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IDF Exemptions: The Crucial Distinction
The Significance of Individuals vs. Communities
The following post contains some very harsh statements. But I believe that it is essential to our national survival to make them, and to make them now.
In my earlier post, What Charedim need to understand about Religious Zionists, I explained the Religious Zionist perspective that there is a universal obligation to serve in the army, and therefore those who shirk this obligation in order to learn Torah do not provide any merit with their Torah study. I compared it to learning Torah on Tisha B’Av or instead of helping one’s wife, and described it as mitzva ha-ba b’aveira, a mitzva that comes about through a sin. I also explained that it is offensive to many Religious Zionists when those who are not risking their lives in the army speak of learning in yeshiva as being of equal or greater merit.
In response to the first point, someone argued that surely they are simply following their rabbis, and therefore their Torah is learned legitimately, and is of merit. Others argued for technical differences from situations that are classified as mitzva ha-ba b’aveira. And in response to the second point, about the offensiveness, some objected that any resentment against charedim who don’t serve must stem from anti-charedi hatred, not any genuine frustration, because nobody resents Religious Zionists who serve in safe non-combat positions.
All of these rejoinders have the same flaw. One has to understand the difference between individuals and communities.
Most individual charedi yeshiva students cannot be expected to join the IDF. Serving in the army is extremely difficult. Those who join the army have spent eighteen years preparing for it, growing up in an entire culture that prepares them physically, mentally and emotionally. Boys who have grown up in a sheltered charedi environment, never even having played organized sports, are simply not equipped. They could fulfill a non-combat role, but even that is a tough ask of individuals, since it would mean going against their families and communities.
However, on a community level, there is simply no justification for an entire community, nearing a third of the population of young people, to demand a wholesale exemption from the mitzva, mesirat nefesh, hardship and risks that every other community in Israel takes upon itself with army service. The responsibility for this lies at every level - the rabbinic and political/askan leadership in particular, but also everyone who is part of the community. And you can’t claim support from revered rabbis who lived at a time when charedim were only a tiny fraction of the population, or trot out Aggadic statements without any serious analysis of their parameters. Nobody uses the concept that “Torah protects” to exempt themselves from things that really matter to them, such as medical care or getting government funding. This is a community which, at a communal level, is not serious about national responsibilities.
(Some attempt to counter that the charedi community does not demand exemption for the entire community, just for those in full-time learning. But that is false. The exemption is demanded for everyone technically enrolled in yeshivah. No attempt whatsoever is made to check who is actually learning, and every attempt is made to make everyone enroll in yeshivah. They want the financial subsidies that come with having students on the books, and they want all charedi boys to be spared the challenges that army service poses to continuing as part of the charedi community. The “Nachal Charedi” division, while of great value, is comprised of Dati-Leumi boys and charedim on the extreme fringes of charedi society, and is not part of the mainstream charedi community. Furthermore, even if the charedi community would be open to sending those that are not really learning, there are still tens and tens of thousands of men who really are engaged in full-time learning, and that’s still a massive population to be exempt)
Israel needs charedim to enlist for two reasons. One is out of a societal responsibility to share the burden. It is simply intolerable for the rest of us in Israel that we risk our men and sons, whereas the charedi community does not. The great chessed currently being done by many people in the charedi community is appreciated, but (A) it still does not remotely compare to army service, and (B) it’s not a communal effort; it’s still only a fraction of the charedi community, and it’s generally not done by those in yeshivah, for whom it is actively opposed by rabbinic leadership. There are around 400,000 men in uniform right now (the standing forces along with the reserves), and virtually none are charedi. Meanwhile, there are 150,000 deferrals for chareidim in yeshiva. The dati-leumi, mesorati and secular communities attend funerals and fear countless more, including of their loved ones and friends and neighbors, and the charedi community, for the most part, does not. Moshe Rabbeinu’s rebuke, “Shall your brothers go to war while you remain here?” is as valid as ever, and just as the tribes of Gad and Reuven had to respond by saying that they agree to fight, the same is true here. And, for Heaven’s sake, don’t complain that this is lashon hara or harming achdus. There is no achdus, no Klal Yisrael, without shared responsibilities.
The second reason why charedim must enlist is that, as Yonason Rosenblum points out in a recent interview, the old charedi defense that “the army doesn’t need charedim” is now clearly seen to just not be true. What happens if we have to fight on multiple fronts? What happens if one day it’s not just Gaza, but also Palestinians of Judea and Samaria, accompanied by Israeli Arabs from Jerusalem and Lod and other towns, who decide to rise up against the Jews? The casualties across the country would be absolutely catastrophic. The two or three thousand charedim that are now joining the IDF in a supplementary capacity are nowhere near enough. We need hundreds of thousands more of our citizens to have army training, to increase the size of the reserves, and to know how to bear weapons effectively. It cannot be that charedi towns demand the IDF to provide soldiers to protect them (while simultaneously claiming that their Torah protects!) and do not provide even their own protection, let alone protection for others.
And the army also needs charedim to learn science and technology. It cannot be that charedi towns demand Iron Dome batteries to protect them (again, despite their claim that their Torah creates an effective Iron Dome), and do not provide brilliant minds to developing such technologies that Israel urgently needs to survive. And simultaneously the charedi community makes it more difficult for Israel to research and fund such technologies, by demanding ever-increasing portions of the national budget to support a rapidly growing underemployed population. (There have been fights at the Treasury as the reallocation of funds for the war is fought by charedi MKs who are demanding their huge coalition allocations for supporting yeshivos.) To quote Rosenblum from an earlier article, “who will fund the maintenance of the army if Israeli society is poor?”
This difference between the personal and communal also explains the rejoinder about nobody resenting non-charedim who serve in non-combat positions. It’s no different from families in the dati-leumi community in which their sons have medical exemptions, or they only have daughters who do sherut leumi. Nobody resents individuals who are exempt for technical reasons when they are part of a larger community which, ideologically and practically, bears its share of the military burden and of national responsibilities.
There is a serious national reckoning that needs to be done, and it needs to be done now. Israel is vastly more powerful than Hamas; they cannot destroy us. We will emerge, battered and wounded but victorious and wiser, from this terrible situation. But in just one generation, nearly half of the country’s 18-year-olds will be charedi. If Israel is socially, economically and militarily weakened by a rapidly growing sector of its population being uneducated, underemployed, and not serving in the army, we will not be able to survive future challenges.
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