The battle over haredi participation in the Israel Defense Forces is heading toward another crisis, possibly the biggest ever.
Aug. 1 marked the expiration of the Tal Law, which since 2002 has provided the legal umbrella for ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshiva to avoid compulsory military service. In a February 2012 land-mark ruling, Israel’s Supreme Court declared the law un-constitutional and said it could not be extended. In the absence of alternative legislation by the Knesset, the situation reverts to the 1949 Defense Service Law, mandating compulsory military service for all 18-year-olds.
Here is the position of Hiddush, a nonpartisan, nondenominational Israel-diaspora partnership for religious freedom and equality: mandatory enlistment for all while at the same time, in acknowledgment of the importance of Torah study, exemption for students who excel in their yeshiva studies, capping the number at 3 percent of the total number eligible for conscription. The others would be required to enter either military or national service.
Those who refuse would be penalized with economic and civil sanctions, including loss of subsidies for study and housing, loss of drivers’ licenses, etc. Economic sanctions would be imposed on yeshivas that continue to enroll students who shirk their responsibilities to serve.
Those who want to set “goals” for greater enlistment rather than cap the exemptions, who want to use incentives rather than sanctions, or who want to delay the age of required enlistment to 26 are fooling themselves. This approach did not work in the past and will not work in the future. It undermines the principle of equality and is a slap in the face to the public, to moral decency and to the law, and therefore it is bound to fail.
What started out as a concession to the haredi community after the Holocaust’s destruction of the European yeshiva world — namely the exemption from military service that former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion provided to 400 yeshiva students — has grown to some 63,000 exemptions annually, more than 14 percent of conscriptions. It is unconscionable to continue to provide billions in taxpayer funds to facilitate the huge number of recalcitrant haredi men who are avoiding military draft and national service.
Public opinion polling done by Hiddush demonstrates that 82 percent of the Jewish population supports mandatory military/civil service for all Israeli Jews. All studies done on this issue have had similar findings.
The haredi position is that yeshiva students are the spiritual protectors of Israel, and their study counts at least as much if not more than army service. Thus, they hold that their refusal to be drafted is non-negotiable.
There were great headlines in the Israeli press last week when 200 men enlisted in the haredi unit Netzach Yehuda, the largest enlistment yet for this unit, demonstrating that haredi men may indeed serve in the army. Approximately 1,200 haredi men enlist annually, mostly going to units such as this one, which specifically were designed to meet haredi lifestyle and religious needs. That’s 1,200 out of the 8,500 haredi who reach draft age annually.
A special Knesset study confirmed that most of those who opt for national service end up doing inconsequential service within the haredi community, instead of filling positions critical to the country. Hundreds of positions in the civil service created for haredim in the police and homeland security have been left unfilled.
Why should North America care? First of all, if you care about Israel and view its well-being and security as important to the Jewish people, you will want to know what internal challenges threaten Israel’s security and economic prosperity, and what existential challenges the country faces and how it addresses them.
Second, the very reasons that brought about the massive haredi expansion of exemption from service are the reasons that prevent the full implantation of Israel’s promise, written in its declaration of independence, to uphold full religious freedom and equality.
Thirdly, the huge subsidies to the haredi sector come at a heavy price. They are paid out to the haredi community instead of being used to address other important social needs and real priorities, resulting in repeated appeals by Israel to world Jewry to lend a hand in funding these other critically needed social and welfare projects.
Better understanding is a first step to action. There is an urgent need to establish a partnership between the American Jewish community and Israelis who strive for a vision of a state that is both Jewish and democratic, one in which we cease the mixing of religion with politics so equality is the rule rather than the exception.
Rabbi Uri Regev heads Hiddush – Freedom of Religion for Israel.