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Only the Israeli Army Will Help the Country's ultra-Orthodox

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Ultra-Orthodox soldier at IDF recruitment base.
Ultra-Orthodox soldier at IDF recruitment base.Credit: Moti Milrod

The High Court of Justice’s ruling on equality in the burden of army service has once again put the question of conscripting the ultra-Orthodox on the public agenda. It’s clearly more comfortable for the Haredim to let their sons continue enjoying draft exemptions. It’s preferable to have them stay home during wartime instead of risking their lives in battle.

True, the ultra-Orthodox also fear the army will give their young men an opportunity to abandon the Haredi world, or even the broader religious world, by removing them from the confines of their homes and the yeshivas. But today, this problem can be overcome. Serving together in specific units would provide mutual reinforcement.

But all this is a purely theoretical discussion. As long as the ultra-Orthodox are an essential component of any governing coalition, there’s zero chance of them voluntarily acceding to the urgent need for them to participate in the broader Israeli enterprise. And there’s even less chance that a government whose existence depends on them will put an end to this domestic problem, which is weighing on Israeli society, by deciding to apply the mandatory conscription law to Haredi men as well.

Thus the real question isn’t why the Haredim are fighting conscription, or why governments keep giving in to them, but why so many members of the broader public, including people of conscience whose own children are drafted, nevertheless defend the ultra-Orthodox and their refusal to do army service.

One can identify three different influential groups who defend the right of the ultra-Orthodox to dodge this unpleasant general obligation. The first consists of those who subscribe to Haredi propaganda about the contribution that people who study Torah supposedly make to our national security. Belief in these slogans attests to an essential weakness in the Jewish worldview of those who hold it, a fact that obviously has broader implications for life in this country that beyond the issue of conscription.

The second group consists of people who in any case are critical of Israeli policy and see no point in drafting even more people into the occupation project. The ultra-Orthodox claim of being an oppressed cultural minority also speaks to these people. They believe the values of a multicultural society are more important than the values of Israeli society, which they view as militarist.

But the third group is the most important. Its adherents rightly believe that the seclusion of young Haredi men not only sentences the ultra-Orthodox community to desperate poverty, but is also a surefire recipe for the collapse of Israeli society as a whole, since the broader society won’t be able to continue supporting the ever-growing ultra-Orthodox community.

This great fear supposedly justifies giving up on the effort to draft the ultra-Orthodox, because according to this theory, conscription is a major obstacle that delays the entry of young Haredi men into the job market. To people who hold this view, the mortal blow dealt to the value of equality (which they believe can’t be realized in any case) is preferable to the certain destruction of Israeli society.

The problem with this view is that it ignores the process of maturing and education that takes place in the army. And without this process, it’s doubtful that young ultra-Orthodox men would be able to survive in the outside world.

Haredi society doesn’t prepare them at all for the real world, for its ideas and its needs. If they tried to get jobs, or even to study, while they were still full of the absurd worldview and the street smarts they acquired in the ultra-Orthodox world, they wouldn’t succeed in extricating themselves from poverty for the next 50 years, and would necessarily drag Israeli into the abyss. Only an encounter with the military’s demands could rapidly refashion their ideas and foment in them a real transformation. And if we’re seeking both their welfare and our own, we must force them to undergo a rapid transformation of this kind.

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