Israel's Haredim Must Give and Not Just Take

Why should Israel's ultra-Orthodox population be exempt from defending the country through military service, when their lifestyle is generously subsidized by the state?

Reuven Hammer
Reuven Hammer
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Reuven Hammer
Reuven Hammer

I find it difficult to understand why Haaretz has taken an editorial position opposed to having Israel's Haredim "share the burden" and considers it a "credit to Israeli democracy" that the Haredim are not going to be drafted into the IDF (Haaretz editorial: 'Failed policies of repression', Dec.18 2013.)

It is hardly undemocratic for a state that faces constant threats to its very existence to require its citizens to come to the defense of the nation and perform military service. On the contrary, not to do so would constitute a dereliction of duty and be in violation of common sense and the will to live. How wonderful it would be if Israel were not in that position and could do away with compulsory military service, but unfortunately that seems a far off dream. Under the current circumstances, true democracy demands that such a burden be shared equally by those capable of doing so.

Nor is this a matter of conscience. Nothing in Judaism justifies conscientious objection. On the contrary, Judaism demands that when confronted with evil we oppose it, and that when faced with an enemy who threatens to kill us or others, we defend them and ourselves.

What the Haredi community contends is not that Israelis should not defend themselves, but that others should do so because their study of Torah takes precedence. That is arrant nonsense with absolutely no basis in fact or in Jewish law. Jewish law – the Torah itself – makes it very clear that all are equally required to serve. There may be certain exemptions – such as the just-married and those who are afraid and would cause others to fear, but the study of Torah is not a cause for not serving when lives are at stake (Deuteronomy 20:5-8). Rabbinic Judaism went further and said that all must serve when there is danger, even the bride and groom (Sotah 8:7)! Torah scholars should be the first to know and fulfill this obligation.

The facts are quite simple. Haredi youth are encouraged to stay enrolled in yeshivot in order to avoid the draft, because they are still living within a Diaspora mentality that believes that serving in any army is a disaster. For many of them Israel is not a legitimate state and they feel no obligation toward it.

Furthermore the Israeli Haredi community has invented something new that never existed in Europe and does not now exist in American or elsewhere - the idea that all its men must devote themselves exclusively to study and never do anything else, be it army duty or work. Many – if not most – of these yeshiva students are hardly serious students. Such a society cannot exist unless it depends on the support of the government and on others to keep society alive. Yet that is what they are attempting to do here. Is this fair and proper?

This hypocrisy can be seen in a news item in the same day's Haaretz. It stated that MK Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) was sponsoring a bill that would block negotiations regarding the future of Jerusalem with Palestinians unless 80 MKs approved it. But if this would pass and undermine any possibility of peace in the future, will Litzman's voters serve in the army that will have to fight the wars in the future? Not on your life. They will be busy saving the nation through studying Torah!

Israel cannot allow the current situation to continue. It must find a way to bring these young men into service of their country and into the productive work force. With the Haredi population increases, as it does year by year, even the current situation presents a threat to the existence of Israel as a viable state. Steps must be taken immediately to stop the subsidization of yeshiva and kollel [married men] students which alone permits them to live this kind of life.

Israel's Haredim must be faced with the situation in which they are called upon to provide for themselves. Should they refuse to serve the nation, they should be deprived of all financial help from the State. The army should provide appropriate framework in which they can serve and should then have the right to decide who should be in a military framework and who is not appropriate and can do civilian service instead. Only in this way can Israel survive.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer is a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, the world organization of Masorti/Conservative Rabbis.

Nahal Haredi soldiers training.Credit: Archive

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