Some 20,000 people took part in a demonstration on June 11 in Brooklyn against conscripting yeshivah students into the Israel Defense Forces. Haredi (fervently Orthodox) activists crowded into the Barclays Center to hear speeches in Yiddish, echoing similar demonstrations that took place in Jerusalem in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, in Beit
Shemesh in Israel, opponents of the draft have held ongoing protests at the home of Yaakov Roshi, the IDF officer who deals with yeshivah students.
These demonstrations would seem a response to political attempts to change the current policy allowing young men to defer conscription as long as they continue to study Torah full time. Well, not actually: The most recent effort to change draft policy fizzled three years ago, and observers of Israeli politics see no movement to reopen the issue.
Howard Lupovitch, director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies and a Wayne State University associate professor, expresses skepticism about any chance for changes: “The government is deadlocked by an unstable coalition that needs the unwavering support of religious parties.”
University of Michigan political science professor Zvi Gitelman answers even more decisively by outlining three reasons he sees no prospects for change.
“The Israeli army no longer needs the manpower,” he said. “After 850,000 Jews immigrated from the former Soviet Union, along with another 340,000 non-Jews, the army had its manpower needs supplied. The nature of warfare has changed too, significantly lowering manpower needs
“Second, young haredi men generally are ignorant of history, math, science, literature and so would not immediately be an asset to the military. The one virtue they have is that they proverbially know how to study hard.
“Third, the haredi population constitutes a growing percentage of the Israeli Jewish population,” Gitelman said. “Coalitions will likely continue to depend on haredi parties in the future. Prime Minister Netanyahu shows no interest in alienating the haredi parties in the short run; he keeps looking over his shoulder at them, anticipating their help in future elections.”
How did the exemption arise? The practice of exempting yeshivah students from the military draft began before the declaration of independence. On March 9, 1948, the chief of staff, Israeli Galili, declared that the Haganah (pre-state precursor of the IDF) would draft all men and all women, but not yeshivah students.
According to Dr. Moshe Sokolov, a professor at Yeshiva University in New York City, at the start of the war of independence in 1948, the exemption applied to approximately 400 students, about .07 percent of the Jewish population.
Once the state was established, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, recommended continuing the exemption because, after the murder of so many yeshivah students in Europe a precious few remained to study Torah, “which is the glory, and necessity, of our state.”
Leading haredi rabbis, among them Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz (known as Hazon Ish), made a similar appeal to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who accepted these appeals, according to Lupovitch, because “among other things, he believed that yeshivah students studying Torah would somehow strengthen the morale and ethos of the new state. He was also willing because the number of exemptions at the time was small.”
In the early years of the state, various versions of the Labor party headed the Israeli government in coalition with Zionist religious parties and the government protected small numbers of yeshivah students.
In 1977, a rightist party took power in coalition with non-Zionist religious parties and made many more students eligible for deferments. In the past 20 years, the policy has become law while the haredi population has grown significantly, so that now tens of thousands defer conscription indefinitely.
Rabbi Simcha Tolwin of Aish HaTorah in Oak Park defends the policy: “Throughout history, Klal Yisroel (the Jewish people) recognized the value of shevet Levi (the tribe of Levi), those dedicated to the study and dissemination of Torah. This protest is against those who say that those who study Torah are not contributing to society. Nothing can be further than the truth.”
Gitelman sees the negative effects of the exemption on secular Israelis, who feel they unfairly bear the burden of military service.
“As a consequence of the exemptions,” he says, “haredi men in Israel have to remain yeshivah students and so cannot work [at least, legally]. Haredi society in Israel makes an ideal of this, according to which, all men should study Torah full time; none should work. Haredi men in the rest of the world — in Monsey, N.Y., for example, work to support their families.”
While haredi men generally do not serve in the IDF, nationalist-religious men do serve in the IDF. One of the leading nationalist religious rabbis in Israel, former Detroiter Rabbi David Bigman, assesses the consequences of having a voluntarily unemployed population.
“From the point of view of Israeli society,” he says, “the burden of the ‘learning’ community, which is supported by the state and which does not contribute to the national product, is much more serious that the lack of equality in military service.
“Over the years, more and more haredim have entered into the labor market, achieved academic qualifications that enable joining society, and been recruited into the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. Every time politicians attempt to make political capital from equalizing military service, the haredi community reacts severely and that diminishes progress.”
If nothing is changing, why are haredi activists protesting now?
A veteran observer of haredi culture in Israel, former Detroiter Yoel Finkelman (my son), attributes the protests to internal haredi politics, the tension between different haredi factions. Non-Zionist haredi yeshivah students typically register for the draft and claim deferment as full-time Torah students. That works for “the more moderate Bnei Brak branch, which wants to continue with business as usual.”
However, according to Finkelman, the anti-Zionist Lithuanian (anti-Chasidic) “Jerusalem branch [Peleg Yerushalmi], led by R. Shmuel Auerbachian, takes a more militant stance against the draft, refusing even to fill out paperwork to get draft deferments, which led to a number of arrests.”
Sponsors for the Brooklyn demonstrations include the Central Rabbinical Congress, an organization of the fiercely anti-Zionist Satmar Chasidic dynasty.
Louis Finkelman Contributing Writer