A Correspondence Between Friends

Why shouldn’t Israeli yeshivah students be drafted into the army?

Dear Yisrael:

During the many years that we have known each other, I have always gotten the impression that you are an open-minded, caring person, one who is willing to buck the trend in pursuit of truth. Therefore, I was disappointed by your reaction this past Shabbos, when we met and I asked you about the draft of Israeli yeshivah students.

There are mothers in Israel today who want to know why their sons are at the front, putting their lives in danger, while the yeshivah students are sitting in the comfort of their homes and batei medrash. What can you possibly tell them?

I look forward to your response.

Yaakov


Dear Yaakov:

Thank you for reaching out to me.

As I mentioned to you when we spoke on Shabbos, the issue of the draft is only one part — albeit a significant one — of a much broader picture.

The current crisis in Eretz Yisrael is a classic example of not seeing the forest for the trees.

The draft is only one of the symptoms of a much more profound, core predicament.

Nonetheless, as it is the most frequently discussed symptom, it is important to address it.

The feelings of mothers of Israeli soldiers who resent the fact that the chareidim don’t serve in the army are understandable. They are real emotions, of real people, and those emotions must be respected. Even the most logical of arguments may not change such feelings. But, at the same time, while showing the greatest possible sensitivity to these mothers, decisions involving the lives of tens of thousands, and a process that would alter forever the character of a country, must be based on facts and not emotions.

David ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister and Defense Minister, used to say the IDF is not only a means of defending the country, but also a means of integrating and building Israeli society.

There are many individuals who, like yourself, see the role of the army to be a necessary hishtadlus to try to defend the borders of Israel and, to the best of its limited ability, to protect its residents.

But the most effective means of achieving this end may well be to end the compulsory draft and instead form a professional army.

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz has spoken of the need for professional, capable, well-trained soldiers. “We must ensure that we are there, ready for every threat and every necessary response.” Gantz said.

The primary reason why Israel has chosen not to go down that route is because the IDF is seen by the political leadership as an educational tool, the most effective way to get Jews who stem from so many disparate backgrounds and cultures to shed their distinctiveness and fully adapt to Israeli culture.

In essence, the Israeli army, in its present form as was established by the Founding Fathers, has a dual purpose — one is about security; the other, ideology and social engineering.

If the Israeli government would instead shift the focus of the army to only doing its real, main job — the requisite security hishtadlus, this whole crisis wouldn’t exist.

Those who are leading the current effort to force chareidim to join the army aren’t motivated by concerns for Israel’s security, but by a deep hostility to the chareidi way of life. Some are indeed hoping that they will get a sizable number of chareidim to enter the massive melting pot known as the IDF, with the expectation that they will lose their chareidi identity and lifestyle in the process.

Others don’t really imagine that they will get the yeshivah students to join the army. Instead, they are conveniently using this highly charged issue to mount a powerful campaign of incitement, and utilize the passions it generates to inflict crippling sanctions on the chareidi sector.

There is another point to consider as well.

Parents of IDF solders, as well as the soldiers themselves, are also likely aware that draft deferments for divinity students have been an accepted part of Western culture for generations. Even in the United States, where the separation of church and state is sacrosanct, divinity students, such as those who learned Torah in yeshivos, received deferments. This meant that as long as they were studying, they were exempt from the draft during every conflict in the past century — including World Wars I and II as well as the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Yet there is no indication that there was widespread animosity against divinity students or calls to change the system during any of those devastating conflicts.

Furthermore, a significant percentage of those who indeed serve in the IDF never serve in combat units and are never exposed to the dangers and risks experienced by those who serve at the front. Yet there are no expressions of outrage against this seemingly unfair bias.

While I am unaware of any statistics that show how many mothers of soldiers are really perturbed about the chareidi yeshivah students, I have no doubt that you are right, and there are pain-filled mothers out there. Without in any way minimizing the gravity of their feelings, I believe it is fair to state that if not for the constant incitement by some members of the media and by politicians with axes to grind, they would look at chareidim no differently from how American mothers looked at divinity students during WWII.

While you are reading this, you are likely expressing strong disagreement with what I have written thus far.

It is certainly your right to disagree — especially since so much of your viewpoint is based on a longstanding emotional attachment to the state of Israel in general and the IDF in particular, and you have the right to do so. I am not asking you to change your mind; all I am asking is for you to understand that there is another side, a legitimate viewpoint that is based on logical assertions.

The reality is that the IDF doesn’t even want or need chareidi soldiers. In an off-the-record conversation I had with a high-ranking career officer who only recently retired from the IDF, he was blunt.

Chareidim aren’t worth the headache they would cause,” he said to me. “The army just isn’t set up to allow them to live that sort of lifestyle.”

This has been confirmed by longtime military correspondent Yisrael Katzover. “Throughout the decades, all IDF commanders [who were asked] told me and others: We don’t need these soldiers … An army that is cutting on gasoline for vehicles, suspending training exercises and grounding planes will certainly not find it economical to draft these bachurim and pay for them,” he says.

Since the army doesn’t need them, having them will only create a financial burden for the army, since adapting the facilities (glatt kosher kitchens, etc.) to accommodate them would cost a fortune.

The top brass of the IDF is actually opposed to forced conscription of chareidim.

As IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz has said, the recruitment of lomdei Torah is a political issue and not a military one.

There is no doubt that it is important for Israel to have a strong and effective army. That it is why it is high time for Israel to stop using its armed forces as tools for social engineering and focus on bolstering the army’s capabilities.

The facts may be uncomfortable, but they remain true: The issue of the draft of yeshivah students has nothing to with the security of the Jews of Eretz Yisrael. The issue is actually all about allowing Jews to continue living a Torah-observant lifestyle as they have done for thousands of years.

I am sure that you have numerous objections to what I have written. I look forward to continuing this conversation in the weeks to come.

Yisrael

 To be continued…