by Rabbi Avi Shafran
Am Echad Resources
August 2, 1999
Are haredi men in Israel freeloading draft dodgers, contemptuous of their fellow citizens and unconcerned with their safety and security? Some ardently secularist Israelis readily answer in the affirmative; and some American Jews, gently guided by much of the media, readily concur. Both groups are victims of profound ignorance and, in more than a few cases, guilty of outright prejudice.
Virtually since Israel’s birth, Israeli yeshiva students have received annual deferments, as is customary in many countries for divinity students and religious scholars. (There are many other deferment categories as well; Israeli government statistics show that fully 65% of draft-age Israelis are excused from military service.) Yeshiva student deferments are conditional on the students’ full-time involvement in Torah study; their employment in any way is illegal. At 41 years of age (35, if they have five or more children) haredim receive permanent deferments.
That arrangement, part of the "religious status quo" endorsed by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, has become increasingly unpopular in recent years, largely due to the growth of the haredi sector of Israeli society and the concomitant increase in the number of full-time yeshiva students.
As he was forming his governmental coalition, Prime Minister Ehud Barak entered into an agreement with one of Israel’s religious parties (which, together with the others, garnered a full quarter of the Jewish vote in the recent Knesset election) allowing yeshiva students to seek employment at age 24 or 25, but only after undergoing basic military training in accord with the army’s needs.
The new setup, aimed at young haredi men who are not prepared to devote themselves to full-time Torah study beyond their mid-20s, was designed to add haredim to the pool of those trained to serve Israel in times of need, to facilitate the movement of haredim into the workforce and to end the dependence of many haredi families on the very modest government subsidies provided to the unemployed. A special committee, composed of representatives of the Defense Ministry, the Prime Minister’s office, the Attorney General’s office and yeshiva heads, are to determine the final criteria regarding conscription and exemptions.
The accommodation is a reasonable one. Yet the controversy continues, fueled, in part, by two stubbornly resilient misconceptions.
The first is that Israel’s security is compromised by the relative paucity of haredim in the military. The fact, though, is that the Israeli army has no interest in enlisting haredim. With their scholarly demeanors and religious needs, young haredim do not easily fit the requirements of the modern military. Former Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai testified before Israel’s High Court last year that the current number of deferments on religious grounds did no harm whatsoever to the state. What’s more, former army Chief of Staff Lt.-General Amnon Lipkin-Shahak has declared that the military is simply not prepared to absorb an influx of haredi soldiers. "The Israeli army," he said, "would have to reshape itself" entirely to accommodate the religious needs of such inductees.
The second misconception, more trenchant still, is that those who opt for full-time Torah study are contributing nothing to the security of the Jewish State.
Study halls may be safer places than battlefields, but there are many vital roles even within the military that are formidably insulated from danger. Think of engineers or communications experts -- or, for that matter, generals and logistical planners safe in underground war rooms. Service to one’s country and exposure to danger do not necessarily go hand-in-hand.
From a truly Jewish viewpoint, informed by Jewish ideals and Jewish texts, the single most important part of Jewish security is the practice and study of Torah. While Jewish tradition mandates the employment of conventional means, like armies and arsenals, for maintaining the security of Jews, it has been the Jewish conviction for millennia that the true safety of the Jewish people derives, in the end, from dedication to the values, laws and study of the Torah.
Thus, when viewed through the lens of classical Jewish thought, haredim are very much part of Israel’s security apparatus, no less essential than the computer experts calculating the trajectories of missiles, the intelligence analysts or the generals planning troop movements.
Secularists may ipso facto reject the notion of Torah possessing the power to protect Jews. But that such a deeply and undeniably Jewish attitude is perceived as outlandish to so many non-secularist American Jews is nothing short of tragic. An assortment of religiously liberal American Jewish leaders have called of late for a new appreciation and embrace of Jewish texts and tradition. Jews’ priority should be, in the widely-reported words of one, "Torah, Torah, Torah!"
But declarations of dedication to Torah are meaningless and hollow if they allow for the disparagement of Jews who dedicate their entire lives, without regard to material comfort, to the practice and study of Torah. We need only recall what Jews the world over only recently read in the weekly Torah portion: it is not "my strength and the might of my arm" that has "wrought me this victory" but rather "the L-rd, your G-d, who gives you the strength." (Deuteronomy 8, 17-18).
Might it be time for caring Jews of all stripes to begin to regard Israel’s religious Jews not as aberrations but as examples, not as bogeymen but -- can the thought even be broached? -- as heroes of the Jewish people?
AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America and serves as Am Echad’s American director]
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