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Will Israel's Ultra-Orthodox Finally Be Forced Into Military Service?

The Nahal Haredi Orthodox battalion
The Nahal Haredi Orthodox battalion
Véronique Fale

JERUSALEM - It is almost prayer time in Ramot, the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in north Jerusalem, and men in black suits, white ties and black hats with wide brims are hurrying to the synagogue.

On July 31, the 10-year-old “Tal Law” exempting ultra-Orthodox Jews from military duty expired, sparking a nationwide debate in Israel over the past few weeks.

The Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the law was unconstitutional, but since then, members of the government haven’t been able to agree on new legislation. Theoretically, enlistment has now become mandatory for all 18-year-old Israelis – no more exemptions.

Yitzhak lives in Ramot with his wife. He spends eight to nine hours a day studying at the yeshiva, the religious school, to become a rabbi. The 21-year-old has just received his draft papers, which means he could be called up within two months – something he’s not even considering. "I'm not worried," he says. "There are 50,000 yeshiva students in my situation, and they aren't going to come for all of us."

A spiritual army

"We need an army - there has always been one, even in the Bible - but we also need a spiritual army," adds Yitzhak. "Studying at the yeshiva full-time is a lot harder than being in the army."

The young man cannot imagine having to sacrifice the time he devotes to studying the Torah and the Talmud. "Doing your military service - even if you keep studying at the same time - is a potentially dangerous idea; it implies that studying isn't that important after all. When people see an Orthodox Jew in the military service, they are usually puzzled. A young girl raised in a very religious environment definitely wouldn’t marry someone like that, she has to marry a man who studies."

From behind his cash register in Mea Shearim, the historic ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, Essji confirms that it is a taboo. "Here, a man who serves with the military is a dishonor to his family. The family refuses to accept it, and he often has to distance himself from them,” he says.

In this quiet neighborhood, Haredim ("God-fearing" people) from different branches, Hassidim or Mitnagdim, meet in the streets, wearing their groups' distinct caftans and hats. Here, you won’t see any army uniforms.

Essji, an Orthodox Jew who moved to Israel from the United States, says the philosophy of Rabbi Chazon Ish, one of the leaders of Orthodox Judaism, helps explain why young people shouldn't be in the army. "Among the new generation, some want to have a better life and make a bit of money, but Israeli employers don't hire those who haven’t done their military service," he says. "In America it's different: ultra-Orthodox Jews are allowed to work and study at the yeshiva at the same time."

Rabbi Mordekhai Bitton, bent over a bound edition of the Talmud, says the refusal to enlist is explained by history. "We are in a period of transition. After the Holocaust, there were no more Orthodox Jews left to study the Torah," he says. "And wherever the study of the Torah ceased, the Jewish people disappeared. We must have religious scholars. In Orthodox families, five people get together to support Torah scholars: the parents, the wife and the in-laws."

Ultra-Orthodox battalions

The army, perceived as a symbol of the non-religious world, scares Orthodox Jews. "Becoming a Torah scholar is not an easy decision for a child. It is our role to protect him using the "three 20s" model: until he is 20, we build a wall for him that is 20 meters high and 20 meters thick," says Rabbi Bitton. "The army – even the ultra-Orthodox Nahal Haredi battalions – represents a danger for spirituality, so what parent is willing to take that risk?"

Tsahal, the Israeli Defense Forces, are trying to integrate the Haredim into these specialized Nahal Haredi battalions. Conditions are adapted to make room for daily study time, with access to a military rabbi, strictly kosher food and limited contact with women soldiers. According to an army spokesperson, in 2011, nearly 1,200 ultra-Orthodox soldiers started their military service. "By 2014, we expect 2,400 soldiers to enroll each year in the different programs geared towards the ultra-Orthodox public," the spokesman says.

Even though enrolment numbers are growing, they’re still very low. Orthodox rabbis say the army doesn't need them anyway, in an era of ultra-sophisticated and technological intelligence-heavy warfare. "Why doesn't Israel move on to a professional army like other countries… everything would be fixed!" asks Rabbi Henri Kahn, who manages Kountrass, a French ultra-Orthodox magazine.

For him, the security of Israel, "a people of five million Jews surrounded by a billion enemies," relies above all on "miracles" and "divine providence." "What do you need to do to benefit from miracles and divine providence? All the answers are written in the Bible. It is a code, and to decipher it, you need to spend days and nights studying it."

Despite the end of the Tal Law, Haredim rabbis are not worried. Their stance on the military service is non-negotiable, and they feel they are at the vanguard of a new vigor of Orthodox Judaism. "We know that the state can't do much about this, and they certainly can’t throw 50,000 young people in jail for refusing to enroll," Rabbi Kahn says. The government will have to find a way around this."

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