I am very frustrated by the current deadlock between Haredi “Ultra-Orthodox” society and the current Israeli government.

I originally wrote an incredibly cynical article on the topic, which I posted to my own blog. But at the behest of Itzik Yarkoni, a friend and expert on social media marketing, I decided to write another post that “didn’t just list problems but also presented solutions.”

I personally believe that Haredim have an obligation as a whole to serve their nation, although I also believe in the traditional Jewish approach which specifies that a percentage of the population must serve their country’s spiritual needs through full-time learning (a percentage much larger than the one currently suggested by the government).

There is much room for debate on this subject, but ultimately I think the selection process should be a self-selecting one, based on a person’s personal commitment to spirituality and Torah study;

this still leaves room for many hundreds of unproductive young men who are not playing that spiritual role in the current Yeshiva system, to join the army with no loss to the Jewish people’s spiritual well-being.

However, I also believe that government’s current attempts to bludgeon together some sort of solution is harmful to the cause and doomed to failure. A recent Ynet article reported that the enlistment rate amongst Haredi Jews has been in decline since the government has begun to increase the pressure on this segment of the population to join the army.

This makes perfect sense.

The Problem

No one wants to be told what to do, especially not Jews.

Irrespective of whether you believe that Orthodox Jews should or should not serve in the army, I think we can agree that coercion is not the way to do it.

It is basic human psychology that force is the path of most resistance, and there is an Israeli saying that says: “don’t be correct, be smart”.

‘This aphorism certainly applies to this case.

Furthermore, I don’t understand the reasoning behind the current burst of governmental enlistment zeal.The enlistment rate has been steadily rising since the creation of programs like the Netzach Yehuda Nachal Haredi” battalion, as well as several “Shachar” programs that integrated Haredi men into important support roles within the air force, engineering and intelligence units.

I myself served in both Hesder training and in the Nahal Haredi, and saw the unit grow by leaps and bounds during the months that I served. Since then, it has continued to grow, vastly outnumbering its sister Kfir battalions; word in the unit is that it will soon be transformed into its own brigade- becoming a Haredi equivalent to Tzanchanim, Golani or Nachal.

All this progress was set back several years with the advent of new government laws calling for sanctions against Yeshivas that don’t meet enlistment quotas. Suddenly the army became a much greater enemy, and the dormant anti-military sentiment buried in the Haredi psyche was stirred to the forefront.

In my day it was possible to justify the “sin” of joining the army, to avoid Haredi society’s condemnation  by pegging oneself as an exception to the rule, a black sheep that could be overlooked. Now the billboards are plastered with anti-military caricatures, the streets are strewn with pamphlets referring to those who enlist as heretics, and the Haredi media is constantly referring to the sanctions as an impending evil.

anti army incitement

Anti Government Propaganda (Photo Credit: Jacob Ross Photography, used with permission)

Much of this sentiment is the voice of a few extremists, but they are the voice which is the most prominent, and it creates a very unpleasant environment within which to join the army if you were even inclined to do so. Which the average Haredi boy is more than likely not inclined to do, if the current brainwashing attempts have had any effect.

The Orthodox community has proven itself to be the most stubborn of all elements of society, the slowest to change and the quickest to declare war on perceived enemies of their faith. 

(photo courtesy of Jacob Ross Photography, used with permission)

 In a stalemate between the government and the Haredi community, the Haredim are more than likely to win. Depending on when you begin the count, they have existed for over 60 years, whereas the average Israeli government can’t seem to survive the recommended four.

Furthermore, may I ask how useful is a soldier who has been coerced to join the army? Is he not more trouble than he is worth? But I think they should join the army, so how do I suggest we make that happen?

The Solution

Currently, both sides are wrong.

The broader Israeli community is lacking in its fundamental appreciation for traditional Judaism, which has proven itself as the only effective means of preserving Judaism at all over the course of Jewish history, as the intermarriage rates of Conservative and Reform denominations will attest.

This appreciation usually extends to weddings, funerals and other “religious times of need”, where the religious representative is suddenly appreciated as guide; but it needs to extend much further.

Simultaneously, the Haredi community is showing a lack of appreciation to the soldiers who volunteer for at least three years and risk their lives to protect them.Their assumptions about the army’s effects on a person’s religiosity are often based on founding-of-the-state sentiments that were blatantly anti-religious.

The army has come a long way since then, but few people from the orthodox community have been there to note that fact. That said, there is still a lot of room for improvement even in the Haredi-friendly systems that army has set up.

I had several experiences where commanders showed a lack of sensitivity to my religiosity, (usually out of ignorance), I know for a fact that the food in Nahal Haredi bases is not as varied or tasty (yes, regular army food is quite good!) and they are subject to abnormal overcrowding.

Finally, the religious environment within the Nahal Haredi system is not what it could be, and certainly can’t be compared to the yeshiva environment.This is partially the Haredi community’s fault: currently, the typical persona to join the army from within the Haredi fold is one who has fallen far enough to the wayside of religious observance that his parents and teachers say “at least he should do something with himself and go to the army. It’s better than him being on the street.”

This creates a self-fulfilling prophesy and negative cycle:

the average Haredi don’t join the army because it is not religious enough, while the reason it is not religious enough is because he hasn’t joined.

The ideal solution for this last problem is simple: get 90 upstanding Haredi citizens to join at the same time. Less. Even one platoon of likeminded individuals grouped together can help preserve their religious standards and environment, as has can be seen in the equivalent Hesder arrangements of the National-Religious community.

But more importantly, the means of recruitment must change at once. The government should withdraw all its current sanctions and apologize for its brutish approach to the issue. Instead, it should focus its efforts and finances into creating suitable alternatives for Haredi recruits whose conditions are completely on par with the rest of the army, suitable sensitivity training to all involved parties, and most importantly, a positive pro-army PR campaign.

This last component is most important. Nahal Haredi’s main means of recruitment always involved recruiters on the ground meeting with other potential recruits and convincing them of the many benefits of joining the army. This approach should be further promoted and expanded through the employment of additional recruiters, but it should also features creative ad campaigns delivered through various forms of media.

The message of these campaigns will be simple:

People just like you have joined the army. They are normal, happy, and well-adjusted. They maintained their religious observance, returned to yeshiva afterwards, and even found a suitable Shidduch (a grave concern for many Haredi bachelors).

And you can do the same.

This message can be transmitted on street signs, busses and billboards. It can even be marketed online- much of the Haredi community is not as insular as you might think. An example of such a campaign might be the personal post I created for Facebook, which received a lot of positive response:

It maybe best to launch such a campaign after the air has cleared of the cannonballs that are currently being thrown between both sides, but ultimately I believe this approach would be a lot more successful than the pig-headed one the government is currently taking, which is doomed to spectacular failure while simultaneously rending the country apart.

I would be happy to spearhead the campaign and be one of its faces, and I invite others to join me in this approach.

What do you think of these suggestions? Let me know in the comments below.