On March 2 last year, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews demonstrated in Jerusalem against the bill for drafting yeshiva (rabbinical college) students to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Exactly two weeks later on the Purim festival, thousands of ultra-Orthodox children donned green uniforms, armed themselves with long plastic rifles and masqueraded as IDF soldiers. This contradiction sums up the ultra-Orthodox public’s convoluted attitude toward the IDF in a nutshell: a mix of both affection and fear.
On April 22, Israel held its annual Memorial Day for fallen soldiers. This day is a very painful one for Israel’s small, extended familial society, a society in which almost everyone has come face-to-face with bereavement and loss in his or her inner circle. For the ultra-Orthodox public, it's also a day of guilt and fear. Guilt because the ultra-Orthodox community is, to a great extent, not part of Israel’s “extended bereavement family,” and fear of what the future will bring. They dread the unavoidable clash within Israeli society surrounding the issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the IDF.
The Israeli media tend to oversimplify the discourse surrounding the attitude of the ultra-Orthodox to the IDF. In fact, the attitude of the ultra-Orthodox sector toward the military is fascinating and contradictory. But before we approach this subject, it is important to distinguish between the various sectors within the ultra-Orthodox world with regard to the IDF. On one side are the factions associated with the anti-Zionist Neturei Karta court and Eidah Hareidis (an inner fringe group within the ultra-Orthodox sector). These groups strongly oppose IDF recruitment under any condition. On the other side are the Chabad Chassidic group and Shas circles, who have a more liberal, forgiving view of those who choose to serve in the army.
Between these two sides reside the majority of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who do not oppose the IDF for anti-Zionist motives. Instead, they do not enlist because they hold that while enlistment is very important, Torah study is even more so. Many ultra-Orthodox leaders argue that the yeshiva world is, in effect, a spiritual-religious front that is no less important than the military front. Thus, while there is ultra-Orthodox opposition to IDF conscription at any age, the greatest opposition is reserved for the recruiting of yeshiva students, generally aged 18-22. The ultra-Orthodox leadership operates under the axiom that the ultra-Orthodox public would cease to exist if not for the continued existence of the yeshiva world.
“But this argument is not the reason that the ultra-Orthodox sector as a whole does not enlist in the IDF,” ultra-Orthodox activist and attorney Rabbi Dov Halbertal tells Al-Monitor. “The real reason is the fear of the army’s secular influences on ultra-Orthodox youth. The army is a place that endangers the ultra-Orthodox way of life, and that is the reason that ultra-Orthodox Jews do not enlist.”
According to Halbertal, “The army is a social melting pot. An ultra-Orthodox Jew who enters the army will not remain the same person when he leaves. He will be more Israeli and less ultra-Orthodox. The ultra-Orthodox public guards its ethnicity and its identity. All ethnic groups would act this way in the face of such an existential threat.”
Sgt. Avraham Turk is a married ultra-Orthodox man with two children who lives in Beitar Illit and served in the Israeli air force as a radar electronics technician for F-16s. He disagrees with Halbertal and tells Al-Monitor, “Ultra-Orthodox who enlist are not necessarily adversely affected regarding religious [practices]. I personally was not harmed from a religious point of view, and I know many who were not adversely affected, either. There were cases of people who left religion in the course of their army service, and there were others whose faith actually became strengthened. The army is no different from any other secular workplace, but it is definitely not a place where one loses one’s religion.”
Despite fears that military service will have a negative influence on the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, most ultra-Orthodox Jews actually like the IDF and some even admire and venerate it. “Ultra-Orthodox youth do not hate the army; on the contrary. People understand that the army is an important institution. It is not necessarily perceived as a Zionist instrument, but as an apolitical force that protects the Jewish people. On the other hand, there is unequivocal opposition to actual conscription,” Halbertal said. “It is not easy to contain this complexity. But the populistic proceedings in recent years threaten to drag the ultra-Orthodox public into absolute alienation from the IDF.”
Turk also agrees that recent years have seen a great radicalization in the ultra-Orthodox public in terms of everything connected to IDF conscription. “I have no doubt that [former Finance Minister] Yair Lapid inflicted great damage on the conscription issue,” he said, referring to Lapid's advocacy of the ultra-Orthodox "equal burden" bill. “The ultra-Orthodox world sensed it was under attack and retreated into itself. Today, my friends are embarrassed to walk around on the street in uniform, and that was not always the case."
Data provided by the IDF's human resources serve to strengthen this claim. The discourse around the draft bill saw a significant drop of 51% in the number of ultra-Orthodox men who enlisted in the army. In the first quarter of the 2013-14 conscription year, 601 ultra-Orthodox Jews joined the IDF's ranks, while only 294 did so in the last quarter.
Nevertheless, Halbertal claims that the ultra-Orthodox public still appreciates the IDF's soldiers and holds them in great esteem for fighting in Israel’s wars. “One has to be really obtuse not to pray for the soldiers who sacrifice themselves so that we can live here in peace and quiet,” he said. Nevertheless, there is no evidence in ultra-Orthodox public discourse of recognition and esteem for these contributions. They do not even recite the prayer for the welfare of IDF soldiers that is recited in the national-religious sector. “It is not possible to identify publicly with the army, because that would create a problematic dissonance,” Halbertal added. “When you give a public seal of approval to the IDF, you are bestowing legitimacy on it through the back door. And the ultra-Orthodox leadership is very wary of this.”
The clash within Israeli society on the draft issue is unavoidable. On the one hand, the Israeli public is no longer willing to accept organized, massive draft-dodging by the ultra-Orthodox sector. On the other hand, today it is clearly understood that the ultra-Orthodox will not be drafted by force. The interactions between ultra-Orthodox leaders and senior officials that took place in parallel to the discussions of the Equal Burden Committee proved one thing: Agreement can be formulated on the draft issue only through sincere dialogue, while external pressure only exacerbates the situation and strengthens extremist positions.