You're Telling Me You Would Rather Leave Israel Than Serve in the Army? - 'Yes, of Course'

On the line with Rabbi Avraham Menkes, one of the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox protest against yeshiva students being drafted into the Israel Defense Forces

Members of the Israeli security forces spray water as they try to remove ultra-Orthodox Jews from blocking the road in a demonstration against Israeli army conscription in Jerusalem on October 23, 2017.
Emil Salman

Hello to Rabbi Avraham Menkes, a senior member of the Jerusalem faction of the non-Hasidic, ultra-Orthodox [or Haredi] community led by Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach. This is Nir Gontarz of Haaretz. How are you doing?

Thank God.

Listen, I’m a bit confused. As an atheist I’m very distant from the Haredi world. I’ve been hearing analysts say the reason for your community’s demonstrations is your refusal to go to the induction centers and get the promised exemption from service in the Israel Defense Forces. Is that correct?

Let me give you a two-minute explanation and you’ll understand everything. Until the cancellation of the Tal Law [which regulated exemptions for yeshiva students from army service, until it was declared unconstitutional by the High Court of Justice in 2012], every yeshiva student who is learning full-time and who submitted three forms – from the head of his yeshiva; from the Council of Yeshivahs; and from a lawyer [attesting to this] – could sit and learn. That’s how it was for 60 years. Then the High Court came and revoked the law, with a statement that there has to be an “equal sharing of the burden.” That was the basis for the cancellation.

Then there was the Shaked Committee [which drew up a new enlistment bill] and there was an agreement across the board – with Rabbi Auerbach and Rabbi [Aharon Yehuda Leib] Shteinman – that no matter what happened, there wouldn’t be any move toward compromises or quotas; the Torah world wasn’t going to cut off pieces of itself and hand them to the army. In the middle of the [committee’s deliberations], that agreement was nullified. Then a law was passed that set targets for induction.

If you catch me even once in a lie – don’t talk to me. These are things that were legislated in an orderly fashion. The Haredim said: “We believe it’s correct to transfer from the yeshivas to the army and see that as a positive process.” That is a statement which, four years ago, not a single Haredi person would have agreed to. Not a single Haredi in the entire world. With that law, the state promises the army that it will take operative steps.

Now I’m jumping to today, when the High Court voided that as well and is demanding even worse. Until now, our attitude was that we don’t go to the army. That we don’t say we want to go. That we don’t set this in law, and that we don’t take steps toward [enlisting].

So I have two choices – either to call mass demonstrations that paralyze and crush the state, which I absolutely don’t want to do, or something else: I tell my boys not to go to the induction centers and cooperate with the law. An intelligent state would say, “This is a group that isn’t prepared to cooperate with the changes.” And we said, “If they arrest our boys, well then, we would have no choice but to fight for their honor and the honor of the Torah.”

It’s not that we said, as you put it, “We aren’t prepared to get the [draft-exemption] note.” It’s not that.

Okay.

We wanted to express a quiet, calm protest of not cooperating with a law. We aren’t prepared to harm the thing that’s most precious to us.

The state knows how to avoid all kinds of unnecessary confrontations, so why does it go and arrest another boy and another? The answer is simple: because getting the [exemption] note is not the way it was five or six years ago. There’s a system of screening yeshiva students: The army decides by selection – forgive me for using that term. Now an administration has been set up to shore up the Haredi screening department, to boost it, so they can classify the boys as they see fit. That’s what I have to say.

You were very clear. Now I understand your motivation for taking to the streets. Do you see a value in living in the land of Israel? Is that an important value?

It’s important. No more than that. If the question is living in Israel or doing away with a quarter of the legions of the Torah, we would certainly, certainly live abroad.

Yes. I heard that you’ve threatened to emigrate.

[The late] Rabbi [Elazar] Shach talked about this during a speech before 10,000 people. He said that if they force us to go to the army, we’d leave for abroad. That’s clear. I personally have taken out foreign passports – because if there’s no choice, that’s what I’ll do.

Passports from which country?

It’s not nice to say, but I’ve gotten my children German passports.

You would go that far? Emigrate to Germany and not serve in the army?

I would go that far. Of course. It’s hard to see this with secular eyes, but an 18-year-old Haredi boy has two options: serving in the army, or signing up for a different type of life that a secular person would never agree to. That includes all the sacrifices – from clubs to going abroad when you feel like it or going to work. But for a Haredi person, without Torah there’s no life.

I understand. How exactly do I describe you? A senior leader of the Jerusalem faction?

Spokesman for the Committee to Save the Torah World.

Headed by Rabbi Auerbach?

Yes. Our ideology is not the ideology of the Eda Haredit [an ultra-Orthodox community that doesn’t recognize the State of Israel]. Not at all. We vote in the elections and are the quietest, most peaceful of people. We are mainstream. We are the backbone of the mainstream. We never demonstrated until they harmed what’s most precious to us. We never took to the streets.

How many of you are there?

There are two things on the basis of which I can determine this. We founded a [political] party that ran in three cities – Bnei Brak, Modi’in Ilit and Jerusalem. In these three cities alone, the party got 15,000 votes. The second thing is that, based on [our newspaper] Hapeles ... I’d estimate that there are 30,000.

Thank you, sir.