Mandatory IDF Conscription from a Haredi Perspective

To read another side of the issue, please read my colleague Safra Turner-Granot’s Mandatory IDF Conscription from a Hiloni Perspective.

Here we are on the tenth of Av, mourning the destruction of the Temple, albeit a day late, due to the Sabbath stubbornly falling on the ninth, when fasting and lamentations are forbidden. After the fast we will slake our thirst and feed our empty bellies. At last the time of mourning will be over for one more year.

We will be glad that it is once more over. But will we take stock and try to root out baseless hatred for our fellow man; said to be the cause of the Churban, the Destruction of the Second Temple? Will we try to forestall next year’s fasting and lamentations?

Or will we instead merely allow the months to roll on by, passive, as we maintain our staunch beliefs about life and morality? Will we never try to see the other side until Av comes back again? Will we beat our breasts and mourn some more?

Here, safe in my home, where no one hates me, I am ruminating over hatred. In particular, I am thinking about the Israeli government’s loss of an important coalition member over the subject of equalizing military service in a country where half the Israeli population is working very hard not to serve. This is an issue that has created a deep chasm: a chasm that splits Israeli society straight down the middle, to the bone.

I think about this and shake my head at the futility and posturing of figureheads like Shaul Mofaz since the military freely admits it has too much manpower and has been looking for ways to reduce the strain of mandatory conscription on IDF resources. As Moshe Feiglin, head of the Likud’s Manhigut Yehudit Faction put it on July 19, “If it weren’t so sad, the draft brouhaha would be the greatest show in town. It is a masquerade ball, a tragicomedy in which each actor says the complete opposite of what he really wants.

The main actor, the IDF, is practically invisible. He doesn’t dare speak the truth, which happens to be terribly politically incorrect. The truth is that the IDF really does not want the Haredim (Ultra-Orthodox). Not because they are not good people: Simply because as it is, the army has too much manpower. The last thing it needs is to deal with tens of thousands of new recruits with special dietary requirements and the like for which the army is unprepared. Two separate committees (one appointed by the head of the IDF’s General Headquarters) the Ben Basat Committee and the Shefer Committee have already studied the issue and recommended reducing conscription. But to tell the truth to the feminists demanding to draft women into combat units and to the “pushovers” demanding a full-scale draft for the Haredim would force the IDF top brass to exercise a rare character trait: courage on public issues.”

Feiglin is a controversial figure, but he is only speaking the truth. According to the Mahal-IDF volunteers website, “ . . . Israel is making huge defense cuts as part of an attempt to reduce the size of its public sector. This is rendering a relatively large conscription army unaffordable for Israel in the 21st century.”

If the IDF is looking for ways to reduce the size of its public sector, why on earth is Kadima making a stink about Haredi military conscription? It must be something its Hiloni (secular) electorate wants and badly. But why exactly are the Hilonim looking for ways to force the Haredim to serve in the military?

For the sake of trying to come to some place of mutual understanding and toward ending the hatred, my fellow blogger Safra Turner-Granot and I decided to explore mandatory IDF conscription from both her Hiloni and my Haredi perspectives.

This is not a new question for me. In fact, I have been asking this question in varied forms since before the first Gulf War when one of the old-timers in my former community warned the rest of us, “Trust me. If there’s a call-up, you’re not going to want to be seen on the streets. The hatred of the hilonim builds up like a powder keg. I remember what it was like in ’67.”

Wow. That gave me pause for thought. Back then, as a new immigrant, I’d never really examined the issue before: how the Hilonim served in the IDF but the Haredim (black-hat Orthodox) did not. I mean, of course I knew that was what happened. But I hadn’t thought about the feelings generated in the Hiloni community as a result.

It hadn’t occurred to me that they hate us because our boys don’t serve.

At that time, none of my many children were yet old enough to serve, but eventually they would be and then what would happen?

I hated to think of my children and myself—my very community—as objects of hatred. I hated to think of being the cause of that hate. But was I the cause of that hate—or was it my belief system? Maybe it was none of the above. Maybe there was an entirely different root cause not yet considered?

I began to ask questions. Why is it that Haredim don’t serve in the army? I received the standard pat answers as well as a few I had not expected. Among the pat answers: “It smacks of Russian conscription. This is why we left Europe?” and “Our Torah scholarship protects our people every bit as much as their guns.”

Hmmmmmm. I looked into that last one: how wars had played out during biblical times. I saw that there had always been a faction of men who bore arms and went into actual battle. And there were shifts of Torah-learners. The men were assigned their rightful places according to their strengths.

But we are not in biblical times. And not all the Haredim who receive exemptions from serving in the army sit and learn full time. Some work and spend a great deal of time trying to evade army service—and a lot of hatred from the other side is generated as result.

Now let’s extend this to the National Religious. They say: “You can do both. You can do the Hesder program—learn Torah AND bear arms, just like it says in the Torah.”

So again I turned to my community. I asked questions. I was told, “It’s not really about the learning. It’s about the Hashkafa (general outlook and atmosphere) of the army. It’s just not a place for boys who have been brought up in holiness.”

By way of explanation, a woman friend who had served in the army told me that it had been very difficult for her to serve in the army as a religious woman. The way she described it, the army had been a sexual free-for-all. It had been a very awkward and lonely experience for her as a God-fearing single woman who had been raised to avoid all contact with men.

In general, Haredim aren’t raised with the same culture as Hilonim or that of most of the National Religious. Haredim don’t have TV’s. Many don’t have access to the Internet. If they do, that access is very limited and filtered for smut and secular culture.

That doesn’t make Haredim stupid and useless. But it makes them incompatible for mixing in with the general population without undergoing extreme culture shock and/or being ridiculed for the things they don’t know about and don’t want to know about. It makes them curiosities.

They’d be teased.

They’d be shown things they shouldn’t be shown.

They just don’t belong.

It made sense to me then, that this was the real reason that Haredim don’t serve. The Hashkafa of the army is the crux of the inability of Haredim to serve.

There have been attempts to overcome the problem. The creation of Nachal Haredi, for instance, was meant to offer Haredi boys a place where their religious culture and sensibilities would be supported. Two of my sons ended up serving in Nachal Haredi (a long story for a different blog post) and I can tell you that there was nothing Haredi about it.

Most of the boys serving in Nachal Haredi come from troubled, rebellious Haredi backgrounds, or they were National Religious boys. My boys bore witness to this fact and I saw it with my own eyes. But at least my sons were able to keep kosher and to have a bit of a Shabbat atmosphere while they served.

My story and my boys’ service is an anomaly. When it comes right down to it, I don’t quite see the point of having Haredi boys serve in the army. What does the army need with all these pale-faced limp-bodied scholars with long peysalach (side curls) who don’t know the barrel of a gun from its trigger?

I timorously broached the subject with a family friend who is National Religious. Her eyes blazed with such palpable hatred I felt the need to take a few steps back. She said, “If my boys need to serve and die, then your boys need to serve and die.”

“She wants my sons to die,” I thought, horrified. It was too much to take in.

Since that time, I have seen that same look steal over many a face as the issue is discussed—that same hatred—that same wish that my sons will die.

I don’t think this hatred is either acceptable or productive. I think it’s just plain ugly. I think the idea that as a nation we are striving for equality through death is sickening. And I think that if the other side wants the Haredim to fairly share the burden, perhaps we need to come up with an army service that doesn’t make them uncomfortable, give them culture shock, or make them unfit to return to their communities once their service is completed.

This is pretty much what happened to my eldest son. Haredi girls did not want to go out with a boy who had served in the army and National Religious girls did not want to go out with a guy who wore a black skullcap. My son was, for a long time, stuck in a cultural and religious limbo as a result of his army service.

Does our nation have the funds and manpower to create the conditions under which Haredim can freely and willingly serve in the army? Does the army even need more conscripts? Is this something we, as a society, really want or need?

If these questions cannot be answered in the affirmative, then is it not time to come to a different plane of understanding where hatred does not enter into the equation?

There must be some place of agreement that can be reached: some point of unity we can settle upon. We need a place where we can find the grace to live and let live, rather than insist that only in death can equality be reached.

Isn’t it time for the hatred to end?





About the Author
Varda Epstein is a blogger and Communications Writer for