‘The Sky Didn’t Fall’: Enlisting in the IDF Is No Longer a Scourge in ultra-Orthodox Society

A real change has been underway over the past few years in the ultra-Orthodox world - its members aren't afraid to be seen in uniform

A conference in support of ultra-orthodox Jews in the army, 2013
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

On the morning of March 2, 2014, Haggai Nissan had time to shoot at an IDF firing range. A few hours later he and a few of his friends from his army unit presented themselves in Jerusalem for a very different mission: After changing out of their uniforms they went to participate in the mass protest at the entrance to the capital against the draft law that then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid had passed in the Knesset.

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This dissonance is the distillation of the attitude of the Haredi mainstream concerning military service. On one hand, the ideal of studying only Torah comes first, but on the other, there’s de facto agreement about the drafting of Haredim who are not sitting and studying in the yeshivas.

It seems this formula is rarely discussed outside of the Haredi community, and certainly never makes the headlines in the media. The media is mostly busy with the extremist factions of the community, attacks on soldiers in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and the violent protests and blocking of major roads. The impression people often get from the media is of a burning hatred toward ultra-Orthodox soldiers. But in reality, at least in the mainstream of Haredi society, enlistment is no longer a dirty word.

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Interviews with Haredim who completed their military service reveal the major reason: They remain Haredim while in the army – and afterwards too. As a result, many in the community have come to recognize that it is possible to serve in the army without the sky falling. The lifestyle and strength of the beliefs of the Haredi soldiers may not have changed much, but a drastic change has occurred in the way their close circles in Haredi society see them. Only some 15 years ago, such a situation was unimaginable.

Nissan told Haaretz that he grew up learning in regular Haredi schools and yeshivas, but later he came to realize his future was not in Torah study. “I married at age 20 and went out to work. I heard about the Shahar project [that integrates Haredim into the army] and enlisted.” Six years have passed since then and he finished military service in full, and today he also has two children. A perfectly kosher Haredi family.

Nissan, similar to other veterans who spoke to Haaretz, says that after his military service they are still walking a very fine line. They still live inside Haredi society and their children learn in the regular Haredi institutions. But they also make sure not to let the fact that they served in the IDF stand out. Not even all the neighbors know, says Nissan.

“The children study in a Talmud Torah [school] and I’m not sure the principals know I served in the army,” he says. “For me, the army was like a workplace. It’s not that I’m embarrassed about it, but I don’t go around [showing] it proudly.”

A protest against compulsory conscription of the ultra-orthodox in Jerusalem, March 2018
Tomer Appelbaum

Very few leave Orthodoxy

In 2016, 2,850 Haredim enlisted in the IDF. This number may be lower than the IDF’s target of 3,200, but the trend is clearly on the rise. Part of the reason is the various options available to the soldiers. If a decade ago the only option was to join the Netzah Yehuda track, known better as the Nahal Haredi (a combat infantry battalion in the Kfir Brigade), in recent years two more options have been added: A combat track as part of the Shahar program, in which men under 21 join the paratroopers or Givati infantry brigades; and a professional track as part of Shahar for those soldiers over 21 or married.

One of the pioneers of the Shahar program is Haim Dickman, 35, married with four children. He lives in Modi’in Ilit, a city-size ultra-Orthodox settlement identified with the Haredi mainstream. “I didn’t tell my father at the beginning,” says Dickman. “I only told him the day after I was drafted. At first, he took it hard, today he actually supports it. He saw that to a certain extent I received stability there. He saw things in proportion, saw that I was in the army and the world didn’t come to an end.”

Dickman spent eight years in uniform and reached the rank of major. During this time, he commanded quite a number of Haredi soldiers and he no longer has any doubts that things have changed. “In Haredi cities, you already see more soldiers,” he says. “At the entrance to Bnei Brak you can see dozens of soldiers waiting for the bus in the morning.”

The effect is being felt slowly, every soldier has an influence on their surroundings, he says. “It is clear that my family sees me and changed its opinion about signing up. They see I stayed the way I went in. I have a good friend who would enter the synagogue in uniform. At first they were mad at him and later they got used to it.”

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Dickman’s attitude to religion has not changed. “Of course there is change, but the question is what sort of change,” he says. “We understand that the army can adapt itself to the Haredim and if someone isn’t studying and is searching for himself, he has a reasonable option in the army. There he remains Haredi and keeps the commandments.”

Thus, when the time times to get out of the army – at least in communities that are not extremist – an ultra-Orthodox veteran is accepted back into the fold with no problem. One such veteran, A., can attest to this. A graduate of an yeshiva esteemed in Haredi society, he understood at a certain point that studying Torah was not for him. “I realized that the first station outside the kollel [yeshiva for married men] would be the induction center. My family accepted this comfortably. Clearly the family wanted me to study Torah, but it was clear that for me that wasn’t the situation.” A. is now 29, married and with a daughter. His daughter attends a regular Haredi kindergarten with girls whose fathers are kollel students. “There were no problems with her acceptance,” he said.

Haim Dickman in March 2018
Emil Salman

The Admor’s backing

Sometimes Haredi society not only accepts army service, but goes even farther, says S., 24. “I come from a relatively open community, where the Admor [rabbinic leader] encourages young men who aren’t sitting and studying to go to the army.” S. says all the yeshiva students in his community do national civil service in the police, emergency service or other places. “You see quite a few soldiers in the synagogue,” he says.

This normalization of enlistment and acceptance of soldiers into classic Haredi society leads to immediate changes. “I have a little brother who of course prefers to study and continue at the yeshiva,” Haggai Nissan says. “But I had a chance to talk to him about it and he said specifically – anyone who doesn’t sit and study, should enlist in the army.”

Some wonder how the intensive encounter with secular people in the army does not change the attitude of Haredi soldiers to religion or to non-Haredi society. Here the answer is more complex, and involves differentiating between the Netzah Yehuda battalion and the Shahar project.

“Shahar is a workplace, Netzah is a yeshiva,” says Hanoch Rogozinsky, director of Shahar. “In Shahar the soldiers come every morning and go home every night. In Netzah it’s a real yeshiva, there are prayers, Torah lessons and a yeshiva atmosphere. It’s actually a yeshiva in the army for marginal Haredi youth.”

A soldier at a conference in support of ultra-orthodox Jews in the army, 2013
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Many of the men who enlist in Shahar note this difference, but also its limits. “Clearly today I’m more familiar with the Israeli way. I’m a little more interested in knowing more about politics. I’m more connected,” says A. Nevertheless, he adds, “I remained religious in the same way.”

And what about the next generation, the children of Haredim who are army veterans? For Dickman, the answer is clear and will never change. His children attend regular Haredi schools and when the time comes, he doesn’t believe that enlistment in the army will be their preference. “I educate them toward the Hebron Yeshiva, not the air force,” he says, referring to a strict, Lithuanian-stream yeshiva in Jerusalem.

“Clearly I want my son to go to yeshiva and remain a yeshiva student. At a point when he leaves, if he leaves, for the workforce, then he should go to the army, where he’ll both get training and serve the country.”

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It seems that for the Haredim, the end of their army service is just a stop on the road. “The most significant thing is not the direct benefit, the military salary, but actually the indirect benefit – a good job at the end of service,” says Assaf Malhi, an expert on Haredi employment at the Israel Democracy Institute and the Research Administration in the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry. “The army is the best school for Israeliness. You understand the language, the jargon. It gives you a very significant advantage in the labor market as well,” he says.

Shahar project head Rogozinsky agrees. He says that what’s really important is not the impact on the Haredi soldiers or Haredi society, but on Israeli society at large. “We’ll be seeing more Haredim in senior positions. The Haredi public says ‘why aren’t we accepted?’ I say, this is just the way to integrate them. These soldiers reach positions of influence after doing the normative Israeli route with no shortcuts, no discounts and no reverse discrimination.

“The question,” he says, “is how Israeli society will accept and include them.”