We all make mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes snowball, go out of control and effect many people. They take on a life of their own and have unintended consequences.
In 1948, Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, exempted 400 exceptional yeshiva students from military service. This was meant as a tribute to the yeshivot that were destroyed in the Holocaust and as a way to rebuilt centers of Jewish learning that had been wiped out.
Today it is estimated that there are about 100,000 full-time yeshiva students not serving in the I.D.F. These men live in a different society than mainstream Israelis. They hold study as such a value that they never intend on serving the country or even finding employment. Instead, they live off of welfare provided by the State.
This puts a terrible drain on most Israelis as the ultra-Orthodox comprise approximately 10 percent of Israel’s 8 million citizens. The demographics demonstrate that this burden is only growing. The ultra-Orthodox unemployment rate is approximately 50% and their birthrate is high. It is common for ultra-Orthodox families to have close to 10 children, sometimes more. Today, a quarter of all Israeli first graders are ultra-Orthodox.
It is obvious when considering the demographics and the economics that the situation must change. However, changing a culture is not easy.
Israel has become greatly divided over this issue which extends past the draft into two very different mentalities. The ultra-Orthodox believe that they are contributing to society. One student at the elite Mir Yeshiva in Mea Shaarim said, “You have to understand, we are part of the Jewish army. Some people serve in tanks. We serve in yeshiva.” However other Israelis feel that the ultra-Orthodox are parasites being supported by hard-working and often struggling non-ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Einat Wilf, a former member of Knesset who describes herself as Zionist and aethiest says “I, for one, do not believe that their prayers are protecting soldiers and they can’t force their ways upon me. If they want to pray, fine, but not at my expense.”
And it is quite an expense. Not only do 18 year old Israelis have compulsory military service, their lives are disrupted for another twenty years when they are called away from work and family to serve in the reserves. This, together with the heavy taxes Israelis pay is a high cost to be paying while comparing oneself to people who do not serve in the military, do not work and who, instead of paying taxes receive benefits from the State coffers.
The government has decided to address the problem by changing the sixty-five year old policy with a bill being proposed not only to increase the amount of ultra-Orthodox men being conscripted, but to bring criminal charges against draft-dodgers.
The ultra-Orthodox community has reacted, fueling the cultural war which has been brewing for decades.
The entire community was mobilized in late February as hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews came from all over the country to attend what organizers called a “million-man protest” and a prayer rally, making it one of the largest in the country’s history. The city came to a standstill and the main highway between Jerusalem and Tel Avv was closed to all traffic except for emergency vehicles and bus loads of ultra-Orthodox protesters. The message of the rally was clear, the ultra-Orthodox community does not take its orders from the government. As Rabbi Zilberman, who was the final speaker declared, the demonstrators should not go to the army under any circumstances.
In the meantime, on the same day, the IDF General Chief of Staff Benny Gantz visited an ultra-Orthodox army unit and told them quite bluntly, “In Auschwitz they didn’t separate us and we all went to the ovens, no matter if we wore a kippa or not.” For many Israelis, the I.D.F. and a strong State of Israel is an imperative to Jewish survival – for all Jews. He told the troops that there continue to be threats to Jewish survival and that this demands that everyone be drafted, telling them that being ultra-Orthodox is no excuse: “It is possible to serve in the army and remain ultra-Orthodox.”
Like in all families, there are certain arguments that reoccur and bring out extreme emotions. Among Israelis, this is one of them. My secular cousin once yelled at his brother who had become ultra-Orthodox, “Why can’t you be more like Charlie. He studies, he wears a kippa, but he also works. Why do you have to be such a parasite?!”
I sat there thinking that we all come from such different worlds: The secular Israelis can not understand the mindset of the ultra-Orthodox who they feel try to coerce them into gender segregated buses and impose their way of life onto all of us while living off of our hard earned money. The ultra-Orthodox feel that they are living a Torah-True life, serving God and it is on account of this that Israel has been saved by God’s hands. The religious Zionists believe that there is merit in both ways of life: Earning a living and serving in the army as well as in keeping mitzvot (commandments) and engaging in study and prayer.
As Israel’s Economic Minister Naftali Bennett who represents the national religious party “The Jewish Home” (Bayit Yehudi) said, “military service is not a ‘decree, but rather a big mitzvah.”
I agree. The world is not black and white and we must learn to live with each other – inside the military and out. I feel blessed to be able to live in our Jewish State. Yes, it was a burden and source of extreme pressure and tension at times, but I am proud to have served in the IDF for close to twenty years. Israel is the only place we can fulfil our lives as both national and religious Jews. It is the only place a Jew can be complete and whole with himself.
While our founding fathers may have made mistakes the price of which we continue to pay, and while we may be divided and enraged with each other at times, we are all family and Israel is our home. On that, we can all agree.