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Ultra-Orthodox MKs should be thanking us

On the Supreme Court decision upholding the need for equality when it comes to IDF service

This week the Supreme Court ruled that Israel must have equality of national burden, that everyone should have the same rights and the same responsibilities and that the government’s attempts to cancel Yesh Atid’s amendment to the Equal Service Law simply doesn’t stand up to legal scrutiny.

Despite accusations levelled at Yesh Atid, at the Supreme Court and by many others, that we don’t understand the value of Torah, we need to say clearly to the ultra-Orthodox Knesset Members; We value the Torah. We understand its value no less than you do. We’re no different on that front. We only differ on the other values which we believe need to be taken into consideration. Unlike you, who believe we can pray from morning until night, the rest of Israeli society (left wing and right wing, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, secular, religious and many from within the ultra-Orthodox community itself) understands that prayer alone cannot sustain a country. For a country to survive it needs to defend itself – its borders and its citizens. That defense comes at a terrible price, the highest price. It can’t be that only some pay that price while an entire sector receives an exemption from it.

The ultra-Orthodox Knesset Members know that without the IDF, the country won’t survive. I wonder if their opposition to their children serving in the IDF really stems from a desire to protect the value of the Torah or whether it stems from something else. After all, the Torah itself sees protection of the Jewish people as a requirement, a mitzvah. Maybe it is a fear of change, of cultural change, that their children might climb over the walls and join the rest of the people of Israel?

Looking at things in another way, even if we agree that those who study Torah from morning until night are worthy of an exemption from military service, can we really say that an entire population studies Torah in that way? Are all ultra-Orthodox youth capable of studying Torah 12 hours a day? And if they are all capable, do they all do it? Again, the ultra-Orthodox Knesset Members know the truth. Many ultra-Orthodox men aged 18 to 20 are not sitting all hours of the day with a page of Gemara in front of them. If that was the case maybe the debate would be different.

The law passed by Yesh Atid in the 19th Knesset recognized the importance of Torah but it also recognized the importance of the existence of the State of Israel. And so, along with the option for young ultra-Orthodox men to study Torah the law demanded enlistment from those who don’t. The law recognized the differences which exist in the ultra-Orthodox population and so tried to adjust the terms of enlistment to get as close to full equality as possible.

But the Equality of National Burden law doesn’t just contribute to the security and internal cohesion of Israel. It contributes to the lives of young ultra-Orthodox men who dream of entering the workforce, who want to take part in the blessed project of building this country for their own future and the future of their children.

Rather than railing against it in public, ultra-Orthodox Knesset Members should have sung the praises of this law because it offers a gateway for tens of thousands of young ultra-orthodox men and women into Israeli society. That too is something they know and therein lays the problem; they know that the future of their children might be different.

The ultra-Orthodox Knesset Members attack the Judaism and religiosity of anyone who dared to support the law. That demands a response. The situation in Israel today in terms of subsidies for Torah study is not one which existed at any point in the history of the Jewish people. This situation is only possible because of the citizens of Israel who go to work every day and pay tax every month. Where is the gratitude of the ultra-Orthodox Knesset Members to all those people who pay for Torah study from their own pockets? In other words where is the gratitude to the people of Israel who make it possible for the ultra-Orthodox population to even consider studying Torah instead of going out to work?

I write all this not only as a Knesset Member, not only as a Maj. Gen (res.) in the IDF and a former head of the IDF’s Personnel Directorate but mostly as a citizen of Israel, a concerned citizen. I am full of hope that the ultra-Orthodox population won’t be swayed by the incendiary words of the Knesset Members who claim to represent them and that instead the connection between the ultra-Orthodox population and the rest of Israeli society will flourish as we all share in the burden and the blessing of securing Israel’s future.

About the Author
Elazar Stern is a Knesset Member with Yesh Atid. He served as a Major General in the Israel Defense Forces and as Head of the IDF Personnel Directorate. He is the Chair of the Knesset Lobby on Religion and State.
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