By Alex Traiman
Among key issues that have collapsed the 21st Knesset before its ministers have even been sworn into their positions is the enlistment, or lack of, haredim serving in the military. As part of legacy agreements established and signed at the creation of modern-day Israel between leading rabbis and founding father and the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, strictly religious males were granted exemptions from mandatory military service so they could pursue Torah study in Jewish learning institutions.
At the time of these foundational agreements, strictly religious communities that didn’t send males to serve represented a relatively small fraction of the total Israeli population. Yet with birth rates well above the rest of the nation, these communities now account for close to one quarter of the total population.
In a country in which military enlistment for all other Jewish males (and for females) is compulsory, these exemptions unfairly distribute the burden of military service. In addition, it has become clear that these exemptions do not necessarily support serious Torah study in many cases.
So it is reasonably understandable why those forced to serve and send their children to defend the Jewish state have grown tired of the exemptions. A law passed in 2012, known as the Tal Law, further entrenched the exemptions. Yet Israel’s High Court, as it often does, ruled to overturn the legislation and has forced the government to replace it with alternative framework to increase the number of religious conscripts.
Toward the end of the last government, a new law was proposed that would slowly increase those numbers while penalizing individuals and communities that refused to serve with steep fines and even incarceration. The law passed its first reading in the Knesset prior to the calling of early national elections. Following the polls, the religious United Torah Judaism and Shas parties emerged as the strongest parties prepared to enter Benjamin Netanyahu’s incoming governing coalition. They have demanded that the law be adjusted to further loosen the enlistment target numbers, as well as the penalties for refusing to serve.
Yet during the current negotiations, the smaller Yisrael Beiteinu Party led by former defense minister and right-wing Netanyahu rival Avigdor Lieberman has demanded that the new law be passed as is and implemented as a prerequisite to entering the government. Unable to forge a compromise, Netanyahu is thereby unable to form a majority governing coalition. And with no other likely Knesset members able to form a governing coalition, including the Blue and White Party led by Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid, the Knesset is voting to quickly disband itself and send the country into snap elections for the second time in less than six months.
The irony of the crisis is twofold. First, the issue of religious enlistment, while important, is far down on the list of immediate national security and economic priorities. Second, it is the High Court’s deadline for passage of a new enlistment law that has forced the government to contend with the issue at a time when it otherwise would be more than willing to kick the can down the road.
Having more haredi soldiers in the military would benefit Israel in many ways. In an army that depends on the intelligence of its soldiers and decision- making abilities at all levels, strictly religious soldiers are highly likely to succeed and ultimately strengthen the military.
As students of Tanach (Torah, Prophets and Writings) and the Talmud, strictly religious males are knowledgeable about the historic geography of the Jewish state. To them, cities like Hebron, Bethlehem and Shechem (referred to by Arabs as Nablus) have unique religious significance as the burial grounds of Jewish forefathers and foremothers Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, Rachel and Joseph.
The Torah itself has many specific laws regarding when and how the Jewish nation is obligated to go to war. Serving and adhering to those laws can be considered a biblical commandment.
Haredi males, and the rabbis who guide them, have opted against military service for several reasons. The first is that although it is a Jewish army, the Israel Defense Forces is by no means a religious army. Its guiding principles and leadership do not inherently lend themselves to creating an especially religious (aka religious-friendly) environment.
The integration of women into the military, and particularly their roles as trainers of men in handling weapons and in national recruitment offices, creates an uncomfortable situation of immodesty for strictly religious men. In addition, army units do not facilitate daily Torah learning, while also establishing (sometimes important) exemptions from religious laws that contradict with military duties.
As such, penalizing religious males for skipping the army makes complete sense from a level of fairness, if the issue was being waged in a vacuum. Fining and/or jailing religious males from opting out of army service, however, fails to address the very reasons they are avoiding the army to begin with.
If the government was serious about increasing the number of strictly religious conscripts, it would seek to address these issues head on and create a better framework for service — building on the already successful concept of Nahal Haredi religious units, for example. Founded in 1999, Nahal Haredi incorporates approximately 1,000 soldiers at any given time. The government should continue to develop structures within the IDF to offer haredi males the opportunity to spend half of each day learning during their service in a fully segregated environment, and to give the leaders of the religious communities significant input into how to alleviate other concerns.
If the court and nonreligious parties determine how and when these religious men are to serve in the military, then government crises like the one dooming Netanyahu’s barely elected government will persist as an issue well into the future.
Alex Traiman is managing director and Jerusalem Bureau Chief of Jewish News Syndicate.