December 4 2012
The issue of Haredim (“ultra orthodox” Jews) and the Israeli Army (Israel Defense Forces, IDF) is a recurrent one in Israeli politics. In the early days of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion authorized an exemption from universal military service for what was at that time a small number of Torah scholars. Not too long ago, Israel’s Supreme Court declared the “Tal Law”—the most recent version of the law allowing exemptions for Haredim—to be unconstitutional.
I write this in early December 2012, a few days after Nov 29—Kaf Tet be-November, remembered by many as the date of the UN’s adoption of Resolution 181 in 1947, calling for the end of the British Mandate for Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish State as well as an Arab State and international zone. This year, on the 65th anniversary of that date, the UN adopted a resolution recognizing Palestine as a non-Member Observer State status. On the evening of Nov. 29, after ma’ariv ( the evening service), a religious neighbor suggested to me that the reason Israel was beset by Hamas on the one hand, and the UN vote favoring the PLO on the other, was the drafting of Haredim into the IDF.
I do not know how widespread this viewpoint is among Jews associated with the “Yeshiva” world. My interlocutor certainly looked surprised that I did not take this to be self-evident. In fact, the reasoning appears to me to be unacceptable, just as it is when the argument is that lack of Torah study or laxity in observance lead to the Holocaust, or (le-havdil, as Jews say when making such comparisons), when Pat Robertson suggested the cause of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation had to do with what he considered to be moral depravity. Moreover, if one were to accept this kind of logic, one could just as easily argue the Divine Will was to underscore the current need for defense, and thus yeshiva students not doing their part to serve in the Army are failing to observe the mitzvot of maintaining life, and of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel.
In August 2012, at the height of the discussion about the Tal Law, Rabbi Avraham Avidan came to Denver on a personal visit and gave a few talks at my synagogue. Although he spoke about many issues in halacha and concerning the Army, he did not discuss this issue at all. I took the liberty of a quiet moment to approach him to ask about the issue of Haredim and the Israel Defense Forces. The question makes sense, in that he has had a history of working with the IDF on issues in Jewish law, as well as directly with soldiers both in his yeshiva and in the army– and he noted that he clearly identifies with both the National Religious and the Haredi worlds (there are very few prominent Rabbis who are as clearly identified with both camps).
While I wrote up this note, I did not circulate it at that time, concluding that I had asked him privately about a matter he did not choose to discuss in public. If the position I heard Thursday night has any traction though, it is a good idea to make more people aware of Rabbi Avidan’s perspective. The rest of this posting (until the last lines) reconstructs my discussion with Rabbi Avidan, and is essentially unchanged from the note I wrote in mid-August 2012.
Rabbi Avidan appeared a little surprised by my question at first, although he quickly allowed that it is an important issue and that he is well-suited to be asked about it.
Ha-Rav Avidan noted that Haredi participation in the IDF is already rising, and that it appears that it will continue to do so. Among the reasons for this he noted a real problem of employment and income in the haredi sector, and that the there is no way that everyone can be supported in full time Torah study. He suggested that the most brilliant and committed will continue to study Torah full time, pretty much oblivious to the other problems, but others will not be able to do so. Moreover, there are many success stories of Haredim in the military–he pointed to computer programming and analysis, including military intelligence–saying that their studies have sharpened these types of analytic skills.
As an aside, aware that in contemporary Israeli political discourse, the issue is linked with the question of the other community that by and large does not serve in the IDF, Rabbi Avidan volunteered that he did not think there any way Arabs would be inducted into the army.
Another issue raised is the degree to which the IDF is prepared for an influx of Haredim. In his opinion, the issue of being present where there is singing is not the only one, not even the major one. As an example, he noted that there are now female commanders throughout the IDF. It is just not practical at present to have a mafakedet –a female commander—for Haredi men.
The process is moving slowly, but it would appear inexhorably: more Haredim are entering the Army and the IDF is slowly moving to find the best ways to have Haredi soldiers.
The unfortunate thing, according to Rabbi Avidan, is that this is now politicized–various politicians have concluded that taking various positions will help their career, and are proceeding without much practical thought as to just how to achieve the aim.
But the aim is an important one–it would appear that Rabbi Avidan believes the Haredi community not only is supplying more people to the Army, but must continue to do so. But, the political football has complicated this, and rather than promoting Haredi service, it makes it more difficult to move forward.
In the end, the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, the Arab Spring, the need to integrate Haredim into the Israeli economy and avoid widespread poverty will probably not be the most important factors in determining the degree to which Haredim integrate into the IDF or the timetable and frameworks for such integration. In the near future, considerations arising from negotiations and coalitions formed before and after the elections slated for January 2013 will be far more important.