You might think the army is the single most effective tool for bringing everyone together in Israel. It is a brilliantly successful citizen’s army designed to protect the nation, an army of the people, by the people, for the people. After all, the struggle to survive is the most primordial of human motivations. Surely we can all agree that we need to ensure survival? But no, sadly, we cannot.
Many religious Israelis strongly believe that sitting and studying Torah all the time is the best possible defense against our enemies and that there is no need for an army because God will protect us.
Others believe there might be a need for an army, but let other people endure the hardships, risks and time, while they pursue a scholar’s life, regardless.
Some agree to a compromise; genuine scholars ought to be granted the privilege of devoting their lives to study but less motivated young men might do well to have some army training and enhanced prospects of getting a job.
And there are, of course, other completely committed religious Jews willingly serve, and they do remarkably well, too. Increasingly, the elite soldiers are coming from the religious nationalist sector of the community, committed ideologically to defending the land, the religion, and the ancient borders promised by the Bible.
Don’t think that secular Israelis are not just as divided.
Some are eager to join the army for its camaraderie and training that in some areas equips them to be captains of industry and internet entrepreneurs.
Many argue that the army is an important tool of education and socialization and the reason that Israel has done better than any other state in integrating such a huge proportion of new immigrants from such diverse languages, backgrounds, and cultures.
Others think it imposes a simplistic, false ideological sense of militarism that conflicts with their sense of morality.
Some refuse to serve because they prefer to spend their time on sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Some are cowards.
And some oppose occupation and object to settlements. They do not wish to serve in what they see as the armed wing of corrupt politicians or of governments whose political position they find offensive.
Some Israelis think it intolerable that all Charedi men do not serve in the army and play their part in defending their land.
Others think it’s a jolly good thing they don’t because we all know what happens when fanatics get hold of guns. And no army can allow its officers to be dictated to by rabbis. And it would affect the current role of women in the army. Besides, many of them are simply not army material.
Some argue that an elite voluntary force would be better than forcing people into conscription. Modern warfare needs fewer bodies in boots on the ground and more technical brain power. Others say that brain power is the key nowadays and Talmudic academies are well known for increasing brain power.
And we should not forget that there is a middle option of community service. After all, a similar divide over women serving in the first place was resolved by allowing Orthodox girls to serve in more protected and homogeneous groups.
In addition to the variety of opinions, misinformation and mistrust abounds. Many secular Israelis believe that no religious Jews serve in the army altogether. 30% currently do. Most religious Jews think all secular Jews are Godless atheists. Each side tells lies about the other, and each side’s press churns out half-truths and false rumors about the other. The more one side pushes back, the more aggressive the other gets.
This past week we have read about Charedi soldiers being attacked when they returned to their communities wearing army uniform instead of black hats. There was a story about Charedi protesting against other Charedi young men attending a military passing out parade. On the other hand, there are stories about secular commanders making life difficult for religious conscripts: refusing to address their religious concerns and victimizing them. Six of one, half a dozen of the other. This inter-community tension has always been a significant feature of Israeli life.
Whether one agrees with one side or the other, there is a genuine cultural conflict of values and attitudes. Secular Israelis have a value system closer to Hollywood than Jerusalem. Charedi youngsters are brought up segregated and protected enclaves. Their leadership fears that if they are suddenly throw then into a mixed secular environment only the strongest would be able to resist the seduction of a liberal society. But of course one could ask why are there so many brought up within the walls of the Charedi ghettos who still succumb to temptation even without going into the army.
Many Charedi Jews believe the non-religious genuinely want to destroy their communities and their way of life. Indeed, that’s what many of the early Zionist politicians set out to do. For their part, the secular believe all Charedi Jews are bloodsucking parasites.
In commerce, industry, and academic and professional expertise there are prominent Charedi contributors to Israel today, despite the attempts of the religious leadership to block it (not the money-making, of course; they all want that and glorify the wealth makers in their ranks, even if it means actually taking time off study). A major complication is that those who do not serve are at a great disadvantage in Israeli society because they cannot get jobs or work officially until they do. This effectively prevents very many Charedi men from getting work, and thus increases the burden in welfare.
In fact, in other Charedi communities around the world a much higher proportion do actually get jobs and contribute. In Israel, due to the political nature of the problem, the leadership refuses to budge on principle, and so condemns its own to penury and ignorance.
The allied problem of their refusing to allow even the most basic secular education in their schools exacerbates the problem. Here, too, there are different opinions. In the UK, Charedi schools only get state aid if they conform to minimal government curricular requirements. Why not in Israel? But no. The leadership, in public at least, is immovable, irrational. They posture on the one hand and fear on the other.
The Charedi leadership is suffering from paralysis and refuses to countenance any compromise. It insists that even the mentally challenged should spend all of every day on complex Talmudic debate rather than develop other skills that could be put to some use. It wasn’t always that way, incidentally. It is just that over the years positions have hardened and reversed.
If we can’t resolve these internal issues, how in the name of heaven can we hope to make any arrangement with anyone else even further removed? No, I don’t have an answer. It seems intractable and only a miracle of Divine intervention can solve it. So then how am I any different than those Charedi rabbis who say we must do all we can for God because He alone is capable of getting us out of this mess? The Talmud says we may not rely on miracles, but we do!
I have just heard that in committee a law has been agreed, with compromises, to extend the draft but allow for some exemptions. It hasn’t passed the Knesset yet. It might not. But after all my pessimism, there is a ray of hope. Perhaps we can do it without Divine help after all!
About the Author: Jeremy Rosen is an Orthodox rabbi, author, and lecturer, and the congregational rabbi of the Persian Jewish Center of New York. He is best known for advocating an approach to Jewish life that is open to the benefits of modernity and tolerant of individual variations while remaining committed to halacha (Jewish law). His articles and weekly column appear in publications in several countries, including the Jewish Telegraph and the London Jewish News, and he often comments on religious issues on the BBC.
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