A modest proposal to implement a haredi draft

Peace won by the compromise of principles is a short-lived achievement. – Author unknown

Haredi and IDF soldier Tal law Jerusalem 390 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Haredi and IDF soldier Tal law Jerusalem 390
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
True compromise – one that will stand the test of time – is not merely a question of finding a convenient middle ground that both sides can swallow. Such a compromise is fated to be a short-lived achievement. Real compromise entails each side’s recognition of the other’s sincerity in their beliefs, and finding a position that forces neither to compromise their principles – but rather to apply each of their principles in a new way. In other words, to find a way that would allow both sides’ principles to exist side by side, and even synthesize them into one.
At first glance, the principles at stake as this country seeks to find a way to enlist its haredi population seem to be incompatible. The core of the haredi position, iterated time and again, is simple. Torah study is a service to the country and to the people of Israel as a whole that is superior to service in the IDF. If the haredim believe this sincerely, there is little point in trying to change their minds. In fact, it is likely that attempts at compulsion will prove counterproductive and boomerang. Will the 10,000 march to jail, if so directed by their leaders, rather than sacrifice their stated belief? Almost certainly.
Orthodoxy has survived the last 200 years of drastic and sometimes violent change in the world around it by battening down the hatches and weathering the storm. By comparison, conscientious objection in a democratic society is a relatively minor sacrifice.
The position of the country’s secular democratic society is no less principled and deeply felt; the haredi side ignores it at its peril. This position does not focus on the concept of universal conscription per se, but on the far more profound value of equality before the law. As long as the security situation dictates that a large standing army backed by a larger reserve corps is necessary, the obligation to serve must be equally divided among all segments of the population, and certainly its Jewish population. The shirking of that duty is morally and ethically unacceptable.
The problem is not a moral, ethical one alone, but is gaining pragmatic urgency by the year. Close to 25 percent of the country’s Jewish first-graders are being schooled in haredi streams of education. Fast forward 12 years: Unless a solution is found, a quarter of the Jewish draft age population will be spurning the IDF. Moreover, that growing sector will be removed from the workplace and will be forced to live off the dole – with all of the societal problems that will incur as a result. The Israeli everyman is fed up and is demanding true equality.
UNFORTUNATELY, AS of this writing, none of the solutions mooted pass the acid test of respecting the core beliefs of both sides and are, as a result, likely to fail. The Lapid/Bennett proposal – granting 1,800 “geniuses” the right to declare Torato umnato (Torah as their profession) and conscripting all the rest to military or civil service does not begin to grasp the religious meaning of Torah study in the haredi vision.
Instead, it forces a secular academic framework of excellence upon an essentially spiritual pursuit. From the haredi perspective, it is a non-starter.
The Ya’alon proposal, postponing the draft for yeshiva students until the age of 22-24 and calling for some abbreviated service afterward, disregards the core principle of equality and leaves the burden of meaningful service to an ever-shrinking percentage of society. The proposals advanced from the haredi side generally ignore the values of the general population entirely.
The dangers of a looming rift in society are clear and present; the solutions offered must be up to the task.
I would like to propose a solution to the problem that requires a paradigm shift for all sides. A word of caution: at first, this proposal will seem somewhat naïve, requiring as it does for all of us to accept what the other side holds dear. It is, however, eminently practical and presents several advantages over the suggestions that have been mooted by either side. It is as radical as it is simple: Israeli society and the government will accept the haredi position recognizing Torah study as actual army service and not merely as an exemption from that service.
The haredi sector will, in turn, accept that for those students who are of army age, their Torah study will take place in uniform as conscripts of the IDF.
How will this be accomplished? • A new corps – a Yeshiva Corps – will be formed. As befitting a democratic society, this corps, like all others in the army, will be open to all members of society who are able to live up to its standards – in this case summed up by the Mishna in Avot: “This is the way of Torah: bread dipped in salt will you eat, with water carefully rationed, on the ground will you sleep and live a life of deprivation as you strive in Torah study.”
• Soldiers serving in the corps will wear the uniform of the IDF, declare their loyalty to the state and to the army and accept upon themselves the military discipline and conduct considered the norm in the elite units of the IDF.
• Soldiers in the newly formed corps will serve in yeshivot housed on army bases and not in civilian areas.
• Service in the corps will be four years long, akin to the elite units of the IDF. At the end of the term of service, discharged soldiers will be free to integrate into civilian life with all the discharge benefits granted to IDF soldiers.
• Conditions on the bases will be identical to those that exist on combat bases in the IDF. Mess and housing will be of military standard. Weekend leaves will be granted on a bi- or tri-weekly basis. Other furloughs, including those for holidays, will conform to army standards for length and frequency. Sick leaves will only be issued by military physicians.
• The bein hazmanim vacation period in the Jewish months of Tishrei, Nisan and Av will not apply in military yeshivot. Should it be determined that on purely educational grounds there is a need for a break in regular studies, the time will be employed to provide the soldiers in the corps with basic military training so that they can act as guards on their bases.
• As the Torah study will be considered military service, soldiers in the corps will receive all the benefits and pay grade of soldiers of their rank and seniority in the IDF.
• It is recommended that the day commence with morning prayers at 6 a.m., followed with study sessions ending no earlier than 11 p.m. Acceptable breaks for meals and rest will be interspersed throughout the day.
Participation in the corps will be contingent on acceptance and conforming to the hours of the corps.
• Exams will be proctored at regular intervals to ensure that the soldiers are living up to the standards of the corps.
• The standards and curricula of the corps will be determined by a committee made up of members of the military and roshei yeshiva (yeshiva heads).
• The officers and commanders of the corps will be IDF officers as well as roshei yeshiva, to assure that the highest military and Torah standards are implemented.
• Those soldiers who cannot conform to the standards of the corps will be integrated into other units of the army.
Soldiers who remain in the corps but violate its standards will be liable to disciplinary measures or expulsion from the corps and integration into other army units.
• With the induction of the military yeshivot, the current “Torato umnato” exemption for “higher yeshivot” of either the haredi or religious Zionist streams will no longer be in effect.
• Hesder yeshivot, mechinot, yeshivot associated with the Nahal Haredi unit, and any other framework that expects its students to participate in more conventional units will not be affected. The study period in these institutions is considered preparatory for other military service.
AT THIS point, the reader might be asking if this proposal is a bit of satire. Only if taking the principles of the two sides to their logical conclusions and demanding that all live up to the standards they preach qualifies as such. It is eminently fair, discriminates against no sector, and respects the core values of all. Moreover, the practical advantages of the approach are manifold: • The members of the haredi sector will no longer face any obstacles to their integration into the civilian workforce and tax sector. Of course, those who wish to continue in their studies – to the benefit of the entire society – will be able to do so. However, study in post-army yeshivot will be voluntary. Any grants, scholarships and fellowships will be determined by the Education or the Religious Services ministries in conjunction with the Finance Ministry.
• The solution is cost-effective. The initial start-up costs and military pay will be more than made up by the savings from phasing out Torato umnato grants and by the increased tax revenue that members of the haredi sector entering the workforce will generate.
• The standards of the new corps – though not as exacting as the standards set by the sages and accepted by those who have truly accepted Torah as their profession throughout the generations – will limit the participants to the elite who will actually practice what they profess.
Most members of the sector will presumably opt for alternative service in other army or civilian service units.
• As a corollary benefit, the army and its symbols will gradually cease to be anathema in the haredi sector.
The IDF uniform will be worn as a matter of course in haredi neighborhoods both by members of the newly formed Yeshiva Corps and other units.
Naïve? Satire? Perhaps.
I am still waiting for a proposal that better addresses the concerns of both sides. ■
The author is head of the Eretz Hatzvi Yeshiva and is pursuing his PhD on the halachic methodology of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein at Bar-Ilan University.