Dodging the draft

The burning issue of haredi youth serving in the IDF has been put on hold – for now.

Haredi IDF 521 (photo credit: NOAM MOSKOWITZ)
Haredi IDF 521
(photo credit: NOAM MOSKOWITZ)
Mea She’arim. Jerusalem’s historic ultra-Orthodox neighborhood is usually slow to come to life on a Monday morning, but school supply shops and bookstores are full today, just a few days before haredi students return to school for the winter semester. The streets are still littered with the remnants of the Succot holiday, and pashkevillim – the over-sized black-and white posters that form a critical part of mass communication in ultra-Orthodox society – focus mainly on death announcements, advertisements for new Torah and Talmud commentaries and warnings that watching movies could lead to “severe mental disease.”
But the issue of military service seems to be something of a non-issue. Three months after the “Tal Law” expired on August 1, all Israelis are technically subject to a 1985 law calling for universal military or civilian service, and that includes the ultra-Orthodox.
One might have expected that fact to have become a topic of concern inside the haredi community, but that does not appear to be the case. While some Mea She’arim billboards do feature strongly worded posters noting haredi leaders’ absolute rejection of military service, they are relatively rare.
The owner of a pizza shop on Mea She’arim Street tells The Jerusalem Report that he hasn’t noticed the issue taking center stage among young haredim. “Yeshiva kids hang out here, but I can’t say I’ve heard them talking about it,” says “Shimon,” who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s an issue for the politicians, not for the people who actually live here. Newspapers and Knesset members have been babbling about this issue for years, and they’ll continue doing so for years to come. Nothing’s going to change, so people here don’t believe there is really anything to worry about.”
If the haredi street seems indifferent to the issue of military service, the same cannot be said at the Knesset. Less than three miles away from Shimon’s pizza shop, and just an hour after this reporter visited the haredi stronghold, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, opposition leader Shaul Mofaz and IDF representatives were busy updating the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on preparations to draft ultra- Orthodox men.
In a moment of uncharacteristic candor, Barak told the committee that drafting haredi students is “off the agenda” until after the general election on January 22. But the defense minister also said progress is being made towards a new arrangement for yeshiva students, with 15,000 initial call-up letters set to go out to 17-to-19 year old haredi boys in the coming months. “We are moving in the right direction,” Barak said. “I don’t have many details right now, but I can say that the old arrangements [of blanket exemptions for haredim] will no longer apply in future.”
Drafting haredi men for military service has been a sore point among secular Israelis for decades. With a current total of about 55,000 exemptions for Orthodox yeshiva students (not to mention a similar number of haredi young women, for whom no politician has even suggested drafting for military or civilian national service), the communitywide opt-out means longer regular military service for young people and more reserve duty for older men – creating a strong feeling of being “suckers” among those who do serve.
More significantly, the economic burden caused by the current arrangement is becoming harder for the country to bear.
Because haredim are only exempt from military service as long as they are registered in full-time yeshiva programs, they are forced to remain in full-time study well into their 20s and 30s, meaning they cannot legally find work. As a result, 60 percent of the Haredi public is unemployed, and 60% live below the poverty line. That puts a strain on the country’s social welfare resources, and ultimately the country’s economic health.
Some haredim do not seem to feel the inequality in military burden is a problem.
Back in Mea She’arim, two 16-year-old boys who refuse to divulge their names say they were not bothered by the economic fallout, or by the fact that some fellow citizens put their lives on the line while others sit and study. Neither mentioned the standard haredi justification for draft exemptions – the notion that God protects the Jewish people as a reward for studying Torah – but both said they would rather die than serve.
Around the corner, a 50-year-man who would identify himself only by his first name, Yochanan, explains to the Report the community’s resistance to military service.
“What’s the secular elites’ goal for drafting haredim into the army? Is it defending this country, or is it to destroy our way of life? If the answer were the former, the army would create the conditions that made it possible for us to send our children, in terms of kosher food, allowing time for prayer and other fundamentals of haredi life. Haredi boys would not be put in situations to see immodestly dressed women or forced to listen to them sing.
“Why don’t you go to Tel Aviv and talk to draft dodgers from there? There are at least as many secular draft dodgers as Orthodox yeshiva students, but in contrast to our boys, who skip military service in order to pursue spiritual matters, Tel Aviv people simply don’t go because they don’t feel like it. But no one’s talking about them because they have supposedly ‘seen the light’ of secularism. That’s what they are trying to achieve with our boys – the destruction of haredi life. What possible reason would we have for agreeing to that?” says Yochanan.
“You’re bothered by the fact that haredi boys don’t risk their lives to defend this country?” Knesset Member Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) asks the Report.
“I’ve got some bad news for you: Neither do most IDF soldiers. Only about 10% of IDF soldiers serve in combat roles. The rest perform combat support jobs, or serve in administration. Take the Education Corps. Do they risk their lives? So why the double standard vis-à-vis haredi boys?”
Gafni says the haredi leadership does consider it a problem that there are ultra-Orthodox young men who do not study in yeshivas but also do not serve in the army, and he confirms Barak’s assessment that a replacement for the Tal Law must be found in consultation with haredi representatives, not by force. Gafni notes the IDF is working with the haredi community to forge solutions that will enable its young men to enlist. These solutions include expansion of existing Nahal Haredi and Shahar (a Hebrew acronym for “Service for Haredim”) units; a range of ultra-Orthodox kashrut certifications to meet the needs of various haredi groups who currently serve in the army; and care to ensure that female officers are not placed in command of haredi troops.
One avenue of service that has been hurt by the expiration of the Tal Law is civilian national service. Science and Technology Minister Daniel Herschkowitz, who oversees haredi national civilian service, told the Knesset that his ministry has had to close multiple options for civilian service that were created under the Tal Law framework because the law was deemed illegal. “We’ve lost a framework for training and oversight. We can’t take any more applicants, despite the fact that there is a lot of demand,” Hershkowitz said. “Economically, that’s a disaster, because about 60% of national service graduates join the work force, and 20% more go on to study in higher education.”
In addition to the 15,000 draft notices Barak said will go out to haredi teenagers, the Hebrew-language Haaretz newspaper reported on plans to create the IDF’s first ultra-Orthodox commando unit. The IDF Spokesman has said the army will do what it must to implement government decisions.
“We are develop[ing] draft procedures for the haredi public. Enlistment officers are prepared to adapt IDF procedures to conform to the special needs of the haredi community and to place the best haredi candidates [in appropriate army roles],” said the army in a statement.
That’s may be true, one military chaplain tells the Report, but the best of intentions can’t change the harsh facts on the ground: the reality of life in the IDF is irreconcilable with haredi needs, and adapting the IDF enough to these needs would be a fundamental change and a difficult task, he notes.
“It’s true that a lot has been done to make it possible for haredim who want to serve to do so,” says the chaplain, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “But those efforts have been local and limited to specific areas.
“Some of the issues are the same for national-religious boys, who also keep strictly kosher and don’t want to listen to women singing. But it’s different because they have been educated to feel there is a value to the state and to serving in the army. Haredi boys haven’t, and so it’s doubly hard for them to make that commitment,” the chaplain relates.
At the end of the day, however, all parties agree that no large-scale draft of haredi yeshiva students appears to be on the horizon.
Gafni asserts that current efforts focus only on haredi boys who are not registered yeshiva students, but that there is “no question” that full-time yeshiva students will continue to be exempted from military service.
A spokeswoman for Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner, who headed a Knesset committee that attempted to come up with a replacement for the Tal Law, but whose recommendations were rejected by the prime minister, called Gafni’s formulation “simplistic.” He pointed out, however, that even the Plesner committee recommended full exemptions for a “limited number” of outstanding scholars.
Ultimately, the decision to serve or not to serve rests with the haredi community and coalition politics. As things stand right now there will not be any mass haredi enlistment anytime soon.