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photo by Rhonda Spivak

photo by Rhonda Spivak


Does the IDF really want the Haredi Orthodox in its ranks?

By David Ramati, April 23, 2014

As far as the army is concerned, the issue of drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the IDF cuts both ways.


The “blessing”?  Well, faced with the deterioration of the situation on Israel’s borders, opening a large until now untapped portion of the population would provide manpower that will in the near future be desperately needed to keep watch on the borders of Israel.


The “curse”?  To do so would be to change the entire framework of the Israeli Armed forces.  Any hope of gender equality would be undermined.   Ultra-Orthodox soldiers would have to receive special treatment, including strictly kosher food, daily Torah lessons and an environment free of women. 



Jerusalem-The influx of thousands and thousands of ultra- orthodox draftees would in effect force the IDF to create two separate armies.  One, a secular army based on strict equality between men and woman, religious and non-religious, Jew and non-Jew, and another, exclusively according to Jewish law.


A draft law has been passed in Israel's Knesset that would require the Ultra-Orthodox Haredim to serve in the Israel Defence Forces, which has caused a lot of uproar in Haredi society.


The Haredim feel that their studying Torah is a contribution to Judaism that is equal to—if not greater than—serving in the Israeli army. They see compulsory military service as a form of religious persecution, denying them the right to practice their religion and pulling them toward a more secular lifestyle. To the outsider, who has not lived in Israel, nor served in the IDF, this clash seems incomprehensible.  However, in a more simplistic form, it is quite understandable.


Although you may not hear about this, the fact of the matter is that there are many in the IDF who privately say they do not want the Haredi Orthodox in their ranks, and I will begin to outline why.


I served as a combat officer in the IDF and wore the “knitted kippa” of the religious Zionist parties. During this military service, I did many things that to a “more orthodox“ Jew would be consider abhorrent and forbidden. 


I and others like me, who were highly influenced by the teachings of the famous Rabbi Kook, believed that our duty to save lives superseded the religious ordinances or at least some of the ordinances of keeping the Sabbath and Yom Tov, being alone with women, listening to a woman sing. (All this when a state of actual war did not exist.)


Were we wrong?  Hundreds of thousands of Haradi Orthodox Jews would say yes, we were wrong.   For many of them it is better not to serve at all than live with the loose IDF version of “Pikuach Nefesh” (the principle in Jewish law that the preservation of human life overrides virtually all other religious consideration).


Do they have a point?   The laws of Shabbat and the Jewish holidays may be suspended for the purposes of "pikuach nefesh" (saving human life). The earliest known example of this took place in 167 BCE, when Mattathias and the Hasmoneans declared that it was permitted for their followers to fight on the Sabbath day to defend themselves from attack.  However, during recent years the IDF has become very lax in what it requires its religious soldiers to do on the Sabbath.  For instance, requiring a religious soldier to answer the telephone in a command center on Shabbat is important, but how important is it when it is simply a mother calling for her non-religious son? A Haredi soldier answering this call is forced to either hang up on the mother or call her boy to the phone.  Even a simple thing like this can sour a religious Jew on serving.


Rabbi Eliezer Melamed who is the head of the Yeshiva Har Bracha states, “The Haredi community should join the struggle for the sanctity of the IDF camp, so it will suit the absorption of Haradi soldiers.”


In this statement he infers, perhaps without realizing it, that Haredi soldiers should join the army so that it will change the religious atmosphere resulting in the army becoming more Orthodox.  And he goes on to qualify, “However, when there is no necessity to recruit all young men, then it is the duty of the Jewish nation to exempt students who are worthy of developing into Torah scholars for the sake of Clal Yisrael, so they can grow and become rabbis and educators – provided they do so with respect and amity towards the soldiers protecting our nation and country.”


An interesting experiment is the “Nahal Haredi” which is a battalion of the Kfir Brigade in the IDF. The purpose of the unit is to allow an atmosphere conducive to the religious convictions of Haredim, within a framework that is observant.   Training in the battalion is that of IDF infantry:  the battalion runs like every four months of basic training followed by an additional three months of advanced training.


Today, at any given time, the battalion holds close to 1,000 soldiers, including two full companies in training, one company commencing active service, and two combat units: Palchod (Recon/ First Company) and Mesaiat (Rifleman Company). A third combat unit, Mivtzayit, was created in October 2009, due to the large number of soldiers joining the battalion in the most recent drafts. In the past there was a small special forces platoon (Machsar) composed of soldiers from the battalion but this was disbanded shortly after Lt. Colonel Dror Shpigel became commander of the battalion.  A volunteer all-Haredi computer unit has also been created within the Israeli Air Force. This, and the Netzah Yehuda Battalion, are seen as models for the possible future incorporation of Haredi conscripts into the IDF.


But even here, many of these volunteers have had a hard time during their service. There were many complaints of the  Haredi soldiers already serving in the IDF that have caused great trepidation among the orthodox community waiting to see the results of the new law drafting up to 80% of their sons:  Haredi soldiers alleged that:


* Members of the Nachal Haredi brigade (reminder - the IDF's largest combat unit made up of Orthodox Jewish men) were forced to be present at a baptism. Jews are forbidden from attending Christian religious ceremonies, which are considered idol worship under Jewish law.

* Haredi soldiers in another unit were forced to attend an all-day educational seminar in a church. Jews are forbidden from entering churches (some hold only churches that are in active use) because they are considered a place of idol worship under Jewish law.

* On Christmas Day, Haredi soldiers received a lecture about the 'significance of the day' instead of their mandated Torah study sessions.

* Haredi soldiers - whose terms of service 'guarantee' no contact with women - had to take courses with women and to clean women's restrooms. 

*  At the IDF's Sirkin base, where many Haredi soldiers were stationed, there was no kashrut supervision, representatives of the unit were not allowed to inspect the kashrut of the kitchen, meat was cooked in a dairy kitchen (by mistake...), or soldiers were told to kasher the kitchen at the expense of their sleep hours.

* Haredi IDF soldiers being held in the brig at Prison 4 were forced to carry out work that violated the Sabbath in the absence of any operational need.

* A Haredi IDF soldier was forced by his direct commander to shave off his beard despite two higher ranking officers having approved his keeping it. The soldier was a cancer survivor who had fought to be accepted into the army. His commanding officer had him sent to the brig week after week because he refused to shave off his beard.

* The army barber shaved the side-curls of Haradi soldiers with "blade 0" (the closest possible shave, which violates a Torah prohibition of shaving the side curls off completely).

* Haredi soldiers at the Sde Dov base (near Tel Aviv!) were forced to subsist on bread and chocolate for two weeks after the base did not provide Kosher supervision for their food.

* At the Tzrifin base, Haredi soldiers - whose terms of service include no contact with women - were forced to sit in courses with women, to be taught by female instructors and to share their dining room with women.


The terms of the Equal Service Bill, approved by the Knesset’s Shaked Committee last month, stipulate a three-year transitional period which will begin once the Knesset passes the legislation. During those three years, a target will be set for the number of ultra-Orthodox enlistees each year. The target number will rise each year until 2017, when it will reach 5,200 new Haredi enlistees.

The measure has been vociferously opposed by the ultra-Orthodox community, which has historically enjoyed draft exemptions for Torah study.


The question, however, is whether the IDF really needs all those tens of thousands of rabbinical college students who have declared the study of the Torah to be their full-time occupation?  And supposing the IDF needs any of them, how many of them does the army actually need? How would the mass recruitment of the ultra-Orthodox affect the nature of the army?

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.