Jerusalem — Shimon, a student at the ultra-Orthodox Tiferet Israel yeshiva, says he is not prepared to serve in the military, even if a new bill calling on the draft of yeshiva students is passed in the Knesset.
“I won’t go into the army, even if there is a law,” says the army-age yeshiva bocher, who studies at the school from early in the morning until late at night.
The bill in question, which was brought to the Knesset this month by Labor Party leader Ehud Barak, would limit the number of exemptions and deferments from military service now enjoyed by an estimated 30,000 haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva students.
If passed, the “Yeshiva Student Draft Law” would grant approximately 700 exemptions to outstanding students each year and require the rest to either serve in the military or perform some alternative form of national service. Although a small number of haredi men enlist every year, the community strongly frowns upon the practice, asserting that it defends Israel in spiritual ways, by learning Torah.
A political hot potato, the issue of army exemptions/deferments evokes emotions from both religious and secular Jews, and just about everyone in between. While the majority of non-haredi Israelis say the bill is long overdue, the ultra-Orthodox leadership absolutely rejects it. At the very most, some haredi leaders say they might allow some of their young men to serve in the army or perform national service, provided they can do so voluntarily. A draft, they say, is out of the question.
The issue is so volatile — and politicized — that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week retracted his decision to establish a Knesset committee to discuss the matter, reportedly under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties who threatened to bolt his coalition if the panel were established.
In response, Barak’s spokeswoman called the move “another example of how the government caves in under the pressure of the haredim. The government is all talk but no action.”
There has been talk of compromise efforts, such as allowing haredim to perform national service by guarding holy places. But Rabbi Eliezer Shach, the 103-year-old spiritual leader of Degel HaTorah, told his followers in a rare public statement last week that it is forbidden to serve in the army and “it is necessary to die for this.”
Many haredi leaders oppose Zionism, and see the army as an environment for immoral behavior.
An 11-judge panel of the High Court of Justice took up the issue of drafting yeshiva students into the army last week. Justice Dalia Dorner asked: “Why not just exempt them from military service and let them go to work?”
Her comment raised a troubling point because in order to receive army exemptions, yeshiva students have to vow that they have no employment other than the stipend they receive from the yeshiva. Recent studies have found, though, that many have outside sources of income.
“This is certainly a very sensitive issue,” said Stuart Cohen, a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan. “Few issues are this explosive.”
Mainstream Israelis, he said, believe that the number of deferments and exemptions is [too] high, and it’s grown tremendously during the past several years. The public finds this especially offensive because the haredim are receiving handouts at the same time that they’re studying and not working. It could be said that they are shirking their responsibilities.”
The ultra-Orthodox, Cohen stressed, have a very different perspective. “For them it is clear that their task in life is to sit and learn, and this is an argument that has a basis in traditional Jewish sources. This is the ultimate defense: learning all day is doing God’s will.”
Then there is the issue of religious observance. “Haredi men have requirements that need to be met, requirements other soldiers serving in the IDF don’t have: Glatt kosher food prepared under the strictest supervision, the need for an eruv, and bases where there are no women soldiers.”
For this reason, he said, “The army itself hasn’t pushed the inclusion of haredi soldiers. There is the suspicion that the army wouldn’t know what to do with them. At a time when many women and some secular men are given exemptions, the army says ‘Why bother?’ ”
(Asked whether the Israel Defense Force would be prepared to accept ultra-Orthodox soldiers, an army spokesman said, “The issue is a political one and it is therefore not appropriate for the IDF to comment on it.”)
Regardless of whether the army wants them, Chaim Nudler, the ultra-Orthodox educational director of an institution for boys from troubled homes, insists that the military is no place for Orthodox Jews.
Raised in a secular home in the heart of Tel Aviv, Nudler, 42, turned to Orthodoxy after completing his combat duty. “I served in the army, in a tank unit, and remember how the religious soldiers were ridiculed. Relations between religious and secular soldiers wasn’t good, and the food wasn’t really kosher. Eventually, many of the religious soldiers threw away their kipot because they didn’t want to be different.”
Asked whether ultra-Orthodox young men might consider serving if the army were to establish all-haredi units, Nudler shakes his head in dismay. Recalling an encounter with hesder yeshiva students, who combine military service with Torah study, he said, “I once saw a captain order a hesder unit to perform a complicated exercise on Tisha b’Av. It was a fast day, according to Jewish law, a day when you’re not supposed to wear leather shoes or boots. They requested the day off but the captain said no.”
While he understands Nudler’s concerns, Tzvi Metz, a Modern Orthodox professional who was drafted a few years ago, says that Israel “can’t be a society of those who serve and those who don’t.”
“There’s inequity, and secular and religious soldiers who do their duty definitely feel resentment,” he said. “It isn’t right that 40- and 50-year-old reservists have to be away from their wives and families while others learn in yeshivas all day.”
To incorporate the haredim into the army, Metz said, “There must be units that respect the haredi religious practices. If large numbers of haredim were to serve, I think they themselves will feel more a part of Israeli society.”
Like other haredi leaders, Knesset member Avraham Ravitz of the United Torah Judaism Party flatly rejects Barak’s legislation. “This bill doesn’t have any chance of passing because he won’t be able to muster up a majority,” he insisted.
Recalling attempts by the ultra-Orthodox parties to pass a conversion bill, he added, “We’ve been told that we shouldn’t use the legal system to force other people on ideological issues, and now here comes this law by Barak. There is something very hypocritical here.”
Despite his contempt for Barak’s bill, Ravitz does not rule out a compromise. “There is room for discussion — we have been talking to the Ministry of Defense for some time to find other alternatives,” he said.
Before agreeing to any compromise, however, Ravitz has a few preconditions: “Those boys devoting themselves to yeshiva study must be allowed to continue. These are boys who don’t feel part of Israeli society and the army is a reflection of Israeli society. We must find ways to enable kids to join the army and not lose their ultra-Orthodox way of life and thinking, and still be able to serve their country,” he said.
Ravitz said there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of haredi young men in their 20s and 30s who would like to work to support their families.
“The problem is that the minute they leave the yeshiva world they are drafted. Imagine a young man from [the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of] Mea Shearim, who has never participated in Israeli society, suddenly being thrust into the army. Can you picture him at an army camp? First you have to free him of his fear,” Ravitz said.
Rabbi Daniel Tropper, the director of the Gesher Center for religious-secular dialogue, said that the haredi draft issue will plague the country until it is resolved.
“The secularists can’t be expected to put up with an unequal division of responsibility, especially when it comes to the lives of their children,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a sheltered yeshiva student to go into the army and deal with nude calendars and vile language just because he’s been drafted.
“The only way to solve this problem,” Tropper said, “is for all the sides to sit down quietly behind the scenes in order to build confidence. At the moment there is very little confidence.”