Onnie Schiffmiller

Cooler Heads Needed

This is the blog piece I never could have imagined writing.

For years, decades, I felt personally tortured by the refusal of Haredi communities (the Haredi world is composed of many different communities) to participate in Israel’s draft. How could these communities accept government subsidies without reciprocity? How could they justify using Talmudic logic to defend their continued avoidance of military service?

Why were their children exempt from the draft, while my children worked hard to serve in the army without compromising their dedication to Torah learning? I felt my blood pressure rising when I saw Haredi communities protesting government attempts to force them to serve. Their unwillingness to serve was untenable, and I was more than happy to share my anger with any black-hatted man that crossed my path. But anger is a luxury I can’t afford right now.

When the State was born in 1948, Haredim accounted for approximately 1% of Israel’s population. Ben Gurion gave an army exemption to 400 Haredi scholars, a price he believed the State could afford. This was not unlike the exemptions given to truly gifted athletes or musicians. Ben Gurion would never have imagined that the Haredi world would not perish, but flourish. The military exemption remained in place even as the Haredi population grew. In 1967, when Israel faced an existential threat, Haredim represented approximately 3% of the population with 800 men of conscription age. In 2024, Haredim represent more than 10% of the Israeli population (source: Israel Democracy Institute) with roughly 60,000 men exempt from military service. Meanwhile, the IDF is suffering from a manpower shortage. General Itzhak Brik argues that another 7,000 soldiers are needed to maintain security without compromising the ability of soldiers to lead normal productive lives outside of the military. The solution is obvious: force the immediate draft of Haredi men. Problem solved.

While the emotional, irrational part of my brain wants the army to march into Bnei Brak, Mea Shearim and other Haredi neighborhoods and pull men out of their homes and yeshivas, I know it’s not realistic and is likely to cause violence. How do we solve the problem?

The answer can’t be found with hotheaded leaders like Chief Sephardic Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef who argues that the Haredim will simply get up and leave if they are forced into the draft. Not much of a threat for most Israelis. Opposition leader Yari Lapid’s cynical response was not any more productive when he reminded Haredim that if they left, their host countries would require them to work for a paycheck. No more government stipends that allow men to sit and learn all day. The threat and the response were filled with hatred, anger and, in the end, won’t benefit either the Haredim or the rest of Israeli society. How is Israel supposed to move forward? How can Israel bridge this divide?

• Accept that changing Haredi attitudes toward the IDF will take time.

Generally, non-Haredi Israeli children have a positive attitude toward IDF soldiers. After all, these soldiers are their parents, siblings and neighbors. Haredi children generally don’t associate soldiers with their family, teachers, rabbis, or neighbors. They have been raised to believe that only Torah study can protect them. Soldiers represent a sovereign State of Israel without the Messiah. Changing such an ingrained attitude will not happen overnight. That’s a hard to pill to swallow when we are fighting an existential war with Hamas, but if our goal is to integrate Haredim into the military, we’re going to have to accept that it’s a slow process. There’s no magic wand to change 75 years of indoctrination.

• Engage with Haredi community leaders.

Given the size of the community, I have to believe that there are teachers and rabbis willing to engage in meaningful dialogue about how to change attitudes about Israeli military service. Naïve? Maybe, but with a growing birthrate, I can’t tolerate the thought that we Israelis can never expect the Haredim to serve in the IDF. Do these influencers exist? I don’t know, but I don’t think we can just assume that they don’t.

• Leverage Haredi volunteers.

According to IDF spokesman, Daniel Hagari, approximately 2,000 Haredi men volunteered to serve in the army after October 7th. Not all of them actually enlisted, but even expressing interest in enlisting is meaningful. It signals that attitudes are starting to change. Yes, it’s a fraction of men who should be serving, but they represent an opportunity, and I hope the IDF recognizes this. Talk to these men. Learn what inspired their bravery to break away from societal norms and serve. If each of these men could encourage just one friend or family member to sign up, we could start to make a dent in the number of soldiers that the IDF needs to fill its ranks.

After living here for 20 years, I’m livid that we’re still dealing with this issue. It turns my stomach that we have so many people who won’t share in securing the country that offers them so much. But after 20 years, I see that my anger, and the legitimate anger of most Israelis hasn’t achieved very much. Maybe it’s time to try a different strategy.

About the Author
Onnie Schiffmiller is a tour guide and the owner of Israel with Love. She made aliyah with her family from New York in 2003.
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