Religion and State

Rest of Israel’s population cannot be ultra-Orthodox’s flak jackets regarding IDF service

Until now, the discussion on recruiting the ultra-Orthodox centered on the question of “equal burden sharing.” This is an even more significant value today.

The conscription law on the Knesset’s table will affect the lives of many of us. The service stints of reservists and standing army soldiers will be longer. And only the ultra-Orthodox (haredim) will be given a near complete exemption from military service. Haredi exemption, from the start, was a historical mistake. In the current security reality, it is intolerable.

For some reason, many religious Zionist leaders, and some of its rabbis, have been willing to use their political positions and social status to enable haredi draft evasion. The changing reality also requires them to recalculate their course. The time has come for the haredim to shoulder their fair share of the national burden.

Last week, the IDF presented data to the Knesset on the scope of haredi enlistment during the current war and the extent of their exemption from service. While a negligible figure of 540 ultra-Orthodox enlisted to serve for a short period of a few days, 66,000 haredi men between ages 18 and 26 enjoy the “Torah study as full-time occupation” exemption.

By contrast, the best and brightest of our children are serving on the borders, in the standing army, and in the reserves, on an almost unprecedented scale. Many are at risk, and unfortunately many have been injured and killed. Unlike them, the haredim, at best, continue their daily routine in yeshiva or kollel (study halls for married ultra-Orthodox men). Data shows that many of them do not even do that.

Ultra-Orthodox exemption from IDF service is virtually in the DNA of the state. In the early days, it amounted to a few hundred yeshiva students. At that time, in 1948, it was justified by the need to restore the Torah world that was destroyed in the Holocaust. Seventy-five years later, this exemption has no justification – material or moral. Demographically speaking, the haredim are no longer a small minority. By 2030, one in four young Israelis will be ultra-Orthodox.

But no less important is the change that has taken place within the Torah world. In the last decades, Religious Zionism has established a magnificent world of Torah, of study halls and yeshivas that are in no way inferior to those of the haredim.

Halachic adjudicators, heads of yeshiva, and hundreds of thousands of students have proved that it is possible to combine a safra and saifa – the book and the sword. Military service does not detract from or hinder great Torah learning if there is a true desire for greatness and Torah.

Haredi youth in Bnei Brak. Photo by Eitan Elhadz/TPS

THE OCTOBER 7 catastrophe and the Israel-Hamas war that followed changed Israel’s strategic reality for years to come. Before this war, some believed that all Israel needed was a “small and smart army,” and that the existing recruitment cycles suited the army’s personnel requirements.

But reality came and slapped us in the face. It is already clear to everyone that the IDF will require a much larger regular and reserve combat architecture.

Until now, the discussion on recruiting the ultra-Orthodox centered on the question of “equal burden sharing.” This is an even more significant value today. But given the security reality and the rapid increase in the population share of the haredim, it is no longer just a value but a necessity. Without the haredim, the service burden on the rest of Israeli society will be unbearable.

For years, as part of a political alliance, and out of an incomprehensible capitulation under the pressure of the haredi Torah world, religious Zionist leaders and rabbis have supported the continued haredi evasion of military service. This support, along with the government’s willingness to finance the haredi way of life, has allowed this sector to continue building the “walls of holiness” around their ghetto, and to insulate themselves from the societal burden of Israeli life.

The result is a grotesque moral and practical distortion. The State of Israel is prosperous, but full of challenges. Its security and economic burden is heavy. Everyone must share in carrying it.

For years, the general public has strongly supported the conscription of the ultra-Orthodox. Recent surveys show that there has also been a shift among religious Zionists. Many more support changing the current intolerable situation.

The time has come for the leaders of religious Zionism – its rabbis and its representatives in the Knesset – to internalize the need for change. The proposed conscription law is out of step with Jewish, egalitarian, or security parameters. It must not be allowed to pass.

Even at the cost of a political confrontation, the time has come to strip the Israeli flak jacket from the haredim and include them in bearing the national burden the rest of us carry with pride.

Published by Jerusalem Post