Thursday, March 14, 2013


Army or Torah (in Israel)?

by Reb Akiva @ Mystical Paths

1948With an issue is so full of hyperbole and misunderstandings, I thought I’d shed a few facts and infobits on the subject.


As the demographics of Israel change, the tiny percentage of ultra-orthodox Jewish religious population exempted from the compulsory national draft is growing into a noticeable percentage, with the potential to affect IDF army manpower in the future and causing complaints of fairness now.  The exemption was part of the cultural balance (the religious “status quo”) put in place to respect and support Judaism after World War II and the Holocaust by the founders of the State of Israel.

The Reality:

Currently, approximately 8,000 ultra-orthodox Jewish 18-year old men qualify for the draft.  Of those 8,000, ~2,000 serve in the army.  Another 1,200 take an approved alternative of national-social service.  The remaining get either exemptions due to Jewish Torah Study or attempt to receive exemptions due to health or family circumstance.

Meaning ~40% of the ultra-orthodox Jewish young men serve the country.

(We’re not going to talk about the women.  Any woman in Israel can get an automatic religious exemption by declaring a religious objection to army service.  Across Israel in general, 41% of women do not service, 59% do, and almost none from the ultra-orthodox community serve.)

How’s this compare with the general (Jewish) population?

“Among men 25% do not enlist (meaning the national average is 75% who do enlist) while 40.9% of women do not enlist to the IDF.”

So the difference between the ultra-orthodox Jews of Israel and the rest of the population is… 35%.


The Israeli army, like most armies, has developed it’s own cultural environment.  Due to a small population, the Israeli army is renowned for the integration of women (who often act as trainers) and cultural indoctrination (the army takes it’s people on cultural field trips, pounds in ideas about new-jew zionism and the greatness of the founders, and has various cultural events such as modern music concerts). 

In the current generation, as the number of Jewishly religious soldiers has increased (moderate Jewish orthodox as well as fervently orthodox), complaints about a culture not compatible with their religious ideals grows louder.  (One would be hard pressed to argue that forcing troops to stay as part of concerts with female singers and having army bands at every event with female singers makes a difference to the fighting ability of the army.)

Haul Them Away:

"A universal draft of the ultra-orthodox is not necessarily in the best interest of the military," the State claimed in a brief filed with the High Court of Justice.  The State said that the complex preparations required from the IDF ahead of the draft strains the military's current resources and that a larger draft "is not feasible and will hurt the military."

The State argues that a universal draft will force the IDF to invest considerable funds in infrastructure… Absorbing such numbers into the military required the IDF to build more dedicated bases, so to accommodate the ultra-orthodox soldiers' demand for the separation of men and women, as well as create new men-only battalions, for the same reason.

Another challenge, according to the State, is the IDF's own ability to screen religious candidates – a process which also mandates the formation of all-male teams in every level of the induction bases: interviewers, doctors, placement coordinators and so on.

The IDF will also have to create a special series of aptitude tests, suited for the background and way of life of potential fervently Orthodox recruits.  (Meaning, for examples, current tests may check memory by how many secular song lyrics one knows, a new test would check how many mishnayot one knows.)

nachal"More and more ultra-orthodox want to join the IDF. The government has to stop trying to buy time and create real solution that will enable them to enlist and share the burden."  "The reality is that there are thousands of ultra-orthodox young men waiting in line for the Nahal Haredi (ultra-orthodox combat battalion) and unfortunately the army isn't drafting them.”

The IDF has created 3 primary programs for ultra-orthodox recruits.  All 3 programs are at maximum capacity and are NOT being expanded.

One might ask, why not just grab them and shove them into regular army service?

The answer – these young men, who’s grandfathers or great-grandfathers went through the Holocaust and often sacrificed their LIVES for their Jewish religious principles, do you honestly think you’re going to turn them into an EFFECTIVE fighting force while forcing them to violate a lifetime of firm religious upbringing?

Making the question even more disgusting is there is NO REASON their religious principles have to be violated!  It’s “merely” a secular army culture uncomfortable accommodating an increasingly religious one.

But where’s that culture come from?  As Israel Matzav shared

The secular/political Zionist dream was to create – along with a Jewish homeland – a completely new definition of the Jew and the Jewish People; a Jewishness that unambiguously excluded the concept of a covenantal people loyal to the Torah and the commandments. In other words, the Judaism that had sustained the Nation of Israel for the previous 3,400 years was to be discarded and replaced with a modernistic amalgamation of nationalism, socialism, enlightened western culture, and ethnic Jewish identity…

This obsession with creating a “new Jew” even trumped the basic values of Jewish brotherhood, the imperative that all Jews are responsible for one another, and that nothing takes precedence over saving lives. David Ben-Gurion shockingly wrote the following in 1938, one month after Kristellnacht:

“If I knew it was possible to save all [Jewish] children of Germany by their transfer to England and only half of them by transferring them to Eretz-Yisrael, I would choose the latter—-because we are faced not only with the accounting of these [Jewish] children but also with the historical accounting of the Jewish People.”…

It is against this backdrop that the conflict arose over mandatory army service. Under no circumstances was the fervently orthodox community prepared to put their young sons – during the most impressionable years of their lives (18-21 years of age) – in the hands of a government that looked at their way of life with disdain, contempt, and outright hatred; a government that was even prepared to murder other Jews to achieve their goals.

David Ben-Gurion realized that any attempt to force the issue would result, literally, in civil war. The government reluctantly amended the draft law to exclude orthodox men who were learning full time in Yeshivot (rabbinical seminaries). However, none of these men would be permitted to work legally unless they did Army service. This act of spiteful cruelty was a typical outgrowth of the unbridled arrogance of Ben-Gurion and his ilk. The message to the Hareidi community was the following:

“If you don’t do it our way, we will strip you of your basic human dignity; that is to say, the ability to work and support oneself and one’s family. If you want to live your way of life you will be forced to live on either government handouts or charity.”

In other words, the Hareidim effectively became 2nd class citizens in the new State of Israel. After forcing the Hareidi community into this situation and forbidding them to work unless they toed the secular-Zionist line, they then accused them of being “parasites” because they didn’t work!

The “parasite” canard along with the accusation that the Hareidim refuse to “share the burden” of serving in the army, has been used as a stick with which to beat the Hareidi community since the founding of the State of Israel. It has also been effectively used by secular ideologues to demonize Hareidim among non-observant Israelis.

The Choice:

The State of Israel provides a life destroying option regarding exemptions from army service…for RELIGIOUS JEWS. Those receiving an army exemption due to Jewish Torah Study may not legally work until after age 30. (Israeli Arabs may simply post a conscientious objection and get a full exemption with no penalty.)

This is pushing an increasing percentage among the ultra-orthodox community into army service and national-social service.  Yet both programs are NOT growing to meet the increasing pressure to participate…

“The number of yeshiva students interested in joining civil service is much higher, but due to the situation created following the cancelation of the Tal Law – many are prevented from joining the system.” 

The recruits are young men over the age of 26 who have no children, or men aged 22 with one child or more, who will choose between a service of 40 weekly hours for a year or 20 weekly hours (part time) for two years.

Minister Hershkowitz rejected the public criticism against the government's decision to approve the Defense and Science and Technology ministries' proposal to operate a "preserving national service," which would stop ultra-orthodox from losing their faith in the system and prevent a lack of volunteers.

"It is unthinkable that ultra-orthodox begging to volunteer will not be allowed to do so," he said.


The Israeli army faces a long term demographics problem with increasing population percentages of religious and ultra-religious Jews (also increasing percentages of Arab Israeli’s).  But generals from kibbutzim (a socialist collective upbringing of the past) are struggling to find solutions without being able to understand the culture or perspective of their future recruits.

Similarly, the fervently orthodox community is increasingly looking for opportunities as it outgrows narrow neighborhoods and charitable support of previous generations (from outside Israel) falls.

But the religious Jewish community is used to being persecuted (see: most of Jewish history in the diaspora) and is quick to see any societal pressure through that lens.

Similarly, the older generation of Israeli power brokers (including army generals and politicians, who have often swapped places from one to the other) are used to pushing the country around however they want. 

Change is is the Air:

Clearly the status quo must change as the demographics of Israel are changing (with the orthodox and fervently orthodox having children at double the rate of the rest of Israeli Jews). 

After generations of NOT BEING ALLOWED TO WORK, much of the ultra-orthodox community has become used to not working.  And as a growing percentage of the populace, generating economic activity and taking part in national defense is becoming increasingly important.

But will the secularists of Israel take this as an opportunity to adjust the system or try to CRUSH THE CHAREDIM?  Will they drop the “can’t work until age 30” law?  Will they accept charedi education credentials as equal to secular ones?  (For example, should one have to pass a national test on zionism as part of the “bagrut” to work as a clerk in the social security office, or is a rabbinic degree an equal demonstration that one can read, write and interact with the public?)  Will they work with the yeshivot to create national service and army programs which a reasonable percentage of the charedim will join?

Or are they more worried about the historical cultural agenda of the Israel army?  Are they more worried about women being able to act as commanders of men, or about the men being there? 

(Some of the objections stated against the religious army programs is they don’t offer opportunities for them to be commanded by women – meaning their objection is offering a position for an orthodox Jewish men’s unit is taken as reducing command opportunities for women.)

So far all news reports are the new Israeli government, if one successfully forms (still questionable as I write this), will go down the FORCE IT DOWN THEIR THROATS route…

…because the religious Jewish community is not used to persecution. (sarcasm)

Good luck with that.


  1. Thank you for this fantastic post! I couldn't agree more. Could you please tell me where your statistics come from vis a vis the numbers of chareidim in the army, etc because it's helpful to have a place to point people to when discussing all these issues.

  2. My numbers are from a variety of news articles plus publicly available army recruitment numbers, and reports of unit capacity for the charedi programs published in army outreach booklets.

    The big exaggeration in the news is the counting of all charedi men and women aged 18-30, and making a general statement as if they all avoided army and national service and they could all be picked up and put into the army.


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