This past Shabbat at my yeshiva was the annual “Shabbat Giyus”- the Shabbat to farewell all those students, including myself, who in a matter of weeks will be leaving the four walls of the study hall to enter into the Israeli Defence forces (IDF) as an integral component of our Hesder program. Sitting through words of encouragement from our Rabbis and seeing the parents of Israeli students gleam with pride has left me feeling very emotional. However that is not the only thing that is playing on my emotions.
Today, at the behest of the Torah world’s greatest sages, a mass protest will be taking place in Jerusalem with an expected turnout of nearly one million people. Their purpose? To demonstrate against the government and the soon-to-be laws which will require them to enlist for mandatory service in the IDF.
Most people have a preconceived notion about how people like myself feel about such a protest, namely, that as a proponent of military service I would oppose such an action and be in favour of inducting these individuals into the IDF. This couldn’t be further from the truth. No, not because I don’t think that Ultra-Orthodox Jews should increase their enlistment rates- I do. There are three key reasons why I am not against, perhaps even in favour of today’s protest.
Firstly, recent statements from top IDF officials have sent a very clear message- the IDF does not want Ultra-Orthodox soldiers in the army. Besides the clash between the historically secular army culture and religious culture, a large financial burden would be incurred as the army would need to induct people whom they do not have positions for. Equipment and food alone would range somewhere in the millions, certainly an undesirable outcome for a country already struggling to make ends meet.
The second issue involved is the current foreign affairs disaster that the country is embroiled in. Since its instalment, the current government has managed to make the Ultra-Orthodox issue the only issue. The average person on the street isn’t hearing about an impending threat from Hezbollah. The newspapers are not being flooded with stories concerning Israel’s chief security issues- and when foreign policy is spoken about, usually on account of the most recent ridiculous suggestion from John Kerry, it is quickly forgotten, because hey, we’ve got our own ‘problems’ here at home. This country needs to wake up and recognize that this isn’t our biggest problem. If we wake up tomorrow with no Israel, whether due to the fact that we ignore our security concerns or because our government gives it away, any discussion about who should be defending our land will be for naught. A protest like this is going to be exactly what we need to get the government to refocus their attention on the things that really matter or at the very least, it will serve to mobilize other groups to help achieve that goal.
Finally, and this is what compels me more than anything to not disapprove of the protest, is my religious commitment. As I sat through this Shabbat, watching parents with tears in their eyes, ready to send their boys off to the army, I felt an air of pride in the room. It was a pride that kept echoing itself in the words of our Rabbis “יש לכם זכות גדולה לשרת בצה”ל”- “you are being afforded a great privilege to serve in the IDF”. Really? A privilege? To lose a year and a half of your life to military service! But that’s exactly it- if we view IDF service as a privilege rather than a burden, our entire perspective changes. Why do we want to serve in the army? The national-religious camp could have also chosen the path of the Ultra-Orthodox and sought army exemptions, but it is precisely because we are religious that we saw the value in protecting the nation. How can I stand up and say of the Ultra-Orthodox “it’s not fair that they don’t serve when I have to”- I’m lucky that I have the opportunity to serve, and if they can’t see that, if they can’t see the huge privilege of serving in the IDF, if they can’t see the opportunity to sanctify G-d’s name even in an army setting, then I feel bad for them, but I don’t hate them for not seeing what I see.
This country is still young and its population still naïve. The current social and political arena is complicated and could spell unimagined success or utter destruction for the nation of Israel. We need to wake up. We need to wake up to the big issues- antisemitism, security and national sovereignty. We need to wake up and realize that what we thought was a good idea might end up killing us financially. We need to wake up and realize that when we do things that we believe in we are being afforded a privilege, not bearing a burden. I will not be attending today’s protest, but it is my ardent hope that perhaps an event of such proportions will provide us with a much needed awakening.