A great cacophony recently has been heard, both in Israel and the Diaspora, about the repeal of the Tal law. It seems to me that many of these voices are uninformed regarding the Yeshiva world, the army, or both.
There have been two major rallies protesting the Israeli government’s move to repeal the Tal law, which currently grants yeshiva students exemption from being drafted into the army. In Israel the protesters numbered close to half a million. The crowd in New York was estimated in the tens of thousands.
These developments have further polarised Israeli and world Jewry.
The negative responses to the protests broadly can be divided into two major themes.
There are those who feel outraged at the fact that the ‘religious’ community refuses to shoulder the communal burden, whereas other accusations lie in the very terminology of ‘burden’; the arguement that military service should be considered a privilege.
The first group lament that the Charedi community continues to enjoy benefits from the State, yet it refuses to contribute to it — at least in any tangible sense. Although many religious Zionists agree with this sentiment, it is primarily an argument of the secular community.
There seems legitimacy in the claim of the need to shoulder communal burden, indeed it is a strong moral argument. But we should be mindful that the burden need not be identically born.
The vast majority of conscripts do not serve in fighting units. The emotional claim of “Why should my son risk his life while you sit in yeshiva?” is potent and powerful, but not accurate. The question is equally true for the talented musicians and academics who similarly never see the frontline.
Their unique talents are recognised and they are given opportunities, albeit only the most gifted, to utilise those talents both within the framework of the army as well as the broader state. Intellectually gifted students go to university before the army, complete degrees and then serve in the IDF using those degrees. Musicians join the army bands and choirs.
We must distinguish between serving Israel, and serving in the army. Every Israeli should serve Israel, not everyone necessarily should go to the army.
The second argument is usually from the religious Zionist camp. This point of view holds that to defend one’s state and one’s people is not only a great opportunity and privilege, but is a religious obligation. (Perhaps it’s an obligation that should be seen as a privilege.)
Despite their own religiosity, religious Zionists often do not understand the cultural differences between the Charedi community and their own. The army barely accommodates religious existence in general, and definitely does not provide an environment conducive to a Charedi recruitment drive. The majority of the army is not religious, and its daily life is not supportive of a religious existence even if technically the army claims religious neutrality. Frivolous behaviour is endemic on bases, often purely because of boredom. Prayer time is limited, time for Torah learning is limited and kashrut and Shabbat standards are often deficient. (At least this was my personal experience, and those of many of my peers).
I do not oppose universal conscription but I do believe that the army needs a religious overhaul if it is to attract the Charedi community or demand that it concede to some level of conscription.
As things now stand there are deep seated cultural issues endemic to the Charedi community that preclude many a young bochur from enlisting: the view that only unsuccessful yeshiva students serve in the army, that enlistment is a sign of a weakening faith. These stigmas often result in long term dire consequences especially if the young recruit hopes to return, marry and raise a family within these communities.
In order to make conscription less confronting for Charedim, the army has to address this mindset and culture.
But perhaps the most distressing part of the whole debate for me is the commentary from uninvolved onlookers — the ‘Diaspora-ted-Zionists’, both religious and secular, who post blog articles of disappointment, anger and even disgust directed toward Charedim and their protests.
Every Charedi in Israel contributes more to the State of Israel than all of we Zionist bystanders here in Australia. Their mere presence and involvement in the daily life of the Israeli economy and society ensures that Jewish life in, and the nature of, the State of Israel is perpetuated. We here in Australia don’t serve in the IDF, we don’t do national service and outside of periodic donations and occasional trips, do little to contribute to Israel’s enrichment.
It is ironic indeed that we ‘Zionists’ in Australia cast judgement even on the non-Zionists in Israel who are actually living more of the Zionist principles than we do!