I was on Israel English-language TV last week debating the army draft issue with Yochanan Plessner, the head of the government committee established to make recommendations on the issue in the last Knesset. The moderator began by asking me: “More and more Israelis are asking themselves whether it’s fair that young men like Yochanan Plessner [who served in an elite combat division] should go off at the age of eighteen, risk their lives, endure great hardship, in order to defend us – all of us – while at the same time eighteen year old yeshiva students are exempted from that burden. Rabbi Rosenblum, is that fair?”
I have heard chareidi debaters counter this argument: Well, is it fair that we have to do all the Torah learning for the country?
It’s safe to say that argument has never convinced a single non-chareidi. Not just because of the emotional response – How many yeshiva bochurim are killed in the tents of Torah? – but because it misses a fundamental distinction: Yeshiva bochurim are doing what they most want to do. IDF recruits are acting under legal compulsion
The argument of “equality of burdens,” in short, cannot be easily dismissed, on either an intellectual or emotional level. Equality before the law is an important societal value.
YET, IRONICALLY, THE MORE the argument turns on matters of high principle, vociferously expressed, the more the Torah world hears a desire to “break” the chareidi world. For if equality of service – i.e., submission to the dictates of the State – is the key, then it makes no difference whether the IDF needs chareidi soldiers or is prepared to accommodate their religious needs. The crucial point is that chareidi 18-year-olds close their Gemaros and do some task upon orders of the State.
That goal is exposed every time someone says, “We understand why chareidim can’t go into the army, but why can’t you do some form of national service?” In fact, most of the national service programs are make-work of little value. Closing one’s Gemara to perform make-work to satisfy a government quota is a much bigger bizayon haTorah than service in a combat unit.
Those most insistently brandishing the banner of “equality of service” have said little about the nitty-gritty of programs to be created for chareidi soldiers or how the army will accommodate their religious needs. Nor has the IDF had much to say about its manpower needs. Because those issues are irrelevant if the primary goal is forcing the chareidi community to submit to the authority of the State.
Those same questions would be crucial if the debate were a practical one, as Prime Minister Netanyahu prefers – e.g., How can increased chareidi participation in the IDF be achieved?
Chareidim will never agree that the laws of the State take precedence over those of G-d. Indeed, I cannot see how any religious person, no matter what his religion, could ever agree to that proposition.Nor will chareidi parents willingly agree to their sons entering the army in frameworks that are incompatible with halacha or in which the danger of not remaining religious are great. A prominent national religious rosh yeshiva recently stated that the importance of the mitzvah of army service overrides the fact that many soldiers from national religious homes – minimally 20% and likely over twice that – do not remain religious. That view finds no echoes in the chareidi community.
The IDF has shown little interest in religiously accommodating large numbers of chareidi recruits. At present, the number of young men from chareidi homes seeking to enlist is greater than the IDF’s ability to integrate them. The IDF has consistently resisted efforts to expand Nahal Haredi by adding new units, and is turning away potential recruits.
Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, one of the founders of the Nahal Haredi, told HaModia last week that the IDF has proven unwilling or incapable of living up to commitments to chareidi recruits. For instance, a new elite frogmen unit for chareidi recruits had to be closed very shortly after opening because the IDF did not keep its promises. He also said that the level of kashrus in IDF kitchens is rapidly declining.
AS LONG AS THE SOCIETAL DEBATE remains at the level of high principle, there is no hope of resolution. Worse, trends that benefit both the IDF and the chareidi community may well be reversed. Nahal Haredi has proven to be of great benefit to many young men from chareidi homes who never found themselves within the mainstream yeshiva system. There are others who for whatever reason feel little satisfaction with the rigors of the full yeshiva schedule, and who could theoretically benefit from frameworks that would include both learning and some form of service and training, under the same requirements as Nahal Haredi.
Modern warfare is fought as much on the computer as on the battle front, and the greatest current manpower needs of the IDF are in technical areas..In these areas, those who will stay in the armed services for a long time period are much preferred to draftees, who generally leave after three years. The success of the various Shachar programs, in which chareidi (mostly) married men receive training in technical fields, have demonstrated two things: First, chareidi married men who need to support their families could prove to be the solution to some of the army’s most critical manpower needs. Second, the IDF is potentially an ideal employer for chareidim because of its willingness to provide on-the-job training and environments in many respects more suitable than the private sector. The Shachar units have had some of the highest re-enlistment rates in the IDF, and chareidi recruits with whom I have spoken have expressed a high level of satisfaction.
But if the government declares all-out ideological war on the chareidi world and insists on the draft of 18-year-old yeshiva students, then all the trends towards greater chareidi participation in the IDF, and in the private economy as well, will likely be reversed. Participation in the IDF will then be viewed as submission to a government decree against the citadels of Torah.
This article first appeared in Mishpacha.