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The Left’s Selective Campaign for Universal Service

I favor eliminating the exemption of yeshiva students from military service and, without quibbling about details, I endorse the initiatives designed to end that disgraceful exemption.
Plaut-060713

The last Israeli election was bizarre.

In a country facing threats to its existence from across its borders and massive jihadi genocidal terrorism, the largest election issue was the conscription of yeshiva students into the army.

This became the main issue of the election thanks to the success of Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home Party. Both parties did so well that for the first time in many years a government coalition was formed without the haredi parties.

Since the election, much of the new government’s energy has been devoted to finding ways to force haredim to serve in the army or at least do national service like the rest of their fellow citizens.

My own position on this is clear. I favor eliminating the exemption of yeshiva students from military service and, without quibbling about details, I endorse the initiatives designed to end that disgraceful exemption.

I reject the argument that people need exemptions to study Torah. I am all in favor of studying Torah. I study Torah myself. But I see no reason why a person cannot study Torah while also serving his country and working for a living.

In fact, traditional Judaism through the ages has taught that people who attempt to exploit their positions as students or teachers of Torah for personal gain are guilty of the worst forms of sacrilege and abomination. This means not only that seeking exemption from military service on grounds of one’s studies is a chillul Hashem but also that yeshiva students need to work.

If Rashi and the Rambam could study Torah while working for a living, so can yeshiva students in 21st-century Israel.

Ironically, holding such a position puts me (and those like me) in the same political camp (for a rare change) with the secular left in Israel. Leftists have been chortling with delight at the prospects of ending the wholesale exemptions from military service for haredim – and any time the left is happy about something, the rest of us had better be on the lookout.

But there is a greater irony to all this. The secularist left has been peacocking its grand moral stand in favor of military service for yeshiva students, preaching about the high morality of national service and universal conscription for the entire population (though never proposing expanding it to include Arabs). Service is patriotic, it is part of basic citizenship, it is the duty of all Israelis, they insist in their usual herd unison.

There is one tiny problem in all this. The very same secular leftists who are so proud of themselves for demanding universal conscription and military service for the haredim are the same people who have been running the campaign on behalf of Natan Blanc.

Blanc is a 20-year-old conscientious objector who has refused to serve in the Israeli military for political reasons and is now the national poster boy for the left and especially for Haaretz, the Palestinian newspaper printed in Hebrew.

Blanc, first of all, is not religious and has no moral positions based on religious belief. He also is not a pacifist. He explains quite candidly that the reason he refuses to serve in the Israeli military is because he is opposed to “occupation.” In other words, he wants an exemption from military service because he disagrees with national policy on ideological grounds.

Blanc has been arrested ten times and jailed for disobedience and insubordination and refusal to serve, but last week the Israeli government backed down and released him from prison. It thus granted legitimacy to the position of the left, which holds that people who disagree with government policy should be exempt from serving in the military.

So why are very same people who are so deliriously happy about ending the exemption from military service for yeshiva students leading the campaign to grant exemption to Natan Blanc? The answer is obvious: Leftists are fundamentally anti-democratic. They believe people should serve their country only when their country is doing what the left wants, and in this case the left wants Israel to duplicate in the West Bank its retreat from Gaza (which of course led to the creation of a Hamas-run entity on Israel’s borders from which an unending barrage of missiles are launched against Israeli towns and cities); to withdraw from Jerusalem; and to grant the Palestinians a “right of return.”

Leftists not only think that people like Blanc should be exempt from military service, they also feel Israelis in general should be exempt from obeying the law as long as Israel refuses to follow the diktats of the left.

The next logical step for the left would be to demand that Arabs and leftists be exempt from paying taxes as long as Israel refuses to implement the policies advocated by Saudi Arabia and John Kerry. Why stop at military service – why not make all obeying of laws contingent on the government’s adopting policies advocated by Amira Hass and Noam Chomsky?

And why not go even further? If Israelis stubbornly refuse to voluntarily implement the agenda of the left, then international pressure and sanctions should be used to coerce the country into submitting to the will of the two percent of society that identifies itself as part of the radical left.

Blanc, as mentioned above, does not claim to be religiously or politically opposed to all use of arms (which had been the basis for exempting some Quakers and others in the U.S. from military service back when the U.S. had conscription).

I suspect Blanc would applaud any international military effort to defend Syrian civilians from the assaults by the Assad regime. He just opposes the use of arms by Israel as long as Israel refuses to allow the creation of another Hamastan in the West Bank and abandon Jerusalem.

Blanc, it should be noted, did not offer to do non-combatant military service in the IDF, such as serving as a cook or male nurse or janitor. Most Israeli soldiers are non-combat personnel (in fact, I was one) and Blanc would have no problem finding such a position.

Now that Netanyahu and his team have once again chosen the cowardly path, capitulating to protests by leftists supporting Blanc’s exemption from service and release from prison for insubordination, just how are they going to justify their campaign for universal service for yeshiva students?

About the Author: Steven Plaut is a professor at the University of Haifa. He can be contacted at steveneplaut@yahoo.com.


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