If They Give, They Will Receive

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In this response to the Supreme Court ruling on the Tal Law, IDI Senior Researcher Yair Sheleg asserts that the exemption of ultra-Orthodox men from military service is an unparalleled Hillul Hashem—a desecration of the Name of God. In his opinion, the only justification for exemption from service is the incompatibility between the ultra-Orthodox way of life and the norms of military life. While Haredim may ask that this gap be accommodated, they should not demand it. Moreover, in return for their exemption from military service, the ultra-Orthodox should either perform equivalent alternative service or forfeit the benefits they receive from the State.

The most infuriating thing about the ultra-Orthodox response to the Supreme Court decision that voided the Tal Law, which exempts yeshiva students from serving in the army, is the tone of entitlement of the Haredim: their defiant declarations that they will not serve in the army no matter what, and everyone else can jump in a lake. This is infuriating both because of the brazen defiance of the rule of law, and the underlying assumption that the political power of the Haredi community enables them to do whatever they want. (The latter, unfortunately has been shown to be true in recent decades.) It is also infuriating because beyond the learned arguments and debates, the question of whether the ultra-Orthodox should be exempt from military service is first and foremost a supreme moral question.

In truth, it is difficult to imagine any kind of justification for such blatant discrimination between one person's blood and another's. It is difficult to justify the assumption that secular and religious Zionist young men should be drafted for three years of compulsory service and many years of reserve duty, and that many of them should serve in life-threatening jobs, while an entire sector of society is exempt from sharing the burden. (It should be noted that Israeli Arabs are exempt as well, but in their case, the reason for the exemption is more understandable.) Indeed, it is hard to imagine a greater moral evil in all of Jewish history (!), particularly if we are speaking about a moral injustice that is organized and institutionalized.

When you consider that the sector in question is religious, the exemption of Haredim from military service is probably also one of the greatest cases of a Hillul Hashem—desecration of the Name of God—in Jewish history. In this context, it is worth quoting Maimonides, who in one of the first chapters of his great halakhic work Mishneh Torah includes the following types of action in the definition of Hillul Hashem: "acts that are performed by someone great in Torah and renowned for his piety, which cause people to murmur about him, even though the acts themselves are not sins." In other words, if someone who claims to be representing the Torah's view incurs negative judgments from people, that act is considered to be a desecration of the Name of God even if it itself is not a transgression. Given this definition, is it possible to imagine a greater and more institutionalized Hillul Hashem than the mass evasion of the draft by ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel?

Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews, however, are not lowering their heads in shame; quite the contrary, they are taking to the streets to defend their right to continue desecrating God's Name, asserting that they will go to jail in droves if this right is infringed.

In all the arguments put forward by the ultra-Orthodox to justify their right to exemption from military service, there is only one argument that should be taken seriously, and it is not the claim that Torah study is what sustains the world. (It is possible to study Torah before and after serving in the army. In addition, the world—including the Jewish world—existed before Ben Gurion exempted all yeshiva students from military service. It must also be admitted that Torah study has not helped the Jewish people escape calamities, whether the destruction of the two Temples in ancient times or of European Jewry in the 20th century.) The only argument that should be taken seriously is the one that refers to the discrepancy between the ultra-Orthodox way of life and the norms of army life.

For all intents and purposes, the Haredi lifestyle is a military lifestyle. It is simply military service in an alternative army: the army of God. It has a detailed system of commands that governs all hours of the day and night, and its soldiers are totally subordinate to authority–to God and to God's representatives on earth, the halakhic authorities. It is true that Religious Zionism has a similar world view. But the religious Zionist community has voluntarily adopted the dilemma of dual loyalty to religion and state, and in order to avoid conflict between the two, it has granted the state and the army religious standing, such that subordination to the law of the State and to military commanders is considered to be a religious imperative. The Haredi world view, however, sees no conflict between subordination to the laws of the State and to Jewish law; Jewish law clearly trumps State law in cases of conflict between the two. Moreover, there is no need for Jewish law to adapt in order to respond to the needs of the State, according to the ultra-Orthodox world view.

In theory, the competing sets of rules should make it difficult for ultra-Orthodox Jews to function in civil society, whether in non-Jewish society, or—how much more so—in secular, Jewish society, which the ultra-Orthodox believe should be bound by Jewish law. Haredi Jews, however, solve this dilemma in two ways: First, they legitimize a certain amount of internal compromise, since they have to be able to live somewhere. Second, they are able to resolve this conflict because everyday civilian life is not as all-encompassing as military life, certainly not in terms of its ideological demands. A Haredi Jew can have deep, unwavering moral loyalty to the laws of the Torah, while at the same time living a reasonable day-to-day life in the workforce and participating in the other systems of everyday civilian life.

The military, in contrast, is different. It demands total loyalty and total commitment. It is not by chance that when young Israelis receive their first Israeli identity card, a moment that symbolizes the receipt of citizenship (Israelis actually receive citizenship at birth), they are not required to take a pledge of allegiance, but when they become soldiers, they are. As a result of this requirement, Haredi fear of the army is compound and understandable: They are threatened by an ideological system that requires total commitment and serves as an alternative to their way of life, and they have a practical fear of a system that takes control of all their time and demands all of their emotional energy during their military service. This is the reason for the fear that serving in the army may challenge the identity of Haredi soldiers. (Experience has proven that many religious Zionist soldiers become secular during their military service, and that the army is the most common framework that encourages secularization among members of the religious Zionist community.) It is very difficult to impose this requirement on the ultra-Orthodox public.

How should the tension between the injustice of the draft exemption and the injustice of imposing military service on a population when it conflicts with their identity be handled? What should have happened is that the Haredim themselves should have recognized this tension and should have respectfully approached Israeli society at large with a request–not with demands, not with defiance, and not with threats of going to jail. They should have acknowledged that their exemption from military service is a problematic form of discrimination, and asked that Israeli society agree to exempt them from service out of respect for their lifestyle, which is incompatible with military life. They then should have offered to find ways to compensate society in return for their exemption. Had this happened, general society should have agreed to the exemption. The two sides could then have decided how the ultra-Orthodox would contribute significantly to Israeli society (other than by studying Torah in order to protect the state of Israel), in order to compensate, at least partially, for their lack of military service.

In the absence of such agreement, the aforementioned tension can be resolved in one of two ways: Israeli society can either forcefully impose an alternative form of service to society on the Haredi community, or it can forcefully extend the separatist world view of the Haredim to include rights, not just obligations. The first option would require Haredim to perform alternative civil service in areas such as welfare and health. The second option would be patterned after the Edah HaHaredit, a radical anti-Zionist branch of the ultra-Orthodox community in Jerusalem that has a model which is more moral than the models found in most ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel. The members of the Edah Haredit do not contribute to the state, but they do not take from the state either (at least not officially), voluntarily waiving the state's participation in their lives. In other words, ultra-Orthodox Jews who request an exemption from military service will be required to agree that in so doing, they are giving up on state assistance with mortgages, discounts on municipal taxes, and other benefits, especially state financing of their yeshiva studies. There is even room to consider excluding ultra-Orthodox representatives from making security decisions, just as Israelis who have emigrated from Israel and Jews from other places in the world are not entitled to vote in the Israeli elections, on the (legitimate) grounds that those who are not partners in paying the price cannot take part in making decisions. Should this rule not equally apply to ultra-Orthodox participation in security decisions?

It is also possible to set guidelines that would indicate which of the two options proposed is preferred. For example, if the Haredim recognize the injustice of not serving in the army and are willing to cooperate in designing an alternative, then the first option of alternative service is preferable. But if the Haredi community continues with the current trend, the second option of withholding benefits will be chosen.

What is clear is that the status quo, in which ultra-Orthodox are not required to perform an alternative form of service in compensation for their exemption from army service but receive benefits even though they never served their country, is a distorted and outrageous situation that cannot continue. Even those who claim that it is important to be "smart, not right" should remember that the gap between wisdom and justice should not be too big. If there is too much of a divide between the two, the 'smart' decision may elicit responses that are so negative, that in the end, the decision will be neither right nor smart.

Yair Sheleg is a Senior Researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute.