Snap Judgment: Onward haredi soldiers!

At the end of the day, the haredim will be called to order, simply because there won't be any choice.

haredi 88 (photo credit: )
haredi 88
(photo credit: )
My former army reserve unit included in its ranks one haredi soldier, Yehuda, who once or twice a year left his wife and eight children to join us in the field for several weeks at a time. Although the IDF kitchens didn't meet Yehuda's standards of kashrut (he never touched meat dishes) and the allotted time for morning prayers was never enough for him (he invariably ran late), somehow Yehuda made do, spending all his spare time (and many of his guard-duty hours) with his face buried in a volume of Talmud, or engaging those of his comrades (like myself) willing to discuss various religious issues. Yehuda was a good soldier, well liked in the unit, and an early example of the nowadays more common hardal sector - haredi-leumi, or ultra-Orthodox nationalist. I thought of him on hearing the news highlighting the success of the IDF's Nahal Haredi Brigade, founded eight years ago. According to a recent study, 90 per cent of the some 1,000 men who have graduated from the program are now working in the economy - compared to less than 40% of those haredi men who used yeshiva deferment to avoid military duty, which disqualifies them from being legally employed. This is quite a success, since the original mission of the Nahal Haredi program was not really to provide additional manpower to the army, but to make it possible for those haredim who want to make a proper living to do so. Yet still no haredi rabbinical leaders openly support the program - even though, as this newspaper reported last month, several have members of their own families enlisted in it. This kind of hypocrisy does a disservice to their followers, who desperately need to grapple with growing poverty issues that are creating major social problems within the community. It is also an offense to middle-class taxpayers asked to foot an increasingly onerous bill for a welfare-supported lifestyle. This isn't to say that army deferments for yeshiva students, or public support for kollel (adult yeshiva) institutions should be done away with entirely. Just like the military provides deferments or alternative service for a select number of outstanding achievers among secular youth, such as musicians or athletes, it should do so for elite religious students. Top yeshivot also deserve public support, the same as universities and other educational institutions. But these numbers must be capped at a reasonable figure. To underwrite an entire nonworking sector of the population, as haredi political and rabbinical poverty pimps propose, is to create generations of nonproductive schnorrers. That would eventually lead to a social implosion, even while it drags down prospects for the rest of Israel. EXPANDING the Nahal Haredi program and making service in it mandatory for all but a few select ultra-Orthodox scholars is the best way to start mainstreaming haredim into the workforce. Yet the employment issue is not the main reason to begin the haredi draft as soon as possible. An even more important need is for more manpower in the military - and the haredim ultimately will provide the only real answer. Just a decade ago, when the Oslo Accords held out a promise of reduced hostilities, and the IDF was still flush with young immigrants form the former Soviet Union entering the draft, it seemed the army had more recruits than it knew what to do with. A decade later, after a bitterly fought intifada and war, with aliya down to the lowest levels in years and declining enlistment and reserve-duty rates, that's certainly no longer the case. That's why the IDF in recent months has gotten more serious about making good use of new immigrant recruits; of pushing for extra benefits for reservists and veterans; of organizing volunteer units of veteran soldiers; and even no longer taking into consideration the time spent in uniform by foreign volunteers in the Marva program, so that after they make aliya they are made to serve even more time in uniform than native-born Israelis. What the IDF hasn't done yet is make a truly serious effort to expand the Nahal Haredi program and vigorously campaign for a haredi draft. Only last month did the IDF start to put up posters in haredi neighborhoods advertising the program, and last summer it was the graduates of the brigade themselves who had to petition the army demanding that they be called up for reserve duty - something still not set up for the haredi soldiers. Generals who seem plenty willing to speak out on other politically sensitive issues seem more reticent on the subject of haredi draft-dodging - even though they constitute more than half of the eligible enlistment-age Israeli men who avoid service. Why is that? Most likely because some of the IDF brass are not comfortable with the idea of bringing more haredim into the military. Not because they haven't proven themselves as soldiers; quite the opposite. While most may not qualify for elite units, the success of the Nahal Haredi Brigade in patrolling the Jordan Valley has resulted in it now being considered for deployment in more populated Palestinian areas of the West Bank. The problem, I'm sure, is more social than purely practical. Anyone who has spent time in the IDF knows that while it may be relatively more adaptable than other fighting forces in the world, it is still a military culture run by a military establishment. And one thing the latter doesn't appreciate is nonconformity with military norms - or in the haredi case, an alternative conformity to the IDF's business as usual. That's why the army brass would prefer to make extra efforts to get general enlistment and reserve duty rates up rather than recruiting the haredim. But this is a shortsighted view - because one reason the public has turned away from a once more enthusiastic attitude to army service is the sense that there is a basic unfairness to the way the military burden is being distributed. Israelis don't like to be freierim (suckers), and there is a growing sense that the haredi community is getting away with murder by not contributing their fair share to collective security. So, onward haredi soldiers! At the end of the day, the haredim will be called to order, simply because there won't be any choice. The only question now is whether they will go in kicking and screaming, or with their heads held high, like my old comrade Yehuda, or the few good men of the Nahal Haredi Brigade. [email protected]