By Elana Dure
Although some students disagree as to whether ultra-Orthodox Jews should fight in the Israeli army or not, they agree that the recent law forcing the Haredi community into the draft will only cause more backlash in Israeli society.
On March 12, the Israeli parliament, also known as the Knesset, voted yes in an overwhelming majority of 67-1 for a law that, starting in 2017, will force ultra-Orthodox Jews to fight in the Israeli Defense Forces and threatens incarceration for those who flee their duties.
Since 1948, those in the Haredi community were exempt from military service so long as they learned Torah in yeshivot or religious seminaries. These exemptions enraged secular Israelis who thought that those in the religious community were not doing their share as Israeli citizens to protect the nation.
“In a perfect world, there would be a volunteer army,” said Shuki Eisdorfer, a freshman mechanical engineering major. “In a less perfect world, those who do not belong in a yeshiva would go to the army in a way that accommodates their religious needs and those who belong in yeshiva would be able to stay there. But we neither live in a perfect nor a close to perfect world.”
Eisdorfer, like other students, understands why the Israeli government decided to pass the law.
“Their real goal is not to make the Haredim a fighting force, but to endow them with Israeliness,” said Eisdorfer. “All the threat of this law has done is reduce the number of Haredi recruits to virtually zero.”
Alexandra Lewyn, a freshman Jewish studies major, said “imposing a draft is only going to make Haredim more alienated.” She said the law stems from ignorance and a great disconnect between the secular and religious communities in Israel.
Many ultra-Orthodox Jews joined the army in the past through a program called Nezah Yehuda, the Haredi battalion in the Israeli Defense Force. Coercing all the Haredim into the army is not necessary, especially when there are already successful programs like Nezah Yehuda that slowly integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the military, Lewyn said.
Haredi rabbis and leaders showed strong dissent against the law and viewed it as anti-religious legislation. In Israel, as well as the diaspora, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews rallied against the bill.
“The Haredi community is so fearful of the spiritual integrity of the kids who join the army,” said Miriam Tarshish, a senior mechanical engineering major. “It’s going to create a lot of bitterness on both sides. Torah is their way of life and I don’t think this bill is going to change their way of life.”
Yosef Frenkel, a freshman letters and sciences major, said the Haredi community is against this law because they believe they are protecting the Jewish nation on a spiritual level by learning Torah and therefore don’t need to join the army as well.
“The fact that Haredim are so reluctant to join the army could just cause greater problems and not even be worth it for the Israeli government,” Frenkel said.
Rabbi Ari Israel, executive director of Maryland Hillel, agreed that the spiritual community is an important part of Israeli society, but said people still need to “contribute to the greater society beyond their own Torah learning,” whether that be through intelligence, military or national service.
Making the Haredi community a greater part of Israeli society was not the only goal of the government. According to Time Magazine, the Israeli government wanted to create a gateway for Haredim to enter the workforce because the lack of ultra-orthodox people in the workforce hurt the Israeli economy.
“I believe that many Haredim would actually leave their yeshivot and go to work, if only they weren’t prohibited from doing so without serving in the army,” Eisdorfer said. “The government has to decide what is more important, raising Haredi participation in the workforce or trying to make them Israeli. The government has so far made both goals unattainable.”
Tarshish, however, said she doesn’t think people in the army will influence people in the Haredi community to change their lifestyle. She said that the ultra-Orthodox Jews will return to their full-time Torah studies after their army service is completed. This law, she said, will not make them any more inclined to join the workforce.
“Integration is a natural process and forcing it will bring an unhealthy outcome,” Lewyn said. “The law will backfire. With this strategy, the next generation of Haredim won’t be the westernized Hilonim [secular Israelis]… The fact that the Knesset doesn’t understand that shows they are totally blind to how Haredi society works.”