The burning issue of the plans of the Israeli government to end draft exemptions has Torah Jews throughout the world up in arms. The topic of countless conversations, it is surrounded by clouds of confusion and misunderstanding. In this cutting-edge analysis, Yisrael Katzover, Hamodia’s veteran military correspondent, gives us a look at the facts behind the façade. He tells us how the army isn’t interested in drafting yeshivah students — but young, inexperienced politicians, who put their personal interests above the country’s, are using bullying tactics to push the issue — at the risk of setting off an explosion.
Secular politicians in Israel — not all of them, but those who are leading the campaign for an “equal sharing of the defense burden” — want to deal the chareidim a crushing defeat.
These politicians, whose numbers have grown since the last election, must understand that when it comes to the current battle over drafting yeshivah students there must not be winners and losers. There must be dialogue, in which the concerns of both sides are heard and taken into account. Otherwise, the victory of the secular politicians will be pyrrhic, leading to their losing control of the government — and not in that many years.
For their part, the chareidi public and its leaders do not seek to crush the opposition. Ever since the establishment of the state, the chareidi leadership has believed in dialogue and compromise —provided that their core values are not affected.
However, the idea that someone who doesn’t believe in the value of Torah learning should be empowered to decide what a bachur should learn, for how long, and then determine who are the iluyim who will be granted more time to learn while everyone else is evicted from the beis medrash, is a decree in every sense of the word.
And over such decrees “world wars” have been fought under the banner of Mi l’Hashem elai. And in such a battle, between a government and a public that believes in an ideal, how much more so when it is a religious ideal, the government doesn’t stand a chance — especially when we’re speaking of a group that numbers a million people.
So what exactly happened over the past year? Nothing new, really. The volcano of secular religious tensions was also bubbling beneath the surface. From time to time it erupted, but then settled down. However, the results of the last elections created a political environment that widened the tectonic rift to the point that lava burst forth in all it strength.
And the principal responsible agent for this disaster is the Supreme Court. Over the years it acted as the “responsible adult” in keeping the battles between the religious and secular in check, but failed at its job when it adopted a miserable decision canceling the law that legislated a workable compromise on the draft. This combination of the failure of the judiciary and the rise in political extremism empowered those who oppose the continued learning of Torah for all those who are interested in doing so, leading them to declare all-out war.
As part of their campaign, these young, inexperienced politicians, who lack a broader vision of the country’s needs, twisted the arm of the veteran leadership headed by Binyamin Netanyahu, forcing him to keep the chareidim out of his new coalition. How absurd that secular Israel is willing to man the barricades to prevent the exclusion of women, Arabs, Ethio pians and Russians. Only chareidim can be banished; indeed, it is a “mitzvah” to do so.
And when the chareidi public feels itself under attack, it goes on the defensive, building a protective barrier, ascending its watch towers and preparing for war. What else would you expect? Surrender?
After all, this isn’t about bringing about an “equal sharing of the burden,” a term that that is both meaningless and dishonest. If “equality” was the issue, then surely the politicians would be clamoring for non-chareidim who don’t serve. If Israeli Arabs are not drafted for security reasons, how about secular draft dodgers that number in the many thousands. (Perhaps “equality” should also include limud Torah by the secular? Equality should be a two-way street.)
The secular politicians have “thrown a bone” to lomdei Torah by authorizing a few hundred “iluyim” — gifted scholars — to continue to learn past the age of 21. It’s insulting because it says that bnei yeshivah are not important to the country, to the Jewish People — in the view of the political establishment — but they’ll concede a few iluyim to avoid an explosion.
And since it is clear that no one from the Torah world will take upon himself the Solomonic decision of who will learn and who will be thrown out of the beis medrash, the choice will end up back in the hands of the secular. “We get to be the good guys and put a spoke in the wheel of the parasites,” they tell themselves, using the term of the new education minister and the new deputy finance minister, both members of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party.
The irony is that this war is being launched at a time when chareidi society is beginning to experience change due to practical considerations. These considerations had led tens of thousands to leave the yeshivah, in the appropriate circumstances and with the approval of their Rabbanim, to study for professions. They have led to some older chareidi men, with growing families, to enlist in some military frameworks. Moreover, the job market is beginning to fill more and more with chareidim.
And precisely now — when this process in the chareidi world is taking place in the open — the secular come and declare war, whose immediate effect will be to put the brakes on the developments we’ve described.
The climate in Israel is explosive and the terminologies used in the exchange of words add fuel to the fire. The chareidim are being subjected to unprecedented demonization, while from the chareidi side the secular are being described as “anshei shmad” and the need to stand up to them is being identified in terms of “yehareg v’al yaavor.” All boundaries are being crossed. The secular are being described as “inquisitionists” and the chareidim as “extortionists” — and worse.
Those who now have the political upper hand and are trying to use it to force their will on the chareidim should be aware that they may spark an opposite reaction when the coalition changes and the chareidim are back in power.
When you push someone up against the wall, he feels he has nothing to lose. This feeling of being hounded and pursued will cause the chareidi community to revert to its previous state.
Unfortunately, the politicians aren’t prepared to understand that an evolving process takes years. Whoever thinks that he will dictate to another his way of life will discover that he is only hurting himself. He will discover that the partner for compromise he had for 65 years no longer wants anything to do with him.
Moreover, seeking to impose a stridently secular agenda undermines the legitimacy of the Jewish People in the Jewish Land. On what basis can you tell the world that Eretz Yisrael is our land if you tear apart the basis of the narrative of our faith?
On the other hand, is it necessary for the chareidi public to respond in kind to its attackers? It’s doubtful. Does it need to hold giant demonstrations in Israel and around the world?
The answer is yes, but with a major provision. The purpose of any rally has to be a clear and cohesive message that serves the purpose by presenting the gist of the argument in an honorable fashion. While it’s very tempting to respond in kind to your attackers, Harav Chaim Kohn wrote last week in an excellent article in Hamodia that responding with insults to those who attack and defame us will not only not help, but could hurt. Such a reaction could play into the hands of those who launched this battle.
There is an attempt here, writes Harav Kohn, to redefine what it means to be a Jew. Instead of establishing a religious identity whose primary goal is the observance of Torah and mitzvos, the secular want to create a new prototype — the Jew who identifies himself first and foremost by his nationality — Israeli — and not in religious terms. Their battle is about creating a society that is not bound by Torah norms, not in its streets and not in private. This is an attempt at social engineering using the melting pot of the army, and if this fails, to create an everlasting wedge between the chareidi and secular societies. This in fact much-more-likely outcome is disastrous for everyone concerned.
Torah Judaism must not fall into the trap, he argues. It must understand that this is a battle against a clever, well thought out rival. It isn’t enough to be right, we must be wise. Our responses must be based on logic, and presented in a professional manner. Whoever represents us must be able to make our claim in a convincing way. We must choose carefully every deed and every verbal response, to ensure that these have the ability to convince the other and promote our cause.
There is a major factor in our favor. Most Israelis value the importance of religious values and want to keep the Jewish character of society. Moreover, people of influence, even those at the highest level of government, can be convinced that demonizing chareidim hurts the interests of the country, and not just in spiritual terms. Demonization crosses all boundaries and invites a response that causes serious damage to the fabric of the country.
Very quickly the secular will understand that the struggle for what is being called “equal sharing of the burden” is arousing hatred while not bringing even one chareidi man to military service.
We have to make it clear to the saner elements of the Israeli leadership that the rule of the majority — a basic tenet of democracy — doesn’t mean steamrolling the minority. Whenever the majority forces its views on the minority, without giving the latter the chance to voice to its needs, democracy breaks apart.
Secular politicians are fooling themselves if they think they have the magic formula for integrating chareidim into the army. They think that “sterile” frameworks can be created that won’t force chareidi soldiers to compromise on their beliefs, but such frameworks simply don’t exist. The former state comptroller, Dr. Micha Lindenstrauss, examined the situation of a few hundred chareidim who enlisted after receiving promises that an appropriate framework would be created for them.
His report on the subject is shocking. Lindenstrauss and his staff reveal that the IDF simply lied to the chareidim. It doesn’t succeed in providing glatt kosher food and doesn’t provide them with an all-male environment. And what would happen with 50,000 chareidim in the army? The IDF would be the first to cry out, “Get them off our backs!”
The state comptroller also revealed that the army doesn’t call chareidi soldiers for reserve duty, apparently because it doesn’t need them.
Which brings us to the central question: Did these secular politicians who have been clamoring for the draft of chareidim ever check with the IDF to see if they were needed or wanted?
Yes, they’ve asked, and they’ve received two answers. The public one, which is meant to appease the politicians, is: “Of course we’re interested in the chareidim and have the ability to cope with their demands.”
However, in private, the most senior officers are saying: “Leave us alone. We don’t need this headache. We can’t cope with them, just like we can’t deal with the massive draft of an unwilling Israeli Arab public.”
But the politicians hide the truth and present only the public answer.
A few days ago, I had an interesting conversation with a top officer. This is what he said: “Ben Gurion was a great leader, but on the issue of creating a ‘people’s army’ and instituting mandatory service for all, he dragged us into the mud that even 65 years later we haven’t been able to get out of.
“What are people talking about when they say they want to draft the chareidim? Are we capable of building mikva’os on army bases for morning tevillah? We’d have to also build 250 shuls.
“And can we place 50,000 soldiers in areas that don’t have female soldiers? We haven’t even solved the problem of a few dozen national-religious soldiers who refuse to remain at ceremonies where women sing, and now we’re going to find a solution for chareidi soldiers?
“And what about mehadrin hechesherim for army food? Let’s assume we manage to provide it for chareidi soldiers; what will we do when the national-religious soldiers petition the High Court for glatt? And truthfully, why shouldn’t they get it? Has anyone calculated how much all this will cost us? It would be cheaper to hire a foreign legion and bring them here!
“And I haven’t even touched the real problem. My fellow officers and I aren’t likely to cope with soldiers who are serving against their will. Today we have a few of these, and they end up being thrown into jail a few times until they are released as unfit for military service. What are we going to do with 50,000 who have no motivation to serve? And that’s just the chareidim. What’s with the 125,000 Arabs? Will someone find a way to force them?
“Instead of dealing with Iran, the General Staff will be preoccupied day and night with this problem that we’ll be bringing upon ourselves with our own hands.
“And another question. Let’s assume that we succeed in drafting chareidim and absorbing them into our ranks. What will my dear secular friends do tomorrow when these soldiers make up 80 percent of the officer training programs? Today, the secular are aghast that 40 percent of those enrolled are national-religious soldiers and are trying to reduce the number.”
Maj. Gen. (res.) Amram Mitzna, a former Labor party member who was recently elected to the Knesset on the ticket of Tzipi Livini’s Hatnuah party, said this week: “There’s more than a little hypocrisy in the discussion on ‘equal sharing of the burden.’ Is there equality today among those who are drafted? Are we aware of the financial costs we’d have to bear by drafting chareidim and expanding the national service program for them?
“Do we understand how drafting chareidim will change the character of the IDF as a people’s army [secular Jews and women are also part of the nation]? Will we be able to withstand pictures of chareidi youths being dragged to jail by their tzizis?
“We must set realistic goals in order to create a gradual process leading to a more equal sharing of the burden.”
But first, says Mitzna, we must stop the hypocrisy, the political bullying and the verbal violence as relates to the other. Only then, he says, “can we bring about social change.”
Another voice of reason in the secular camp comes from journalist Uri Avnery, an activist from the extreme left and a former MK. He speaks out openly against the harassment of chareidim and says that they should be exempted, since the draft may well lead to many discarding their religious way of life.
In an article published in Haaretz, Avnery writes: “I am against an equal sharing of the burden. I’m against military service for chareidim, both from a practical and a moral standpoint.
“From a moral standpoint, we must recognize the uniqueness of the chareidi community. It is different from all other sectors of the nation. …
“The Rabbis are right in their claim that after military service the bachurim will be lost and not in a position to return to the chareidi community.
“We have to simply recognize that this is a unique sector, different in every way, that has a right to lead its life without being harassed by the government. On the other hand, the government doesn’t have to fund it.
“I am a complete atheist. I champion complete separation of religion and state. I detest religious parties, and it doesn’t matter which religion. But this doesn’t prevent me from feeling empathy for people of different faiths. I also look down at politicians who try to gallop to power on the back of hatred of the religious.”
For practical reasons, as well, Avnery feels there won’t be a draft: “Drafting chareidim would be a tragedy for the army; it would fill the ranks with tens of thousands of soldiers who hate the army and what it stands for. These soldiers will only heed the commands of their Rabbanim, and will refuse orders of their commanders when their Rabbis tell them to do so. Many will spend their service in army prison. An attempt to force on masses of chareidim equal service (truly equal) will lead to a commotion that no one can predict.”
Avnery concludes: “I am angered by the behavior of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett who have seized the subject of drafting chareidim as if it were the most important thing the country faces — when they both understand that nothing will come of this. There are subjects that are much more important and pressing on the agenda of the State of Israel.”