Was Corporal Klinger Charedi?

Since we moved back to Israel, our TV has remained blissfully unconnected to any of the suppliers. Our children watch DVD’s from time to time, we (well, mainly the Mrs, as I’m not too fussed) can catch up on bits and pieces from around the world via the wonders of the internet and I have the opportunity to give my M*A*S*H box set more airtime than ever before.

Those of you who are fans of the show (unless I’m the only one), will remember with fondness, great affection and more than just the hint of a smile, Lebanese fruit-loop Corporal Klinger. He spent eleven seasons (turning a three-year war into an eleven-year TV show takes some doing) dressing in women’s clothing, trying to prove that he didn’t fit in the army and escape the clutches of Korea, only to finally fall in love with a local girl and be the only character who stayed put when it was all over. If you haven’t seen the final episode, I’m sorry.

When I did my basic training (yes, I am religious, no, I’m not Charedi), we also had a Klingeresque fruit-loop in our unit. Except that instead of dressing in women’s clothing, he pulled his rifle, loaded, cocked and safety off, on one of the other soldiers. I’m not sure if he would ever have actually shot one of us, but the threat itself was real enough. The incident was reported to our superiors (in those days, anyone who’d been in the army longer than ten minutes was superior), and he was duly removed from service. From the minute we met, his one stated aim was to get out of his army service, using whatever means were at his disposal.

However, much to the surprise of many Israelis reading this amidst the current political debate, he was not religious.

There are plenty of people who shirk their military service for one reason or another. Scores, possibly hundreds of girls claim a religious exemption every year, despite going clubbing every Friday night and eating pepperoni pizza at every opportunity, and once out of the army, allegedly to serve in some sort of social role, then find ways to shirk that responsibility too.

There are the Corporal Klingers as well; claiming psychiatric issues where none exist.

Every so often, one will take that charade one step too far and pull a gun on one of his colleagues.

Trying to force the ultra-Orthodox Charedi population into serving is something that I believe is being done more for political point-scoring than for reasons of equality. The Israeli-Arab population is being tasked to serve some sort of civil service (small c, small s) rather than a military one for the obvious reason of not taking up arms against their fellow Arabs, but the Charedi community is being asked specifically to increase their numbers in the army.

Over the past few years, the number of Charedi recruits has slowly been growing, a fact that is being overlooked, either accidentally or deliberately, depending on where the observer stands in the political chaos. It’s a change that is occurring not due to coercion, but due to a new outlook on several fronts by many in the Charedi community. First and foremost is that a life of poverty is something that is just not good enough any more. Army service is the springboard used by many to help them lead successful lives back in their own neighbourhoods in the civilian world, using skills, knowledge and expertise gained in the military.  Secondly, there is a trickle of understanding that an army life can still in many ways be a religious life. That could be through ensuring that army bases are kosher, that religious laws are adhered to, or that just the essence of serving to protect fellow Jews is Torah law itself.

Coercion, however, by way of telling this population that they must serve their fair share is going to be met by a huge wave of negative response, whatever form that may take. Too many don’t see themselves as a part of that “fair share” and therefore don’t take too kindly to being asked to serve within it.

I do have to wonder, as well as everything else, whether the army as a whole is ready to recruit and accommodate these extra thousands of potential soldiers every year, with everything that it would mean. Strictly kosher rations would have to be provided. The ones provided are kosher, but not to a level of supervision accepted by most of the Charedi world.

Female instructors would be a no-no. This would prove an almost impossible rearrangement on any sort of large scale. Many of the skills taught in the army are taught by women, from tank driving to sniper skills to physical fitness to basic training in non-combat units, where I suspect many of the Charedi world would find themselves.

Accommodating far more married service personnel with all that that entails, due to the fact that these men tend to marry at a much younger age than the general population would also prove a large challenge.

The solution must be a two-way street. The Charedi world has to be honest with itself and with the outside world, and realise that there is an outside world of which they are an integral part. Using phrases like “Better to be killed than to serve in the army,” as has been done at many a demonstration, is no less a distortion of the true Torah than the eating pepperoni pizza on Yom Kippur.

The outside world has to realise that dragging Charedi men kicking and screaming into an army that serves an ideal that isn’t theirs will only lead to more Corporal Klinger scenarios of all kinds – including the unauthorised use of readily available firearms.

There are options, civil service not least amongst them, that whilst not necessarily politically popular, could be solutions to a problem that just isn’t going away.

Instead of fighting these communities, passing laws that they won’t accept and setting up commissions and committees in which they play no part; instead of using blinkered laws in order to try to force their hands, the leaders of these communities need to be a part of the decision making process.

Perhaps, for those who would not fit into the military establishment, instead of studying Torah for 12 hours a day, a compromise could be reached by which study would be for 6 hours and the other half day dedicated to improving the world around them; be that cleaning the often unkempt Charedi neighbourhoods, or teaching children who need the extra help, or a myriad of other social possibilities.

A huge part of Israeli society sees the Charedi world as freeloaders, gaining a great deal of benefit whilst putting very little back into society. It’s an outlook that can be changed, even if not necessarily, or uniquely through military service.

Time must be up for political point-scoring, on both sides. 

The army may not be the ideal spiritual environment that is experienced in the Yeshiva world, but for this Torah world to exist and flourish as it does in the Land of Israel, more since the establishment of the State of Israel than at any other time in the history of the Jewish People, the army is both a reality and a necessity.

For the State of Israel to retain its image, develop its potential and beam with rightful pride as the one and only Jewish state, it needs a Torah world within.

Now, both sides of the equation need to meet, put aside their differences and see how each can be of benefit to the other as well as to themselves.

About the Author
An Israeli who's returned home after ten years serving the London public as a Paramedic. Author of