Mandatory army service and religious exemptions from such service constitute one of the most provocative issues in Israeli society. This has been a hotly debated topic since 1948, when David Ben-Gurion authorized the postponement of the draft for a small number of yeshiva students from the nascent Israel Defense Forces for the purpose of rebuilding populous yeshivas destroyed in the Holocaust. Such drafts were generally extended until the students reached a certain age or due to parental exemption. However, since the expiration of the Tal Law in 2012, after the Israel Supreme Court ruled the provisional extension of draft deferment for religious Israelis to be unconstitutional, the topic has become increasingly heated and has further divided Israeli society along secular and Orthodox (national-religious and Charedi) lines. Most recently, the Court blocked funding to yeshivas where some students would be considered eligible for conscription since the Tal Law’s expiration.
The opposition to mass exemptions on religious grounds stems from principles of equality: that no person’s religious beliefs, or lack thereof, should entitle him or her to special treatment, such as exemption from an army draft. Under a democratic system of government, this would seem to be a case of res ipsa loquitur — that without equal treatment of all, a democracy cannot exist. The Israeli government is also concerned about poverty rates in the Charedi community and wishes to further integrate it into Israeli society.
On the other side, the philosophy behind such exemptions has several components. Orthodox Jews believe in the Torah’s divine origin and in the obligation of the commandment to study Torah. Unless Israel were actually under attack, many Charedi Jews do not believe they can exempt themselves from the commandment for the requisite years of army service. Secondly, they regard Torah learning as most academics regard research — an integral component to social and scientific progress, important to the extent that many could not live without its continuance. For this reason and more, they see Torah learning as being just as important to Israel’s survival as physical service is; that their research into Jewish law and philosophy is crucial to their country and, indeed, the entire world’s, wellbeing. Thirdly, even within army units specifically designated for Charedi soldiers, Charedim face difficulties when Jewish and military laws conflict.
However, whether or not one agrees with either position, or whether concerns and anger over religious exemptions are valid, what Religious Minister Naftali Bennet and the Israeli government have failed to understand is that the government’s actions have only served to further alienate many members of the Charedi population. Secular politicians and prominent figures — whether out of personal bias, misunderstanding, or simply appreciation for an easy scapegoat — have targeted Charedim for their beliefs and different lifestyles. Charedim are also often referred to derogatorily as dosim (mimicking traditional Ashkenazi pronunciation of datim, or “religious ones”) by the general Israeli public. Furthermore, neither of the two Charedi political parties currently holding a total of 18 Knesset seats is part of the coalition government, although Charedim constitute a significant — and rapidly-growing — minority of the Israeli population. As a result, much of the community does not feel adequately represented by their government, and as countless revolutions have effectively demonstrated, people find it difficult to trust a government they do not feel represented by.
The authority figures in Charedi circles are not public officials or government ministers. Rather, they are those whom Charedim trust and feel represented by: rabbis and leaders who understand their people’s religious needs and concerns. If the Israeli government wishes to change the Charedi community — for better or worse — it needs to work with the community and its leaders, rather than implementing laws that seem to oppose community values.
There are many Charedim who serve in the army, and in increasing numbers. However, the greatest influence has come from within, such as with a new political party for Charedim that is actively involved in wider society and which endorses IDF service. Until Bennet and his subordinates realize that, the issue with Charedim and army conscription is only likely to degenerate.
For an economically-orientated take on the issue of Charedi Jews and draft exemptions, read Alan Naroditsky’s article Ultra-Orthodox Jews, unemployment rates, and the Israeli economy.