, because that’s the only way they can be part of the economy.
Now obviously, on top of it, we are talking about a large segment of society, people who can really contribute, and I think that they should see for themselves that [as the rabbis of the Talmud said,] “ein somchin al hanes” – you cannot count on miracles, and you have to take part in whatever is needed from a security point of view.
If you ask me from a political point of view if it’s feasible, I think that right now large numbers of serious people within the haredi community do believe that something should change and that the change is inevitable. The question is how to do it.
What will the symbolic gestures of the two sides be while we are [trying to accomplish] this change? We need to be really sincere in allowing the haredi identity to be preserved intact while they go to the army.
Some of the ultra-Orthodox have stated that the IDF does not really need more manpower and that it has a limited capacity to absorb all of the eligible yeshiva students. Has the IDF done enough to begin the process of integrating these potential recruits within a framework that would enable them to maintain their values and identity?
I think there’s a point here. Until the last five or six years, the IDF wasn’t so involved in this, and the government as a whole didn’t engage in a serious effort after the enactment of the Tal Law.
However, I think in the last five years we have seen an enormous change. As far as I can tell, the army is now very much willing to absorb haredi kids on all levels, from the simple soldiers to the most sophisticated type of soldiers.
[The members of the committee] just left the Tel Nof Air force base yesterday, and the army showed us what [their ultra-Orthodox troops can] do, and I was very much impressed. I know [about] this, but when you see it in front of your eyes it is very impressive. I think that the army is the best organization in Israel, not only from an efficiency point of view, but also from a sensitivity point of view, of the special needs of the haredi kids, and I think that the army is serious in its declaration that it wants every haredi boy who wants to come, and they will find a solution for each one of them.
Is there a solution to this problem short of creating one army for national-religious and secular soldiers and another for ultra-Orthodox soldiers? Is there a way to integrate them while respecting their values and subculture?
Well, I think that haredi kids [who] want to maintain their identities should be drafted in a homogeneous unit just like the [Nahal Haredi] and Shahar [units], so [the IDF has] to develop more of these types of programs [that are] fit for the different needs of different soldiers from the haredi community.
I don’t think that a single haredi person should go as such to the army if they do not have a very strong identity. It will be very tough for them, and I think that the army understands [this] fully and is willing to devote lots of resources to creating new frameworks, and we at the task force are going to help them in doing that.
Many Israelis are resentful of the haredim for not serving or participating in the job market. Will integration of the haredim accomplish anything in salving these wounds?
Obviously, yes. It’s so important that even if we do not agree on the meaning of the state and we do not agree over ideology and we have different visions for Am Yisrael [the people of Israel], when we share a specific national act, securing ourselves, this is the best practical bridge between people.
When you don’t know the other, you tend to demonize him.
For the non-haredi population, the haredi sector is one big black mass, and for some people this is a very threatening vision.
So once you get to know the other, you can appreciate the special characteristics and you fall in love. That’s what dialogue is for, to know the other. Once you have a dialogue and not two monologues, it opens up the heart.
So besides the economy and besides security, we have to change this new opportunity from the point of view of [national] solidarity. We are one nation.
What do you make of the fact that the ultra-Orthodox political parties are boycotting your committee?
I think this is understandable. Obviously it’s unfortunate, and I would love them to be part of the process. However, I can understand that from their point of view, the mere existence of this committee is a threat because the outcome will be that some people will not stay in yeshivot, but will go to the army.
So they do have the right to protest, and one way of protesting is to say, “Well, we do not participate.” However, despite the fact that they are not part of the committee, we do have discussions with haredi people. We have in the committee a Dr. Weinroth, who is known to be very close with the inner haredi circle, and I myself am very much involved with talking to the haredi leadership. Let’s hope that we find a way to do it despite the symbolic problems for them.
What would you say to people in the ultra-Orthodox community who believe that this is a Zionist plot to secularize the yeshiva students?
This is the main point. The reason I do this sort of service is in order to make 100 percent sure that the whole thing will not change the identity of any haredi boy or girl.
This is my commitment, first of all to myself, as a liberal. Being liberal I feel that the majority should not impose its values, its way of life or its preferences over minorities. This is even more so when the majority is using the force of the state and asking the minority to participate in such an, I would say, coercive organization like an army.
So we have to be 100% sure that this will never happen. I can tell you as a fact that we do have the experience of a few years, a few long years, of people who are haredi in the army, either in Nahal Haredi or Shahar Kahol, and the outcome is very clear.
Nobody is going out of there less haredi than when he went into the army.
I measure the success of the army in absorbing haredim by the number of haredim graduating [from] the army. Anybody who stops being haredi while he is in the army is a failure of the State of Israel. That’s my view.
I believe that my friends in the committee agree with this analysis of the situation. That is my commitment, my personal commitment.