I was deep into the chapter in In Ishmael’s House, which discusses Mizrachi Jewry’s interaction with Zionism during World War I, when I heard a discussion on the Tal Law taking place right in front of me. I looked up and saw two young looking Ultra-Orthodox men (No hat for those wondering – I think they may have been Shasnikim). I listened for a few seconds until my Israeliness took over.
“I think it’s ridiculous that all the attention is only focused on the Haredim, there is a massive problem of draft-dodging amongst the secular,” I said. One of the men looked at me, nodded, and explained why he feels this issue is being pushed. “You see,” he started, “The average age of marriage in our world is around 22, and then it’s kids and work.” So far, so good. “If we do x years of studying in Yeshiva, as per some versions of the ‘new’ Tal Law and then the army,” he continued, “We’ll come out of the army at 22.” Ok, no problems there. “Then, we’ll start marrying later, and most likely we’ll have less children too.” I wasn’t buying this, but before I opened my mouth, “Why do you think they’re pushing this for the Arabs too?” I wasn’t too impressed with the theory, “Doesn’t make sense – every day we hear about this demographic ‘threat’ and now you’re telling me the Israeli government wants to reduce our birth rate?” I continued, “Look at the Haredim in the US, or Belgium, or England – they finish university at 22, start working and still have large families.” He wasn’t convinced, neither was I … Right then, next topic.
“I don’t really get the way we are today though,” he stated, “We never had this study all day routine before Israel.” I nodded and added, “Didn’t the Chafetz Chaim even tell his students to go to the Russian army to learn how to defend themselves as one day they’d need to do it alone?” We were in agreement, and so I provided a possible solution: “Israel should follow how it was in the Arab world; the upper echelon of religious students – and today, scientists, authors etc – should be free to focus entirely on their profession, sponsored by the State, while the others do the ‘real world’ routine.” He was in agreement again, “I think that’s the right way to go.” I don’t think that he and his friend will be the first – or last – Haredim I will talk to who feel this way.
“I would love to study all day,” I said, “I just couldn’t do it, I could barely concentrate during the hour long lectures in university.” He smiled, “Why do you think I’m an atooda’ee?” Interesting … An atooda’ee gets a university degree and then joins the army. “I couldn’t do the studying thing – I wasn’t cut out for it, and I feel that there’s many Haredim just like me. We should be those going into the army – it will make a difference.” I smiled and nodded my head, “If there are continual large draft classes, like the 2000 plus who entered in the last draft, it will do a lot to improve our country and reduce the non-stop sina’at chinam (baseless hatred) we see spouted by both sides.”
The last few weeks, a lot of heat and anger has been directed toward the Haredim because of their extremely low draft numbers in the last thirty years. To a large extent, I believe this is justified. However, as it crosses into hatred and the idea that this is the problem for the army, Israel is only pushing the Haredim even farther into a corner. The current situation has to change – no one can argue against that. However, it must be done intelligently and with empathy, so that it can aid the winds of change that are already pushing more and more Haredim towards the army and workforce.