Why I didn’t attend last week’s “Draft the Haredim” mass protest demonstration is simple: I have nothing against Haredim and I have everything for service for my country. Those who are demanding that Haredi yeshiva students leave the study halls to serve three years in the army at the age of eighteen are either ingenuous or have an anti-religious agenda. Moreover, I personally object to the couching of the problem in terms of a “burden” as in “Sharing the Burden.”
National service, particularly military service defending the Jewish people in Israel (and beyond, when necessary – e.g.: Entebbe) may be a national economic burden, but from the point of view of a healthy Jewish personal perspective it is a z’chut – a privilege that we should be thankful for after nearly 2,000 years of exile in the Diaspora. Among other things, it is proof positive that we are now back in our natural Land and that we can begin to behave as a normal Jewish nation should.
Furthermore, the same people, the so-called “Suckers” who do reserve duty, only seemed troubled by the lack of mass enlistment by Haredim but are singularly un-bothered by the many thousands – yes, many thousands, of secular youth who use all kinds of questionable excuses (a polite way of saying “fraudulent”) to avoid serving in the IDF, and to the significant number of connected secular youth who somehow, instead of serving in a combat unit as per their physical profile, end up serving jobs around Tel Aviv’s Kirya and the only threat to their lives is possibly when crossing the road from the Kirya against traffic, when running over to the Azrieli Center mall to hang out.
For some reason, these draft-dodgers are not on any of the protesters’ radar. Nor are they on the vocal politicians’ radar who somehow think the only problem is that the number of Haredim enlisting in the IDF every year is enough.
Aside from the fact that IDF or alternative national service is a right and a privilege, and NOT a “burden”, one has to approach the problem from the standpoint of national need and then from sectorial need.
From the standpoint of the IDF, mass enlistment of thousands of Haredi yeshiva students tomorrow morning will not change much vis a vis the composition of the IDF combat units. First of all, there are no shortages of combat soldiers. According to the Head of the IDF Manpower Division, this past year, over 80 percent of those with sufficiently high profiles asked to serve in combat units, and in many of the combat units there were several candidates for each open place.
Second, there is no shortage, per se, of serving soldiers, otherwise the IDF could not afford to allow some of the current draftees to do their “army service” in the police or fire department or even in educational frameworks. The problem is not with Israel’s standing army – her regular forces. The issue is the number of combat reservists.
However, mass drafting of Haredim would not change this all that much. As it is, more than half the IDF’s combat reservists are from the National-Religious camp – far out of proportion to their percentage in the general population. And these people (of whom, I guess, I am one) view reserve duty to be a Mitzvah as per the above right and privilege and not the aforementioned “burden.” The fact is that a significant percentage of non-religious combat soldiers drop out of combat reserve units along the way. Otherwise, religious combat reservists wouldn’t already be a majority.
I have to be clear: I am for the Haredi citizens of Israel doing army service, but not because the IDF needs them. But rather because I think it is ultimately a mutually rewarding experience that builds national Jewish unity. But the IDF framework in which they will serve has to be suitable for their religious lifestyle and in many cases, after years of yeshiva study, said students are serious learners, and not warriors.
Those who want to force Haredi yeshiva students to leave the study halls at age 18, either have no understanding of the importance of Torah study, or are against Torah study, whether they mean to be or not. And no, Torah study cannot really be compared to academic studies. I’ve done both. My course work and study time in graduate school couldn’t come close to the intensity of the 14-16 hour days I put in studying in the Beit Midrash during my yeshiva days.
The IDF can use and needs motivated and talented manpower. For many, motivation and talent is rooted in the values one learns with the proper education and upbringing. From both my own experience, those of members of my family and friends, and many whom I have met during decades of reserve duty in combat units at various levels (I am currently a Lt. Colonel in the IDF reserves), yeshiva study only made us better more committed soldiers and officers. In my immediate family we have two career officers in important units (which I will not name for basic field security reasons) who both spent several years in a post high-school yeshiva prior to joining the army. It has only helped make them better officers.
Let’s first approach the issue with facts not emotion. Israel’s “Citizens Army” isn’t all the citizens and of those not included, only a small percentage (less than 20 percent) are Haredim. As of this past year, more than 40 percent of all potential draftees don’t get drafted. This includes Haredim, but even more secular 18 year olds. The secular youth who draft dodge, as I wrote above, do so primarily because they are educated both in their schools, in their social circles, and sometimes, even at home, that national service, is for suckers. Unfortunately, the “Suckers” protesting skip over them, despite the significant numbers involved.
And as far as both the Haredi and secular youth – each from their own vantage point; forcing them to serve does not produce soldiers one can count on, and certainly, contributes nothing to the combat and combat support units in the field. If we want more of both of these segments of the population to serve, we have to work to change the language of discourse as well as the educational and social (and even political) frameworks which currently influence many potential draftees to attempt to avoid it.
From the point of view of many of the younger generation Haredim, army service is no longer something which should be avoided – irrespective of what the Haredi politicians and some of the rabbis claim. The facts are that since the advent of the now defunct Tal Law, and particularly since the Shachar program was launched 5 years ago, there has been a steady increase of Haredi enlistment. The State Comptroller’s report of 2011 notes that “in 2010 and 2011, 2,280 Haredim enlisted therefore, the IDF has more than met the goals set by the government for voluntary Haredi enlistment.”
While it is true that as time passes there are more Haredi children (What can one do? Secular families apparently have forgotten how to have children…maybe there is a new app for that on the latest smartphones?), and the pace of Haredi enlistment has to increase to meet the rising numbers, but that will only happen out of mutual respect and understanding religious red-lines vis a vis the Haredi lifestyle, which is less flexible in comparison to the functioning of national-religious soldiers (who also have similar red-lines, but are willing to endure more perhaps for the greater national shlichut, so to speak).
So when the protesting “Suckers” recognize that serving in a Jewish army in the Land of Israel, defending our holy nation after nearly 2,000 years of Exile, is not only a right and privilege, it is a great honor; and that we should do all we can to unite the nation in all its parts from ultra-secular to Haredi and everyone in between, to encourage everyone to join together in this important mission; then I will be willing to attend their demonstration. Of course, if they did the above, we wouldn’t need to demonstrate, would we?
This article first appeared in The Times of Israel.