Tzachi Fried

The Haredi* draft is not what you think

*Haredi is an overall term that refers to a homogenous population that differs with regard to its relationship with the broader Israeli society. The term is used here for purposes of convenience and not everything in this essay is applicable to every Haredi-identifying person.

In a recent episode of the satirical show Hayehudim Ba’im, Ben-Gurion is portrayed sitting with his cabinet in the run-up to the declaration of the State of Israel. Cabinet members argue vociferously over issues relating to the religious vs. secular nature of the state.

Ben-Gurion interrupts them, noting that while they argue from within, the enemy threatens to destroy from the outside. He quips, “Let’s continue arguing after we have a state… right now let’s move on and let these issues explode in our faces a few decades from now.”

Well, here we are.

All citizens living in a state should share equally in the role of protecting and defending that state. Further, it is the role of the government to ensure that all segments of society are pulling their fair share. Especially in a time of war, This is how the most relevant and pressing issue toward Haredi* society is framed when viewed from the outside.

On closer examination, however, the draft issue is not the problem, it is the symptom. Haredi society, to varying extents, experiences a disconnect from participation in the broader state. They do not observe Yom Haatzma’ut, Yom Hazikaron, or Yom HaShoah. Many do not stand during the sirens of Yom HaShoah and Yom Hazikaron. They do not send their sons to the army, nor do they send their daughters to national service. They send their children to a separate school system with a separate curriculum.

Haredim recognize the Land of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people and as a holy space where God dwells. They (sometimes begrudgingly) view the State of Israel as the legal authority in this space, and at the same time do not view the State of Israel as a state that lives up to its Jewish self-identified label. Unlike the traditional Israeli ideology that links the Shoah to the subsequent founding of the State of Israel, their view ties the Shoah to the tragic history of the Jewish people exile and to the future to the coming of the Messiah and divine redemption of Israel. Their remembrance of the Shoah lies in the narrative of the torah scholars and communities lost. It is enshrined in maintaining names of people and places most secular Israelis have never heard of and in observing holidays that secular Israelis don’t observe, such as Tisha B’av and Asara B’tevet. Because their lack of army service prevents them from entering the workforce at a young age, Haredi men remain in the sector of learning Torah in vast numbers rather than contributing to the economy. This further exacerbates a turning inward and a sense of exclusion. Consequently, many Haredim know little of secular Israeli culture and most secular Israelis know little of Haredi culture.

The issue, then, is not insufficient numbers of Haredim serving in the military, but rather that the State of Israel contains a Jewish society that is completely separate and set apart, does not see itself as part of the whole, and does not participate in the maintenance of the State, though it has representation in government.

Will a government-mandated draft really address the relevant issue? Can it even work? Perhaps partly. Perhaps there are those at the edges of Haredi society who would join the army if it offered them enough benefit. However, the manner in which the issue is portrayed in the media demonstrates that those pushing the draft legislation forward are motivated by a sense of righteous indignation at some citizens being able to avoid a burden that is imposed on others. They are less likely to be informed of the values of the Haredi community and the underlying history and societal dynamics that underlie the avoidance of army service. And when you try to solve a problem without fully understanding it, the result can often be worse.

At the core of the Haredi value system is the maintenance of a way of life organized around religious principles and by maintaining strict adherence to Jewish law. Shabbat, kashrut, modesty in women, and Torah study in men are of utmost importance, as is fastidiously avoiding any outside influences that may dilute or detract from strict observance. Secular media, smartphones and the internet are particular threats in this regard. This is one problem cited by many Haredim with regard to army service- that it will significantly impact their level of religious observance, and possibly even endanger it. Hesder students notwithstanding, they have plenty of evidence to support this.

It is also important to consider the history of the Haredi community’s tense relationship with the State of Israel. This is a relationship that can be conceptualized as stretching even further back to the beginning of the 19th century, when religious observance clashed with enlightenment values. With the emergence of the European Enlightenment, Jews began leaving observance in order to embrace more modern and secular lifestyles. Broadly speaking, one reaction from the society that would later become known as Haredi was to circle the wagons and be wary of any changes to observance or tradition and wading too far into modernity. Similarly, the emerging Zionist philosophy of Herzl and other thinkers was seen as a secular hijacking of a holy land that needed to be guarded against and roundly rejected.

In turn, early Zionism was a staunchly secularist philosophy and undertaking. the Zionist establishment for the most part harbored an anti-religious sentiment and did its utmost to separate itself from the feared creeping reach of religion. When Ben-Gurion granted the yeshiva exemption, he granted it to a small minority of the population, seeking to pacify them in a mutually beneficial arrangement: Keep your strict religious lifestyles to yourselves. Don’t infiltrate our army, don’t force your religion on us. In turn, we won’t bother you about participating in our society and fighting in our wars. The relationship between the State of Israel and the Haredi community has always been tense, and to this day the more fundamentalist and isolationist elements of Haredi society perceive the State of Israel as a malevolent secular force that deliberately looks to destroy their way of life. This is not all dissimilar from the way some secular people view Haredim as looking to coerce religious stringencies onto the public.

This tense history underlies another reason why Haredim avoid army service. They see the state as a deliberate actor in diluting or threatening their way of life, and they see the army as a tool for doing this. As a core value is avoiding outside influences, avoiding army service has become almost synonymous with the core values of being Haredi. Given this historical dynamic, and given the tradition of people who have given their lives rather than giving up religious observance, a top-down forcing of Haredi enlistment is quite unlikely to succeed. Those who chant “נמות ולא נתגייס”  (“We would rather die than enlist”) are not engaging in hyperbole.

Any government that imposes its will on an idealistically unwilling segment of the population will only further divide society and lead to severe blacklash at a time when what we truly need is to increase our unity. And by unity, I don’t mean a superficial unity that simply leaves the issues alone by kicking the can down the road. Nor is unity promoted by allowing for a status quo to exist in which one society feels completely removed from another. Real unity is fully accepting and allowing space for one another. Perhaps instead of asking how we can get Haredim join the army, we can ask how to effectively invite Haredim to be full participants in Israeli society.

And here is where the reality check must come in. The State of Israel in 2024 is not the State of Israel of the 1950s. Haredim are a large and quickly growing demographic. We cannot ask for “Equality in the burden” without recognizing the necessity of “Equality in culture”. Otherwise we are not asking them for equality, but rather to be less like themselves and to be more like us. Their participation requires our recognizing their participation. We cannot truly ask part of our nation to share in the burden of protecting the nation but not have an equal say relative to its population in societal matters that are important to them. Compromises and adjustments in society may need to be made- are we ready for this? Are all sides ready to step out of their comfortable zones of exclusion?

This essay is not a call against the Haredi draft, but rather a call for unity. A unified nation where each part of society is counted as a member and respected. Where points of view that we don’t agree with and lifestyles that we don’t share are fully accepted by one another. And rather than tackle the question of how one segment of society can get another segment of society to do something, we ask the question- how do we come together and build society most effectively? This is far from easy.

I’m not advocating a haredization of secular culture. I’m not advocating a theocracy. Nobody wants this. Even in the Haredi world, a theocracy would lead to nothing but endless conflict over who and what kind of theocracy we should have. Rather, I am suggesting that the Haredi draft issue is a red herring. Underneath it lies an issue critical to our existence that we can no longer afford to ignore.

Two thousand years ago, the Romans exploited our divisiveness in order to conquer us, destroy the temple, and send us into exile. The path to rebuilding lies in learning to live together.

About the Author
Dr. Tzachi Fried is a clinical psychologist and the clinical director of Machon Dvir ( in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh. He made aliyah with his family in 2012. When not treating patients he can be found working in his garden or hiking the hills and valleys of Israel.
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