Monday, May 14, 2012


The IDF and Charedim

by Reb Akiva @ Mystical Paths

I was contacted by a French Canadian reporter for information about Charedim (the Jewish ultra-orthodox) in Israel and the Israeli Army.  The reporter sent me these questions:

- do you know if more and more haredim are going to the army? And how much?

- how do you perceive the fact to go to the army? isn't it contradictory with one of the commandment "don't kill"?

- do haredim people are doing more the civil service than the military service? if yes what kind and when (after the wedding?)

- what could be the evolution in next year? do you expect more units like the nachal charedi (the Israeli army ultra-orthodox combat battalion) to develop ? is it successful (I saw some letters complaining about the rules which are not respected)

- what do you think about the invalidation of the Tal law?

Here was my lengthy response and analysis…

1. Over the past 5 years the army has created a series of units designed for the needs of the ultra-orthodox Jewish Israeli.  This means the units make sure the food provided is the highest standards of kosher, the units are single gender for their full command structure and the bases or base areas where they are located are single gender and don't tend to interact with mixed gender or opposite gender units, and their schedules allow for times for prayer (according to the daily Jewish schedule) and times for Torah (bible) study daily.

These units include:

The army Netach Yehuda (the Mighty Men of Judah) combat battalion.

The air force Blue and White aircraft electronics maintenance units.

The army intelligence Green and White intelligence analysis units.

These units and battalions are at 100% capacity, have waiting lists and require some "pull" to get into.  They have been judged a complete success and fully capable by the army.  Further, they have a higher rate of reenlistment and requests for officer training than almost any other IDF units.

So yes, charedim are entering the army as fast as the army is preparing capacity for them. 

2.  The modern state of Israel has an unusual history.  Part of that history is a transfer of a Jewish religious-societal cultural conflict from Europe to the nascent state.  The founders of the modern state were out to avoid anti-semitism, which they did not understand, by removing the Jew from their host societies as well as building a "new Jew".  The new Jew did not huddle over ancient tomes in fear of attacks by non-Jews.  They stood proud and strong and rebuilt their homeland with the strength of their arms.

Following World War II, Israel had a population influx of religious Jewish survivors of the Holocaust with no where else to return.  Following the creation of the State of Israel, another influx (over the next 10 years) of religious and traditional Jews arrived from Arab countries (which systematically expelled their Jewish populations).

This resulted in a government and societal majority that was looking to build a modern future and bury a recent past of pogroms and the Holocaust, and a small but extremely dedicated minority that was completely dedicated to a full Jewish religious traditional life.

To prevent internal conflict, the government basically left the religious sector alone.  But they went a step further and isolated them, providing disincentives to continue their lifestyle while preventing them from having an impact on the rest of society.

Over the next 64 years Israel build and developed a fully modern country.  The religious sector recovered from the Holocaust and rebuilt the religious institutions of Judaism to the level they were before World War II.  The latter was not expected by the secular majority, who had expected the religious sector to fade away into a modern secular society.

Instead the religious sector grew as a proportion to the general society.  Like most modern Western societies, modern Israelis had smaller families and people focusing exclusively on career instead of having children.  But Jewish religious society, continuing to follow the religious goals and morals, continues to focus on family and children and has larger families.

The result is the religious, as a proportion of society, have grown from a small minority to a significant minority.  In some parts of the country, 40-50% of the school age children are from religious and/or ultra-religious families. 

Both sections of Israeli society face a major coming change from this trend.  Secular society has to accept that the religious sector will be a major portion of Israel's future and create the paths for them to integrate and gain in capabilities to do so.  They find this a major major challenge as it means they have to accept what they've previous determined was worthless and would fade away, and they have to cede some of their power structure to a different societal segment.

The religious society faces an equal challenge.  They isolated themselves from the negative influences of secular society, and since secular society was actually out to get them, they defined them as 'the other who's out to get us'. 

An example of this is army service.  While the secular created an army exemption so the religious could remain in their religious study houses, when the religious did enter the army they were frequently harassed and placed into situations that directly challenged their religious practice.  Further, exempted Jewish religious CANNOT LEGALLY WORK or study career or educational tracks (only religious tracks) UNTIL AGE 30.  (Note that this limitation is focused on exempted JEWISH religious – exempted Muslim Israelis have no such limitation.)

But today, due to demographic trends I discussed above, the army must prepare situations to allow the religious to serve if it’s going to maintain it’s draft levels over the next 20 years.  On the other side of the spectrum, religious society growth demands more economically successful families meaning they cannot delay (legal) working until age 30.  Both sides are being forced by demographics to abandon their previous positions.  Neither is doing so willingly or with pleasure.

Changing societal positions is a generational change if it’s going to happen without major upheaval.

3. "isn't it contradictory with one of the commandment "don't kill"?" 

The commandment is not "don't kill", it's "don't murder".  Killing in self defense is not murder.  The Jewish orthodox communities of Israel do not avoid army service due to religious incompatibilities with army duty, they avoid it due to religious incompatibilities with Israeli army _culture_ - which has been highly secularly oriented.

A simple example of this a recent controversy over singing in the army.  The IDF maintains moral singing troops, mixed gender singing bands, which sing at the end of army ceremony's.  Jewish religious law states it's inappropriate for men to listen to women singing publicly who are not members of their own family.  The army forced a group of religious officer candidates to attend such a ceremony with the mixed gender singing.

Judaism is not a religion of pacifism.  Jews, as a persecuted minority in the countries where they lived, were usually not allowed to own weapons nor be involved in military or martial training.  But Jews are engendered by their religion to defend themselves, their neighbors and community, against those who would kill them or subjugate them.  This has simply not been possible until the return of the State of Israel.

While Judaism is not a religion of pacifism, it's also not a religion of aggression.  Jews ARE NOT engendered to "conquer the infidel", kill or subjugate the other.  Any non-Jew or non-religious-Jew has and would have full rights and protections in any Jewish religious society (and certainly has such rights today in Israeli society).

4. The future is bright but societal change is a slow process.  Nachal Charedi (renamed Netzach Yehuda, which I talked about above) is full.  The army must continue to create additional units that are compatible with charedi lifestyle but is doing so only gradually.  Similarly, the percentage of charedim entering the military is low but growing steadily.

Economic statistics for Israel show a steadily and significantly increasing percentage of full time workers among the charedim, and charedi oriented technical colleges are operating at 100% capacity [for example the Charedi Institute for Technological Studies in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak].  This is another area where the government could increase support with a direct economic and societal benefit.  It’s also one that could be done quietly and would be seen as non-threatening.

5. Is Nachal Charedi successful?  Like any new organization, it has growing pains.  It's actually above capacity, and some units have been spun off outside the main battalion.  This is where you are hearing complaints from, as some are being placed in areas with more integration than planned or desired. 

There's a reverse complaint you may not have heard about... the Nachal Haredi combat soldiers who completed their service are complaining that they ARE NOT being called back for combat reserve duty.  Reserve duty is a major pain for former Israeli soldiers, who sometimes have to leave their work and families for weeks at a time every year.  Here a group of charedi soldiers is demanding to take their part of the burden.

6. The invalidation of the Tal law could have caused political chaos.  10 years ago it surely would have. 

You missed a good question though, why was it invalidated and why now?  The answer is the completely secular run Israeli Supreme Court is getting in it's last shots at the weakening the religious.  Why last shots?  Because a significant portion of the lower court judges are now religious and will clearly be part of the Supreme Court over the next generation.  The aggressively and (almost) exclusively secular portion of the Israeli justice system is nearing retirement.

The surprise is the Israeli political system has significantly matured over the past 10 years.  It's working it's way through the problem without threats, fits, strikes or protests.

(I wrote this before the almost-elections and then the super-national-unity coalition being formed in Israel – but this problem was one of the drivers of that formation.)

Another compromise will come together.  The exact form is not clear.  But the charedim will take a more active role in Israel (note I didn't say integrate, but rather step up and take a more active role), both as part of the army and economically.  And the secular society will accept that Israel, as a Jewish State, should put aside and support a select segment of the population to be focused on religious studies.  After all, every country needs some morality and the Holy Land should be keeping a vibrant Judaism.

None of this means everyone will be happy, that there won't be protests, that there won't be fanatics and some societal conflicts.  But Israel is undergoing a generational change right now, both among the secular society and charedi society.  Among the secular, Israeli president Shimon Peres is the last active leader of his generation. 

Among the religious, the past few years have seen the passing of most of the previous generation of Torah scholars, with only perhaps 3 remaining from that older generation (who are all in their 90's!)

One final demographic note.  In Jerusalem, 55% of elementary school students are religious or charedi.  In the IDF, 50% of junior officers are religious (not charedi though). 

The future is not a hope, it's in front of us today. 


  1. Akiba you put all my hopes, aspirations and ideas into words, you are brilliant!! Hashem Bless you and keep you safe.

  2. Reb Akiva,

    Thank you so much for providing this vital information.

    I was particularly shocked to read that the legal working age in Israel, for Haredi Jews only, SET BY THE SECULARS, is 30. I don't want to hear one more word from a secular about how bad it is that Haredim do not work. Seculars should wake up and smell the Turkish coffee they have made! Haredim are not going away, as they had thought. Setting the working age so unreasonably high for one group hurts everyone.

    I was by a family this past Shabbat where I was witness to a vociferous argument between our host and one of the guests over Haredi service in the army (the host was against; the guest, for.). Finally this thought was interjected: The Israeli state and its army are only the "reishith smichath geulathenu" (first flowering of our redemption), not the whole redemption!

    Here's something else for your French Canadian reporter: The holy warrior Gid'on (Gideon) would cry out in anger over a situation where army men are forced to deal with women. His victorious army of 300 against 10,000 (or whatever it was) had only MEN. Deal with it. I have to - I'm a woman myself.

    If people knew that the only reason the Haredim resist army service is the army culture -- because the seculars insist on forcing religious Jews to violate their morality for the sake of the army culture the seculars created -- seculars would not have a word to say. It is their fault, after all, that there isn't enough room for Haredim to take their place beside their brothers in army service.

    Many thanks for letting me rant a little.

    CDG, Yerushalayim

  3. Akiva, very, very good analysis.

    CDG, the legal working age is high because the Haredi students are getting paid a learning stipend while they learn. This is essentially unemployment insurance. It would not be unfair fo them to study and work at the same time on top of their army exemption. If they are caught, there are some unpleasant consequences.

    A small correction, the Nachal haharedi is packed because of a mostly Hardali infiltration.

    And some comments:
    A) subconsciously, the seculars want the haredim in the army and more involved in society because they 1) want someone else to do the work instead of, not beside, them 2) on the other hand, they are sick of being secular and influenced by modern pop culture and want more Judaism in there lives. I see this at work. A minority do not like my divrei torah, but most are either tolerant and even openly encouraging at informal meetings.

    B) in other parts of the world, in order to combat unemployment, it is a good idea to simply remove a certain population from the workforce. I think in one place I've head, higher learning is encouraged in order to keep young people out of the workforce for as long as possible. No secular is saying it yet, but more Haredim in the workforce means that they are taking jobs previously held by non-Haredim.

    P.S. Just one little typo that might make a differnet meaning "The IDF maintains moral singing troops" should be morale, otherwise we might think that these were propaganda troopes.

  4. pervious comment by josh, I cannot seem to register my name.

  5. Dovid from ModiinMay 16, 2012 11:41 PM

    I am Dati Leumi and are considering a Michiana learning program for one or two years and then a Nachal Charadi unit for my sons.


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