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Adam Gross

Charedi Home Guard – a potential solution to the military service issue

Many non-Charedi Israelis these days seem to be outraged with Charedim on various fronts.

My previous blogpost addressed one of the major sources of grievance – that, according to these grievances, Charedi education does not sufficiently prepare Charedim to make meaningful contributions to the national economy.

On the one hand, I tried to refute this view based on personal experience.

On the other, a modest suggestion was made about how the teaching of language, mathematics and science could be adapted so it is not delivered as an externally imposed core curriculum as at present time, but rather delivered with the same approach of ‘torah lishmah’ that Kodesh learning is currently taught, i.e. not for the sake of the ‘national economy’ but for the sake of promoting and realising the ends of Torah itself.

This blogpost addresses a second major source of grievance – the Charedi exemption from military or other meaningful forms of national service. In doing so, I will be quick to declare I have absolutely no standing to issue religious opinions so I defer to the appropriate authorities. Rather, the solution and opinions offered here are my best views from the understanding I have developed to date, which I hope may be taken into consideration by all parties to this important issue.

The attempt to solve the challenge of Charedi military service exemptions requires, firstly, to fully recognise the nature of the bottlenecks that need to be overcome, and secondly, to address those bottlenecks on their own terms (i.e. on a Torah basis).

I would understand the overarching issue for Charedim is whether military service, or other meaningful forms of national service, is supported by Torah. Then, there are a series of secondary challenges which involve apparent inconsistencies between observing Torah and the performance of military/national service in Israel as currently formulated.

Let me say from the outset that I do believe Torah study is a meaningful form of national service in itself. I firmly believe this from both a rationalist and a mystical perspective.

Rationalist, because it is the glow of Torah values – strong communities, strong debate, love of our fellow, love of the Land, belief in human dignity, belief in Jewish destiny – that enables Israel, despite being subjected to existentialist threat, near-daily attacks directed against civilians, and growing worldwide hatred, to be ranked as the fourth happiest country on earth.

Mystical, because the study and practice of Torah in Eretz Yisrael is a trigger for the huge flow of blessing the country has enjoyed. This may help to explain why the growth of supposedly ‘non-productive’ Charedim as a proportion of total population has co-existed with, and perhaps correlates to (I didn’t check but if someone has, I would be interested to know), the growth of national GDP over more than seven decades, despite cold logic (and Avigdor Lieberman) suggesting otherwise.

Even so, and perhaps one could say especially so, it is important to identify what are the Torah principles at stake here.

Firstly, it is pertinent to note that under every mitzvah stands four commandments – to learn, to teach, to guard and to do (Sotah 37a). Not only this, but for every commandment under every mitzvah, every Jew is a guarantor for every other Jew’s performance of the mitzvah, and according to another opinion, every Jew is a guarantor for every other Jew’s guarantorship for every other Jew’s performance of the mitzvah (Sotah 37b).

This seems to mean, firstly, that if there is a mitzvah to perform, then learning, teaching and guarding (which may be accomplished purely in a yeshivah/kollel setting) should be also complimented with doing (which in the case of many mitzvot cannot be accomplished purely in a yeshivah/kollel setting). It also seems to mean, secondly, that for any mitzvah, it is not sufficient to remain isolated from other Jews, but rather to positively influence others to increase performance of the Mitzvot.

Now we must take a look at the mitzvot. I understand that according to all opinions, it is not just a mitzvah but also an obligation (‘chovah’) for every Jewish person to defend Eretz Yisrael when it comes under attack (Sotah 44b, Mishneh Torah Milchamot 5). Even the Torah-based exemptions for the fearful, newlyweds, builders of new houses, and planters of new vineyards are understood not to apply in this circumstance (Deuteronomy 20). As defense of Eretz Yisrael is an obligation (‘chovah’) that is binding on all Jews, it seems that it is not enough to study, teach and guard it. It is also necessary to do it.

Therefore, even before we consider the secondary challenges – i.e. the apparent inconsistencies between observing Torah and the performance of military/national service as currently formulated (explored below) – we have already come up with our potential solution: to set up a Home Guard in which Charedim are obligated by Torah to serve.

Why a Home Guard?

The Home Guard would be intended as a force that is organised specifically to defend Eretz Yisrael when it is under attack, i.e. exclusively in situations in which Torah obligates Jews to defend Eretz Yisrael.

Such a force need not, in fact should not, only comprise Charedim. It would be important to involve relevant technical specialists in security, intelligence, infrastructure, logistics, etc, to the extent that Charedi society does not already include such specialists. It would also be a Torah obligation to mobilise appropriate participation from other Jews not already participating in military service.

From a Torah perspective, the combination of both participating and mobilising may perhaps be considered as the way to perform the mitzvah to defend Eretz Yisrael ‘behiddur’ (i.e in a way which beautifies the mitzvah before G-d).

Is Eretz Yisrael under attack?

It seems yes. We see that nearly every day there are attacks on civilians in Eretz Yisrael. We also see on a frequent basis that the country’s enemies are calling for and mobilising towards the destruction of the Jewish presence in Eretz Israel. In addition, we see that these near-daily attacks are a part of the strategy of the country’s enemies to destroy the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, this is not a hypothetical threat, but a clear and present danger. Thus it seems, the obligation (‘chovah’) to defend Eretz Yisrael is active and creates an obligation for all Jewish people right now.

What is a Home Guard?

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines a home guard it as “a force organized often on a volunteer basis for local defense or home protection especially when the regular army is in a combat area”. Wikipedia defines it as “a title given to various military organizations at various times, with the implication of an emergency or reserve force raised for local defense.” According to Wikipedia, twelve countries – including the United States and nine European countries – currently have a home guard. In the UK, the home guard existed during World War II and gave inspiration to the wonderful television show, ‘Dad’s Army’.

Does Israel need a Home Guard?

Unfortunately, it seems, yes. Israel’s enemies have consistently planned armed attacks and insurgencies directed against Israeli cities, towns and villages since the country’s inception. Thankfully, BH, these have almost always been fully rebuffed. However, this threat has expanded over time with the continuing entrenchment of Israel’s enemies at the country’s borders. Moreover, as Israel’s enemies attempt at present time to ‘unite the fronts’, there is a risk the IDF will become increasingly stretched in a future conflict, G-d forbid it should happen. In such case, again G-d forbid it should happen, Israel’s cities, towns and villages are likely to come under increased threat of armed attack or insurgency, and it is important to have preparedness for a strong and effective home defense of civilian populations and related infrastructure, even as the IDF battles the country’s enemies at or beyond Israel’s borders.

Is this the same as Ben Gvir’s planned national guard?

No. The national guard, as it has been articulated, and who knows if it will happen, is supposed to be a rapid deployment force to restore order in Arab and mixed cities in the event of civil strife. By contrast, the Home Guard would be a force tasked to defend all Israeli cities from any form of armed attack by any party in a future war or insurgency.

What are the other issues for Charedim?

It has already been noted that an attack on Eretz Yisrael is understood to obligate all Jews to participate in its defense. This seems to be enough of an argument to obligate Charedi participation in a Home Guard even today, given the clear and present danger.

However, there are other issues which deter Charedim from military service as currently formulated. This includes serving under the command structures of a secular government; conforming with kashrut, the Sabbath and other religious obligations while performing service;  mixing with general society which creates challenges in particular, but not only, with respect to modesty; and taking time away from Torah study, which would under Torah law supersede the demands of military service unless such military service is itself considered to be a mitzvah or chovah.

How does a Home Guard help with these issues?

While recognising that Charedi participation in a Home Guard is a chovah and thus would seem to supersede these secondary challenges, it would nonetheless help increase Charedi support for such a Home Guard if these secondary challenges could also be addressed.

As concerns serving under the command structures of a secular government, it is firstly noted that the chovah to defend the Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael would seem to be binding, irrespective of the nature of the government, so long as that government is involved in securing the Jewish presence in the Land.

However, to further accommodate Charedi concerns, it may be possible to consider establishing the Home Guard as an independent force which coordinates closely and extensively with the IDF, the police, national government, municipalities and others, but does not formally operate under the existing command structures.

As concerns the observance of kashrut, the Sabbath and other religious obligations while performing service, and as concerns mixing with general society, service in the Home Guard could be structured for Charedim around their yeshivot and kollellim, rather than in new bases set up outside of Charedi areas. (This would also be cheaper and less timely to implement.) Of course, the Home Guard would not be structured only around yeshivot and kollellim, but such institutions could potentially accommodate many of the activities performed by Charedim while serving on Home Guard duty.

Moreover, as the Torah obligation to defend Eretz Yisrael remains binding irrespective of age, Charedi service in the Home Guard may continue for longer than military service in the IDF as currently formulated, with longer and more intensive ‘reserve’ duty as well. In fact, once Charedim serve the equivalent time in the Home Guard as those in the military, it may be worth considering providing a professional salary for their Home Guard activities, similar to the salary of professional soldiers that continue their service in the IDF. This would help to find new forms of meaningful employment, income and contribution to the national economy for the Charedi sector.

Finally, as concerns whether Home Guard service would take up time otherwise required for Torah study, it is firstly noted that anyone involved in performing a mitzvah or chovah is exempt from performing other mitzvot. Therefore, as defense of Eretz Yisrael when it is under attack is understood to be recognised by all opinions as a chovah, it would seem to supersede even the mitzvah of Torah study. It could also be argued, just as pikuach nefesh provides for breaching Sabbath laws on the basis ‘better to violate one Sabbath so many more Sabbaths can be observed’, so too here ‘better to defend Eretz Yisrael so much more Torah study can be performed’.

With this said, Home Guard service, if structured around yeshivot and kollellim, may make allowance for a much more extensive daily Torah study program than may be possible under military service as currently formulated. (There are obvious parallels to be drawn with the Hesder Yeshiva movement).

Overall, then, Home Guard service appears to present a natural solution to the challenge of Charedi exemptions to military service that on the one hand, may enable Charedim to fulfil ‘behiddur’ the Torah obligation to defend Eretz Yisrael when it is under attack, and on the other, strengthen Israel in the face of its enemies while building bridges to heal the growing divide between Charedim and non-Charedi Israelis.

About the Author
Adam Gross, an Oxford-educated strategist, has over 20 years' experience solving complex problems in the international arena for United Nations agencies, international financial institutions, private sector, NGOs and social enterprises across Europe, Africa and Asia. Adam made aliyah with his family in 2019 to live in northern Israel.
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