'How Can We Exempt All 3,000 Yeshiva Students From the Army?' Wrote Haaretz in 1942

It is customary to hold Ben-Gurion responsible for the failure to separate church from state. But don't blame the old man.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

On September 22, 1942, Haaretz ran an article containing these lines: "The number of yeshiva students is approximately 3,000. Do they all have to be exempted from the duty to protect the land - the children in the house of study there, the synagogues and Torah study halls there?"

At the time the article was published, the Jewish public in Palestine was still in the midst of the "200 days of dread". Until the autumn of that year, the danger still existed that the forces of the Desert Fox, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, would break through the British line of defense in Egypt and conquer Palestine.

The headline of the Haaretz piece was "Draft dodging for heaven's sake," and it was written in the wake of an internal argument within the ultra-Orthodox community. A weekly publication called Hayesod demanded: "Remove all yeshiva students from conscription duty." Another Orthodox paper, Hamishor, criticized that call. Haaretz butted into the argument and concluded: "In view of this attitude by those knowledgeable in Torah who seek its ruling on the question of conscription, that because of the special circumstances - the circumstances of a Mandate land - the government does not declare a mandatory draft, you reach the conclusion that only the whip will do, not only for profiteers and ordinary pretty boys who spend their time in coffee shops and at the beach ... but also for rabbis and Torah scholars."

The Haaretz article was published in a personal column called "Reshimot Iparon" ("Penciled Scribblings" ), and was signed only by the initials B.M. This was the practice back then for many writers, because what was considered important was not the personality of the writer but rather the content of his words. The reader Chana Levron, who directed our attention to this article, identified its author: Aharon Litai. Levron is his granddaughter. (B.M. stood for Ben Moshe. )

Litai was a teacher, publisher and columnist born in Russia as Rabinovich, a member of the literary group to which Haim Nahman Bialik also belonged. He settled in Palestine in 1921 and joined the staff of Haaretz. His son was Gen. Michael Ben-Gal, who fought in the War of Independence.

Litai bolstered his opinion that it would take the force of a whip to compel yeshiva students to enlist in the British army with lines from a Bialik poem: "He will wake up only if the whip wakes him / He will recover only if misfortune raises him."

The article was Litai's second on the subject: On March 9, 1942, he debated the contention of religious Jews that they could not enlist in the British army because the food given to the troops was not kosher. Evidently at that stage, Litai did not yet believe in the whip. Instead, he availed himself of Ahad Ha'am, citing his opinion of the "hard-heartedness" that extremist Haredi Judaism had contracted - in other words, the inability to adapt Jewish law to changing circumstances.

Naturally, the words of Ahad Ha'am could not sway the ultra-Orthodox public, and Litai knew it, so he switched to religious reasoning. When Czar Alexander II made military service obligatory for his subjects, Litai related, several Chabad Hasidim approached their rebbe and asked him what to do: If they sustained themselves on bread and water alone, they would not endure as soldiers. Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson instructed them to eat everything, including meat, just so long as they neither ate the bones or sucked them. "Here you have it, then," summed up B.M., "there are powerful sources our rabbis could have referred to in advising those confounded among the young Haredim in matters of conscription. Why then do they keep silent and increase the confusion?"

Litai's question reflected the weakness of the secular: They perpetually tried to overcome the religious with quotations from the Jewish sources. And as such, they attempted to prove to the ultra-Orthodox that Jewish law need not prevent them from enlisting. David Ben-Gurion did this in a letter he sent in 1958 to the chief rabbi, Yitzhak Halevi Herzog: "I cannot find any suggestion in the Torah, Prophets and the Writings that Torah scholars were exempted from defending the homeland," he wrote to him, adding: "Without the existence of the Jewish people - there will be no Torah, and saving the nation takes precedence over all." It was an explicitly Zionist contention. A large public of Haredi Jews, in Israel and the United States, do not identify "the nation" with the State of Israel.

It is customary to ascribe to Ben-Gurion a big mistake: failure to separate religion and state. That claim was reiterated this week by Prof. Gabi Sheffer in an opinion piece published in Haaretz. Actually, Ben-Gurion handled no other matter so wisely as the conflict between religious and secular. If he had managed other conflicts similarly, history would have been different.

Negotiations over the exemption of yeshiva students resumed in the early stages of the War of Independence. The talks did not advance, among other reasons, because of the government's demand to restrict this arrangement to yeshiva students, rather than to every young Haredi man. It remained the main point of dispute in subsequent years.

The preliminary directives of Defense Minister Ben-Gurion on this matter are crystal clear: An exemption is to be granted solely to a yeshiva student for whom Torah study is his actual vocation. It is unclear where Yair Lapid came up with his claim that this initially took in only 400 students. The defense minister's first directive does not mention numbers.

Haredim at induction center, 2012. In '48, there was no quota.Credit: Nir Keidar

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