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June 6, 2013 11:32 am

How to Draft the Ultra-Orthodox

avatar by Joseph Raskas

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IDF soldiers praying at the Western Wall

Since its inception in 1948, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has served as a major means of integrating Israel’s diverse population. Jews from all walks of life – religious and secular, Kibbutznik and urbanite, Sephardi and Ashkenazi – donned the iconic olive green uniform and fought for their country. They derived great pride, distinction and honor. Yet, as both the passage of time and the security of the state increased, the number of Hareidim (ultra-Orthodox) seeking military exemptions increased in tandem. This trend has produced a level of tension that now threatens to tear apart the intricate cultural fabric from which Israeli society was weaved nearly sixty-five years ago.

As a religious Jew, ardent Zionist and cocky teenager, I believed that Israeli Hareidim should, of course, be compelled to serve in the military. After all, it seemed clear: United we stand, divided we fall.

In 2009, however, I enlisted in the IDF. There was a small banner that I encountered daily, blowing in the dry desert wind at the center of my base. Against the background of a soldier adorned in full combat gear trekking through mud, the banner (in Hebrew) read: “There are those who call us suckers, but I call this love, contribution and Zionism.” Viewing my military service through the prism of this message led me to several thoughts.

First, on a tactical level, the IDF is capable of operating successfully for several more decades without full participation from all Israeli citizens, even with an increasingly one-sided birthrate amongst the Hareidi population.

Second, on a strategic level, the primary purpose of the IDF is neither to operate as the melting pot of Israeli society nor to ensure that the duty among those eligible for military service is shared equitably (though each is a noteworthy concern). Rather, the primary purpose of the IDF is to protect the Jewish state and the tenets that have always been at the core of its existence, such as Shabbat and Jewish social welfare and education.

Coercing Hareidim to abandon their Jewish values is neither militarily necessary nor consistent with the purpose of the Jewish state. Furthermore, it would be counterproductive, as coercive actions cannot build a positive and cohesive society.

Jewish tradition emphasizes communal responsibility and urges contributions to benefit the collective good. Those serving in the IDF have done their part to discharge this obligation. Haredim believe that they do their share by contributing their time to the study and support of Torah.

Mutual respect and dialogue between these two sides would go much further toward bringing Haredim into Israeli society than coercive efforts to make them perform military service.

IDF service has the capacity to invigorate one’s very being, instilling feelings of pride, self-worth and belonging. It is a privilege rather than a burden. Explaining these benefits to Hareidim with care and goodwill is the more likely way to entice them to enter the framework of the IDF and experience this satisfaction for themselves. This will lead to mutual operational adjustments and, ultimately, lay the foundation for a successful military framework.

Mr. Raskas served in the Israel Defense Forces and is currently a graduate student at The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

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  • Kobi

    Since when is it a “Jewish value” to be a coward and shirk your duty to serve in Tzahal?

    The argument isn’t about whether every haredi will be kravi, but against the blanket exception given to haredim on the grounds that they are special and everyone else must pay for their lifestyle.

    Haredim can have their false values, but the rest of Israel will no longer fund this lifestyle choice. Perhaps we need to learn from the Russians how to deal with Haredim?

  • GAON

    Naive, to say the least.

  • pinchas baram

    sorry, but a weak and Very unconvincing article. to take one point among many: for the author to say the IDF is not or should not be a melting pot— hold it right there. That IS one of its purposes, to bring young Jews together to help forge a national, instead of sectoral, identity. Not to mention the “fairness” factor– that all should assume a share of responsibility to defend the state, especially given that Israel’s enemies are determined to eliminate it and kill the yids, religious and secular. Precisely how that share of responsibility is to be determined is another matter, but to treat it as irrelevant it as the author does is folly.

    • SZ

      The Hareidim do not want to melt into the Israeli pot. And that is their natural right. You cannot force them to. And, as you say, that is one of the functions of the IDF, your choice is to either or abandon that goal within the IDF or accept their exemptions to conscription based upon their conscientious objections to serving — a right recognized in all other democracies in the U.S. and Europe.