Israel’s ultra-orthodox Jews have a duty to serve their country | Seth Freedman

Annulling the Haredi exemption from national service has ignited civic tensions but it is for the long-term good of Israeli society

The annulment of the so-called Tal Law exempting ultra-orthodox seminary students from conscription to the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) is threatening to engulf Israeli society in yet another internal imbroglio. Secular-religious relations are barely below boiling point at the best of times, and the latest high-court ruling threatens to see the cauldron bubble over for months to come.

Yeshiva (seminary) students have been exempt from national service since the earliest days of the state, after Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, struck an ill-fated deal with the Haredi community, allowing 400 full-time scholars to remain in learning rather than take up arms to defend the country. This 400-man ceiling was lifted in 1977, ushering in a decades-long stand-off between those on either side of the secular-religious divide.

Love it or hate it, the IDF is critical to the survival of the Israeli state in its current form – hence most mainstream Israelis willingly send their sons and daughters off to complete their compulsory national service when they turn 18. In their eyes, the army should be the great leveller for Israeli society – rich, poor, tall, short: all know their duty to the state, and all expect their fellow citizens to pull their weight.

But to a significant group of Israeli Jews – the million-strong Haredi community – serving their country in either a military or vocational capacity is of scant interest or importance. And, thanks to their political clout in Israel’s fragile system of proportional representation, when the Haredim want things their way, they invariably come out on top.

From taking outrageous sums out of governmental coffers to fund religious schooling to pressurising state-run bus companies to enforce illegal gender-segregation on their routes, the ultra-orthodox community has been wreaking havoc on civic Israeli society for years – and the problem is only getting worse.

Rightwing Israeli nationalists regularly entreat their government to deal with the “ticking time bomb” of Israeli-Arab population growth, fearful that the Zionist project will collapse in on itself if demographic shifts result in more non-Jewish citizens than Jews. As unpalatable as such rhetoric is, it also assumes that if only the majority of the country was Jewish, then all would be well in Israeli society.

Bitter experience with the unwieldy Haredi community shows this is far from the case, and the annulment of the Tal Law puts the issue firmly at the forefront of the national consciousness once more.

The massive Haredi birth rate sustains the Jewish element of the population. It also means that the proportion of Israel’s population who are ultra-orthodox has rocketed to more than 10%, with the vast majority of Haredi males going into yeshiva learning rather than completing their national service. Full-time Torah study used to be the preserve of only the most talented and able-minded scholars, while the rest worked for a living and contributed to the upkeep of the students.

However, the fiscal capitulation of successive Israeli governments to the Haredim has meant almost every adult Haredi male can now afford to eschew paid employment in favour of yeshiva study, to the chagrin of secular Israeli society. Their sense of injustice is heightened over the issue of national service, and rightly so, yet their pleas to the Haredim to do their bit fall on deaf ears.

Haredim believe it is their study of Torah and prayers, rather than soldiers’ manoeuvres in the field, that provide the last line of defence for the Jewish people – but such ethereal posturing does little to assuage the hostility their draft evasion engenders. Nor do proclamations such as that of Haredi leader Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, who denounced the high-court ruling as “a decree to uproot religion”, adding:

“We are commanded to protect [religion] with our lives without exception, God forbid, in order to sanctify the name of heaven. The purpose of this awful decree is to harm the heart of Judaism – this cannot be in Israel.”

By flouting the laws of conscription, the Haredi community may well be challenging some important Talmudic directives. For example, the principle of dina d’malchuta dina (literally, the law of the land is the law). Jews are commanded to respect the laws of the host country in which they are domiciled, in order to foster good relations between themselves and their fellow citizens. Equally, there is the principle that preservation of life takes precedence over (almost) all other religious obligations. But when it comes to the Haredim in Israel, such civic-minded thinking goes out of the yeshiva window.

Instead, the ultra-orthodox prefer to endorse a caste system where only secular families send their children to the frontline, while their Haredi peers sit with their heads in books in safe and secure study halls. And woe betide any political faction who tries to stop them, or yet another coalition will be brought to its knees. The Haredim have no problem getting involved in mainstream society when it suits them, namely at the voting booth, but the buck stops there. Until the Haredim embrace their duties more holistically, secular Israelis must act to stop the rot, for the long-term good of all citizens of the state.

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