Latest update: July 21st, 2012
The fierce political, religious, and sociological debate over whether Hareidi Jews should be mandatorily drafted into the Israeli Army like their Religious Zionist and secular counterparts hit a boiling point on Tuesday, with the Kadima party backing out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition and threatening the stability of the government. Yet Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman has made it clear that he will continue to pursue the drafting of all Israelis at the age of 18, but will uphold the current administration and keep his party at the center of the action.
“We won’t leave the coalition under any circumstances. We will fight the battle from within,” Liberman said on Wednesday in an interview with Army Radio. “Those who really want universal enlistment must support our bill. You can postpone the end, but you can’t evade a decision forever.”
Yisrael Beytenu has drafted its own version of a national conscription law following Kadima’s departure under the leadership of Shaul Mofaz over the failure of committees to draft a replacement for the Tal law to its liking.
The Tal law, which exempted Hareidi Jews in yeshiva from the military draft was declared unconstitutional by the High Court of Justice earlier this year. If an alternative law is not drafted, all Hareidim will be subject to the draft beginning on August 1.
On this week’s Jewish Press radio program hosted by Yishai Fleisher, Hareidi tour guide and resident of the eastern Jerusalem Jewish community of Maale HaZeitim, Meir Eisenman, defended the Hareidi position against serving in the army, but also stressed the importance of understanding that despite the disagreements, Hareidi Jews support the IDF. “I think the first thing we have to do is make a very strong difference [and not lump together Israeli Arabs and Hareidim when ]. The Hareidim are on our side, they support the state of Israel, they support the army, and they are certainly not wishing, G-d forbid, for the army to fail, and we have to make that clear distinction any time we discuss this issue,” he said.
Eisenman cited the Book of Joshua’s emphasis that there is “clear connection of inheriting the Land of Israel through the Torah of Israel” as a case for exempting full-time Torah students from participating in the IDF. He also tied the last major terror attack – a 2009 attack in Eilat which killed 8 and injured 40 – to the summer “bein hazmanin” yeshiva break, summer vacation for Torah students. If you look back through the latest 10- 15 years, many of the most horrific terror attacks occurred when the national study level is on a down.” The Sbarro bombing and the Number 2 bus bombing, are among those attacks, according to Eisenman, as well as the Park Hotel bombing which occurred during the Passover break.
Eisenman further said that the success of the IDF is not rational, and that Israelis should attribute at least part of their safety to Torah study. “To see that the Jewish people, all we need is the soldier that goes and risks his life, however important it is – that he’s the only thing that’s protecting the Land of Israel and the Jewish nation and the Torah of the Land of Israel, you’re just looking at half the picture, you’re not looking at the full picture.”
Fleisher replied by saying the draft is not a threat to Torah study, but rather lets them “fulfill the great mitzvah of being in the Jewish army”. He said “the best, the most religious” Jews – including Joshua himself – were also the greatest warriors on behalf of the Jewish nation. “You’re going to mention the Book of Joshua and you’re going to use that as a proof that because he was told to take the Torah with at all times and study the whole time…? He’s the exact example of the Torah student who is the greatest of the generation, he’s the biggest rabbi around, and he’s the number one soldier as well,” Fleisher said. “To me, what’s missing in this whole discussion is that soldiering and being a Torah Jew in the Land of Israel are one. Those are connected things.”
But Hareidi leadership has not seen it that way. In late June, thousands of Hareidi men gathered for an early morning “sack and ashes” prayer service to beseech God to “annul the evil decree” of being forced to serve in the Jewish army. Shas Rabbi Ovadia Yosef recommended to cancel the “bein hazmanim” yeshiva break and continue Torah study in order that God would hear their prayers not to be drafted.
Their prayers may have been answered.
The Kadima party agreed to join the prime minister’s coalition in May on the condition that a new universal conscription law would draft Hareidim and obligate Israeli Arabs to participate in national service programs.
But Prime Minister Netanyahu has been forced to walk a tightrope between the demands of the Kadima party and those of Shas and United Torah Judaism, who say they will not accept any personal or institutional sanctions, or any ceilings on the number of yeshiva students who will receive exemptions from service.
“I think Kadima’s exist is a blessing for the chareidim, because it returns power to them. The chareidim never leave a government, but they always use the threat of doing so,” said Knesset insider Jeremy Man Saltan.
A version of the law created by Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon would allow Hareidi men to opt for either army or national service between the ages of 18 and 22, and would have sanctioned anyone who did not enter into either service by age 26. It would also draft a number of Israeli Arabs into national service.
Yaalon’s bill will be submitted on Sunday, according to a report by Israel’s Walla! News. The bill will be tabled despite the recommendation of the Plesner committee to draft all Israelis. Prime Minister Netanyahu dismantled the committee just prior to the release of its official recommendations, leading to the crisis with Kadima.
Yisrael Beytenu has rejected the bill as too soft. In the bill it will table on Wednesday, all eligible draftees who do not report for duty will be penalized , while those who cooperate will receive grants for higher education. In addition, draft exemptions would be awarded to 1,000 of the country’s most exceptional Torah scholars annually — the same as the number of top-level athletes and artists who enjoy exemptions today.
The “Suckers” movement of army reservists, who argue that it is unfair that they have been made the “suckers” who do years of army service while Hareidim pursue their own interests in Torah study, say they will pressure Yisrael Beytenu to leave the coalition of its bill does not pass on Wednesday.
For his part, Mofaz called the option of changing the draft age for Hareidi men to 26 a “red line which I could not cross,” saying that is what stood between him and a plan to make “historic compromises” with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He called the measure contrary to social justice and said Prime Minister Netanyahu “sided with the draft-dodgers over those who carry the national burden.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu issued a letter to Mofaz, explaining that he was committed to instituting new draft measures for Hareidi society, but had wanted to do it “gradually and without tearing the Israeli society apart, especially during a period of time in which Israel finds itself in in front of many significant challenges.”
“I believe many Hareidim would be willing to the army, so to speak, on their terms. The army today has created a situation of a very, very secular army for almost no reason,” said Eisenman. He cited the example of forcing soldiers in a non-combat and non-training situation to sit and listen to female singing. “For many religious people, that is a red line,” Eisenman said.
Yet some plans to integrate Hareidim into the army have already met with success. The Netzach Yehuda – or Nachal Hareidi – battalion, has shown itself to be a serious unit operating in defense of Israel, having caught and killed several terrorists. Formulated to meet the needs of the Hareidi soldier while providing real service to the army, the unit obligates soldiers to wear a kippah and keep the laws of Shabbat. No women are on base or used as instructors, and time is made daily for soldiers to pray and attend Torah classes. “They have defended their nation, while strengthening themselves with Torah values and ethics,” touts the Nachal Hareidi website. “Carriers of the flag of Torah and Israel, they have carved out a name for themselves and created a new sense of unity among the nation.”
Yet this progress – and that offered up in the conciliatory plan which would have been presented to Hareidi leadership by the prime minister – were not enough for a segment of society already indignant about the burden of army service they feel they shoulder alone. Mofaz replied in his own letter to the Prime Minister that “through narrow political considerations you chose a covenant with the ultra-Orthodox instead of with the Zionist majority.”
Opposition leader Shelly Yachimovich praised the move on her Facebook page as “the end of the shameful, miserable union between it and Netanyahu.”
Former Kadima head Tzipi Livni also supported the move on her own Facebook page, saying “The political partnership that was born in sin has ended – and good that it ended. There are no more fig leaves to cover the moral failure of this government. The people of Israel are better than the government that represents them.”
Though the government is much smaller than previously, it must be taken in context, says Saltan. “This is the same 66 MK coalition we had before Kadima came in – it’s very small, but it’s very strong,” Saltan said. “We’re going back to the status quo – we had this little bump in the middle where it looks like things could have gone in a different direction, but they blew the chance to get done what they wanted to get done.”
And while [opposition parties] “are congratulating Kadima,” Saltan said, “nobody wants to vote for them anymore.”
About the Author: Malkah Fleisher is a graduate of Cardozo Law School in New York City. She is an editor/staff writer at JewishPress.com and co-hosts a weekly Israeli FM radio show. Malkah lives with her husband and two children on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
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