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World Middle East

The battle between those who will or won’t serve in the army

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Zahava Alon is an Israeli mother. She doesn’t stand out from the hundreds of other Jewish Israeli mothers I’ve interviewed over the years, except that she’s perhaps more angry than most. This propelled her to become active in the “Share the Burden” forum, a rallying call for all Jewish citizens of Israel, regardless of their background, to serve in the Israel Defence Forces.
by PAULA SLIER | Sep 28, 2017

“We felt in our guts that something was very unfair,” she told me. “We give our children to the army, not knowing if we will get them back, while 50 per cent of mothers in Israel don’t have to worry about this because their children don’t go to the army in the first place.”

Zahava is referring to the ultra-Orthodox who are currently exempt from compulsory military service so they can study Torah full time. The issue touches a raw nerve in a country where most Jewish men and women are conscripted at 18 years old in a country where security is of upmost importance.

The army is not only a matter of survival, it is a beacon of national pride. The issue is now back on the agenda after the High Court of Justice earlier this month ruled it was unconstitutional for the ultra-religious not to be drafted. The court has given the government a year to come up with alternative legislation.

Reaction from the Charedi community was swift and furious, with accusations that the High Court behaved “scandalously” and “arrogantly” and was “cut off from Jewish tradition”.

Arie Deri, the Interior Minister who also heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in the Likud coalition government, vowed that “those same Torah sons who chose to dedicate their lives to Torah study will continue to study Torah here in the Land of Israel, the Holy Land”.

Emotions are running just as high from supporters of the High Court decision. Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party, who has been pushing hard for this legislation change, said the draft is “for everyone, not just for suckers… We’re done being suckers.”

It’s not a new debate. For as long as the IDF has been around, so has the issue of deferred service. It started with the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, exempting 400 religious students so they could study Torah. It has since grown into tens of thousands following suit.

A 28-year-old father of two who spends his days studying in a Jerusalem yeshiva, insists that Torah scholars are the backbone of the Jewish people.

“My obligation first of all, is to preserve the Jewish intellect and the Jewish mind for our sake, our country’s sake and for generations to come. And yes, while I might not be putting my life at risk, I am also contributing to this country’s security.”

Ultra-Orthodox Jews believe Israel needs spiritual preservation as much as physical protection. There’s also a growing concern from within their communities that their young men could abandon their worldview after being drafted into the army and, for the first time, moving beyond the constraints of their upbringing.

Many are also critical of Israel and Israeli policy and don’t want to be a part of it. This is a view shared by some secular Israelis, a handful of whom sign up each year as refuseniks.

But there’s a bigger issue at play. Comprising some 10 per cent of the 8,5 million population, the Charedi are among the poorest in Israel. They typically marry young and have large families.

A study last year revealed that by the year 2060, they will have grown to become the single largest religious group among Israeli Jews, numbering more than four million. There is a significant demographic implication of this for Israeli politics, the economy and the relationship between religion and state is significant.

Already, ultra-Orthodox parties often serve, as they are doing right now, as coalition kingmakers in the Israeli government.

Ironically, the IDF has said it believes efforts to force the Charedi into the army, will backfire as their leaders, feeling pushed into a corner, will encourage their youngsters not to sign up.

It’s why some experts are proposing that a constructive dialogue between the sides is the only way forward. There are also those who say that if these youngsters really don’t want to be in the army, the last thing the IDF needs is reluctant soldiers.

One option could be to encourage enlistment into special IDF units that offer a way of serving that is in accordance with Jewish law. Since 1999 a Charedi regiment, which started out as a small company of 32 troops, has grown into one of the largest IDF units.

While more and more religious youngsters are coming forward - at last count there were 7 000 Charedi soldiers serving in the IDF - these numbers still fall short of what the government would like to see.

I once interviewed an ultra-Orthodox soldier who took off his army uniform each time he went home so as not to be attacked by his religious neighbours.

Rabbi Tzvi Klebnow, director of the Nahal Charedi battalion, insists these soldiers “come with emuna, they come with belief. They know why they are serving, they know why we live in the Land of Israel and they make wonderful soldiers.

“We are the only battalion in the entire IDF that has under its sector two Arab populations. There is no other battalion in the Israeli army which has such as wide sector of service.”

No one can deny that protecting Israeli citizens is a Jewish value - the question is what constitutes protection. But to some extent this issue is a theoretical one because for as long as the ultra-Orthodox are an essential part of the governing coalition, we are a long way from seeing them voluntarily encourage their young men to sign up in big numbers.

And for as long as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or whomever is in power, depends on the ultra-Orthodox for his political survival, they’re unlikely to be forced to, despite what the High Court might rule.

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.

1 Comment

  1. 1 David B 01 Oct
     great pity that Netenyahu's hands are tied again - by an undeserving 'wholier than Thou' minority , who are happy to hold the swing vote in parliament , but not happy to do their duty to their Homeland 

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