George Orwell said, “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Israelis sleep well because other Israelis — barely older than boys and girls, actually — are willing to serve when called. Serving in the IDF is “a mitzvah,” said Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of religion.
From the dawn of the State, Israel’s government has recognized its post-Holocaust obligation to preserve what at the time were the dwindling embers of haredi Orthodoxy, through yeshiva exemptions from military service, among other things. It was a system similar to the blatantly exploited college exemptions during the old U.S. draft.
Over the years as the haredi population grew greatly in size, the rest of society came to resent the fact that so many young men were exempted from service and were provided with funds from the state for sitting and learning in yeshivas rather than working. The new Knesset is on the verge of passing into law a requirement for military service, based on “equalizing the burden,” as Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid puts it (see story on page 36). In response, an estimated 600,000 haredim staged a protest last week in Jerusalem, and tens of thousands of haredim packed Times Square Sunday to do the same. In Jerusalem, they won themselves few sympathizers by comparing the government to Pharaoh, and worse. Sadly, the two new chief rabbis participated in the Jerusalem rally, though forbidden by law to engage in political captivity.
Haredim must be better incorporated into the norms of Israeli responsibility. However, unfortunate emotions lead to unfortunate legislation, which only exacerbates the social divide, with haredim seeing themselves as victims of a society seeking revenge as much as protection. More gentle means had been working, under the radar of public scrutiny, with increasing numbers of haredim serving in the army. The greater challenge is to encourage these young men to join the work force, becoming productive members of society rather than being on the dole.
Hopefully the prospect of Israeli jails filled with haredim who refuse to do military service will not come about. (The penalties do not go into effect until 2017.) Surely before there can be peace with one’s neighbors, we need peace among ourselves, utilizing persuasion rather resorting to the punitive.