The haredi draft bill shouldn’t be part of religion and state relations

Strategically when you mix up two separate issues, you may be liable to lose on both sides.

Haredi man and IDF soldiers in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Haredi man and IDF soldiers in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The haredi draft bill which aims at dealing with yeshiva students who do not go to the army is about to be decided in the Knesset (yet again), and will probably stay on the public agenda for the next couple of weeks.
To quickly review: The draft of yeshiva students has kept the political sphere occupied for the past 20 years. The Tal Law, the first haredi draft bill, was legislated in 2002. Since then a lot of legislation has been proposed and passed in the Knesset and has been brought before the Supreme Court.
Without a doubt the importance of this issue and its sensitive nature cannot be understated. It figures prominently in the division between sectors in Israeli society. The legislation wrestles with the crux of the issue between the Religious-Zionist sector that serves proudly in the IDF and the haredi sector where military service is in the best case considered a burden on those who aren’t able to keep studying Torah in the yeshiva.
The issue of haredim and the IDF will continue to keep the Knesset busy long after this current bill passes, but it’s time to highlight an important distinction regarding it. The haredi draft bill should not be seen as part of the religion-and-state controversies that so often come up in Israel. While it does reflect upon a religious ideal which conflicts with a civil duty, this is not the central element that composes or defines the tension between religion and state in Israel in its basic essence: the inevitable conflict between the Jewish and the democratic identities of Israel.
The first evidence for this claim is that it simply not a religious matter whether or not to serve in the IDF. Putting the issue of women’s service aside, religious people will agree that there is almost no controversy that we have to defend our country and we need an army for that purpose.
There are also religious justifications for military service such as milhemet mitzva (a war that is forced upon us) or the obligation to keep and save the Land of Israel. This is the nucleus of the disagreement between those who care about the value of studying Torah – should military service enable and strengthen the possibility of those who study Torah to focus in their studies, like the biblical symbiosis between Issachar and Zebulun, or should it be the center of everything and the main cause to safeguard the people of Israel, so we can manage with a small-scale, maybe professional, army?
The second evidence comes from the fact that this issue isn’t related whatsoever to the identity of the state, but to the way the state treats a specific cultural minority which lives in it. If the haredi sector were to become a majority, is it conceivable to imagine that the majority of haredim wouldn’t enlist?
The haredi consciousness of being a minority has served their ability to shake off the need for their enlistment, since the establishment of the State of Israel and to this day, also without using an anti-Zionist ideology. So, this is just another issue that concerns the place of haredim in modern Israeli society. Other examples of this are the basic math and English skills in haredi schools, the issue of integrating haredi men and women in the employment arena and their integration in the academic system.
The issue of military service raises many difficulties and decisions to be taken; it’s a major factor in the character of Israeli society, but it does not concern the tension between being a modern democratic state and the Jewish nature of the state.
Moreover; when those who call for the improvement and revision of religious services, against the extreme monopoly of the rabbinate and for halachic pluralism, also act on issues that concern the basic way of life of the average haredi, they mix it up. The strength of demands for freedom of religion for the citizens of Israel against a monopoly that has taken control of Judaism is weakened by being stirred in the same pot with demands that concern the private space of the haredi sector. This is not a claim against the importance of these demands, but it is a claim that conflation of disparate ideas causes greater difficulty .
There are too many people who mix up a demand to draft yeshiva students together with a demand for secular freedoms. The right of choosing the way to get married, or a demand to enforce core studies in haredi schools, or the effort to dismantle the kashrut monopoly of the rabbinate should all be seen as secular liberties valued by many citizens of Israel. It is an essential and strategic error to conflate the topic of haredi enlistment with these religion-and-state controversies.
Essentially these issues are separate and demand different treatment – the way the state treats a cultural minority within it as opposed to treating the conflict between the democratic and Jewish identities of the state. Strategically when you mix up two separate issues, you may be liable to lose on both sides. Our ability to reach agreements for fixing religious affairs and creating true freedom of religion for all Israelis is affected badly by this mix.
As the haredi draft bill is back on the public agenda for another round, we should see it for what it is. As important as it may be, it cannot be and ought not to be part of the struggle to correct the way religious services are managed here. It’s fundamental for the framework of Israeli society, but it shouldn’t be at the center of the religion-and-state issue in Israel.
The writer is head of the Religion and State department in Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah.