Since its inception in 1948, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has served as a major means of integrating Israel’s diverse population. Jews from all walks of life – religious and secular, Kibbutznik and urbanite, Sephardi and Ashkenazi – donned the iconic olive green uniform and fought for their country. They derived great pride, distinction and honor. Yet, as both the passage of time and the security of the state increased, the number of Hareidim (ultra-Orthodox) seeking military exemptions increased in tandem. This trend has produced a level of tension that now threatens to tear apart the intricate cultural fabric from which Israeli society was weaved nearly sixty-five years ago.
As a religious Jew, ardent Zionist and cocky teenager, I believed that Israeli Hareidim should, of course, be compelled to serve in the military. After all, it seemed clear: United we stand, divided we fall.
In 2009, however, I enlisted in the IDF. There was a small banner that I encountered daily, blowing in the dry desert wind at the center of my base. Against the background of a soldier adorned in full combat gear trekking through mud, the banner (in Hebrew) read: “There are those who call us suckers, but I call this love, contribution and Zionism.” Viewing my military service through the prism of this message led me to several thoughts.
First, on a tactical level, the IDF is capable of operating successfully for several more decades without full participation from all Israeli citizens, even with an increasingly one-sided birthrate amongst the Hareidi population.
Second, on a strategic level, the primary purpose of the IDF is neither to operate as the melting pot of Israeli society nor to ensure that the duty among those eligible for military service is shared equitably (though each is a noteworthy concern). Rather, the primary purpose of the IDF is to protect the Jewish state and the tenets that have always been at the core of its existence, such as Shabbat and Jewish social welfare and education.
Coercing Hareidim to abandon their Jewish values is neither militarily necessary nor consistent with the purpose of the Jewish state. Furthermore, it would be counterproductive, as coercive actions cannot build a positive and cohesive society.
Jewish tradition emphasizes communal responsibility and urges contributions to benefit the collective good. Those serving in the IDF have done their part to discharge this obligation. Haredim believe that they do their share by contributing their time to the study and support of Torah.
Mutual respect and dialogue between these two sides would go much further toward bringing Haredim into Israeli society than coercive efforts to make them perform military service.
IDF service has the capacity to invigorate one’s very being, instilling feelings of pride, self-worth and belonging. It is a privilege rather than a burden. Explaining these benefits to Hareidim with care and goodwill is the more likely way to entice them to enter the framework of the IDF and experience this satisfaction for themselves. This will lead to mutual operational adjustments and, ultimately, lay the foundation for a successful military framework.