Thursday, Jul 25, 2024

Under the Shadow of the Draft

At the beginning of Elul,thousands of Israel's 150 thousand bochurim and avreichim are under the shadow of the draft. August 1st saw the expiration of the Tal Law, which had exempted myriads of bochurim and avrechim from the draft for the past few years. That same day, Defense Minister Ehud Barak immediately instructed the IDF to reinstate the Defense Service Law of 1968, which requires every male to enlist. Additionally, he gave the IDF one month to submit a practical proposal explaining how they would drag the yeshiva population from the shtender to the barracks. His goal is to expand IDF programs to accommodate chareidim and incorporate large numbers of them into the army, civil defense, police, and prison services until the government gets around to crafting a new enlistment law that satisfies all sectors of the populace.



Even the secular populace was not certain that Barak would stick to his plan. One month ago, when a group of protesters was wandering the streets of Bnei Brak handing out fake draft orders and flowers to the locals, one protester expressed doubt whether there would be any change.


“The decision seems positive,” he admitted, “but we, the ones who serve, have 15 years of experience with Barak’s promises. If the move will in fact bring about full charedi enlistment, either in the military or in a national service program, we will welcome it.”


Many members of the Torah community also felt that life would continue as usual.


“The only thing we care about these days is the siyum Hashas,” said a UTJ official. “It is far more historical and significant than the headlines people are trying to create. Nothing is going to happen. The IDF is not equipped to absorb thousands of chareidim. A small procedure will ensue, putting a band-aid on the whole situation for three months, and then everything will go back to the way it was.”


But chareidi parents taking their sons to enlistment centers soon discovered the process had changed. The army was doing more than the perfunctory screening in vogue for the past few years and seemed interested in knowing a lot more about the youngsters in preparation for a potential callup. By the 3rd of August, the Israeli Yated Neeman was warning yeshivaleit to be careful not to put their signatures on the wrong pieces of paper.


“We were asked to publish, on behalf of the gedolei Yisroel, a statement calling on all yeshiva students who have been summoned to recruitment offices, not to sign any documents whatsoever (aside from those affirming personal details), both at the initial call up and in future stages,” the Yated warned. “Instead, they should request an arrangement stating Toraso umnaso, that the Torah is his profession.”


Unfortunately, the automatic Toraso umnaso deferral that has existed since the state’s founding will be in absentia until the government gets down to formulating a replacement for the defunct Tal Law.


Last Thursday, it became evident that Barak had not forgetten the plans he spoke of at the beginning of the month. The IDF revealed a three pronged plan for yeshivaleit that would see one third of them serving in combat units, one third in the police or civilian service, and one third in other branches of the IDF, such as the Intelligence and Air Force. To accommodate them, the army is planning to create three new regiments of the Nachal Chareidi program, or Netzach Yehuda brigade, which was founded at the end of 1999 with 32 soldiers.


The Nachal, now one of the largest regiments in the IDF containing hundreds of combat soldiers, provides mehadrin food, allots time for learning and davening, and separates men from women. Although originally designated for bochurim who had left the yeshiva framework, it presently includes national religious youngsters as well, and it even has a few soldiers who are not religious at all.


Another program, Shachar, or Shiluv Chareidim (integration of chareidim), trains chareidim for auxillary roles in the army. Most of its members are young married chareidim who follow a higher level of Torah observance than the Nachal group. Founded in 2007 as a hi-tech program in the Air Force, Shachar began with 40 recruits. It jumped to 200 personnel the next year, 400 in 2009, and the number of its recruits presently stands at 1,650. Possibly, Barak didn’t bother mentioning Shachar in his plans because it has already aroused keen interest in other branches of the army. Currently, it is being introduced into the Navy, Military Intelligence, Technological and Logistics Directorate, and the Communications Directorate.


On the bright side, the army is also considering the option of exemptingyeshivaleit over 21-years-old and allowing them to work without serving in the army at all.




Last Monday, Degel Hatorah organized an emergency meeting of the Mo’etzes Gedolei Hatorah,comprised of senior Litvisher Roshei Yeshiva,at the home of Rav Aharon Leib Steinman in order to discuss the army threat. A long time had elapsed since the council’s last meeting. Nine new members were added to the Torah council to replace a number of members who passed away in recent years, including legendary figures such as Rav Eleazar Menachem Man Shach, Rav Binyomin Beinish Finkel, Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, Rav Chaim Pinchos Sheinberg, Rav Simchah Zissel Broide, and others.


The newly appointed members areRav Moshe Hillel Hirsch, Rosh Yeshiva of Slobodka, Rav Yitzchok Silberstein, son-in-law of Rav Elyashiv; Rav Aryeh Finkel, Rosh Yeshiva of Mir; Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi, Rosh Yeshiva of Ateres Yisroel; Rav Boruch Dov Povarsky, Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevez; Rav Dov Yoffe, Mashgiach of Kfar Chassidim; Rav Yehudah Adas, Rosh Yeshiva of Kol Yaakov; Rav Dovid Cohen, Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron; and Rav Moshe Yehuda Schlesinger, Rosh Yeshiva of Kol Torah.


These new members actually outnumber the six original members of the council – Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman, Rav Meir Tzvi Bergman, Rav Gershon Edelstein, Rav Nissim Karelitz, Rav Shmuel Auerbach and Rav Yitzchok Scheiner.


Rav Steinman opened the emergency meeting with an impassioned appeal to the government to leave Torah students alone.


“Everyone knows how it has been with us since the state was founded until now,” he began. “Even if people were not all that religious, they tried not to harm the Torah, for through Torah the world exists as it is written, If not for My covenant of day and night, I would not have established the ordinances of heaven and earth.


“But now, to our sorrow, a great tragedy hangs over us, chas veshalom. They want to stop the studies of lomdei Torah. If they do so and a young bochur cannot learn, when will he learn? At the age of eighty! He needs to acquire the whole Torah in his youth; this is purpose of the yeshivos. If they stop this, chalilah, they will destroy the whole Torah. Nora ve’ayom, we need great mercy from the Holy One. Therefore, we have gathered here to express our pain and to ask for mercy [from Hashem] that the government should not touch the Torah and those who study it,.”


After MKs Moshe Gafni and Uri Maklev explained all the ramifications of the political situation to the council members, the Mo’etzesissued a concluding appeal and warning:


“Alarmed and fearful, the Mo’etzes Gedolei Hatorah expresses its deep distress at the the ugly wave of incitement inciting the residents of Eretz Yisroel against those who fear the word of Hashem, and in particular against the Torah scholars in whose merit the world exists. These are the precious yeshiva students who are engaged in Torah study day and night. They are now coming to undermine their position by various attempts to interrupt their studies. Therefore, we call upon our brethren everywhere, especially bnei yeshivos and avrechei kollelim, to strengthen Torah study, particularly in the upcoming month of Elul, for nothing remains for us but this Torah.


“To our brothers, we passionately plea, refrain from evil. For the survival of Klal Yisrael in all generations is only through the merit of studying Torah and keeping its mitzvos. The Mo’etzesespecially appeals to government leaders to not alter in any way the norm practiced until now with Torah students in Eretz Yisroel.”


“The Mo’etzes calls upon Roshei Yeshivato instruct those of their talmidim invited to the recruitment office to under no circumstances sign any documents that include any obligation whatsoever regarding enlistment.
“The eyes of all Yisroel are lifted in prayer to the Creator to hasten our redemption, and with hope that a new light will shine upon Tzion and that Hashem will be king over all the earth.”




Disruption of Torah learning is only one danger of forced enlistment. Despite government and army assurances that Torah values and halachah will be scrupolously upkept in the army, the chareidi public is also justifiedly wary that such promises may not materialize.


Last week, an eight month old story resurfaced, of when Lt. Col. Ram Moshe Ravad sent invitations for a farewell party to mark his departure from the IDF. In January, Ravad, who also served as Chief Rabbi of the Air Force, dropped his leadership of the Shachar project in reaction to the army’s refusal to excuse religious soldiers from official military ceremonies where women sing. A day earlier, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz had ruled that no soldier could absent himself from official military ceremonies, even if it conflicted with his religious observance.


“When the Shachar project was established, I was a full partner in writing its operating rules,” Rabbi Ravad wrote in his resigning letter. “What guided me in doing so was to allow chareidim who came into the army to continue to maintain their chareidi-religious lifestyle. In recent months, it was decided to open the rules for review and reconsideration. I took part in these discussions and insisted that what had been agreed on should be kept. In the latest draft of the new rules, however, I saw that clauses that were designed to preserve the piety of the soldiers had been omitted, and saw that a section that permits activity that might harm piety was added.”


“True, these things are not yet finalized and I was assured they would be discussed again,” he added. “But under the current situation I do not see myself as part of the program as a rabbi and consultant.”


A former IDF Chief Rabbi defended the army against Ravad’s complaints, insisting things weren’t as black as he painted them.


“The IDF did say what it did, but it also said there is room for each commander to use their own judgement,” he said. “…With good judgement, commanders would use male singers from the start, for instance in a ceremony for the chareidi Nachal Brigade. The IDF knows how to act justly with Shachar soldiers.”


But what kind of argument is this? Should chareidi soldiers be forced into a situation where they need to rely on unreligious or anti-religious commanders to “use their own judgment” to decide whether to excuse them from situations where women sing?


Furthemrore, the chareidi world regards the enlistment battle not only as an attempt to stengthen the IDF, but also as part of a greater battle to rid Israel of an independent Torah world with its own vision and weltschaung.


Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni expressed this goal very eloquently in a recent CNN interview.


“The ultra-orthodox represent a small portion of Israeli society,” she said. “They represent part of our history, tradition, and everything, but yet, unfortunately, they now have more power than they should and in a way the Likud party and other parties gave a monopoly of the Jewishness of the state of Israel to the Ultra-Orthodox.”


“Israel is a democracy and homeland of the Jewish people,” she added. “I believe that we need to have Israelis of Israel with Jewish values and the democratic values living in harmony, not in contradiction.”


To people like her, drafting yeshivaleit into the army is a means of reshaping them in the mold of secular Israeli society.




Meanwhile, as an example of equality at its finest, three nongovernmental organizations, Hiddush, Free Israel, and the Forum for Equal Service, claim that since the 54,000 yeshivaleit liable for enlistment have no legal right to continue learning due to the cancellation of the Tal Law, the government funding to their yeshivos and kollels should be cut off forthwith. They have petitioned the high court to turn off the spigot that is supplying the Torah institutions of these yeshivaleit with some $7.4 million a month, stressing in their petition that the situation is urgent, as the Education Ministry is scheduled to transfer the funds at the beginning of September.


Cutting off yeshiva funding at the beginning of the Ellul zeman just before the costly Yomim Nora’im would be a catastrophe. Although chareidi MKs feel, after consultation with the Attorney General, that the claim has little merit, there is no way of knowing what might happen once the Supreme Court gets involved. After all, little over two years ago, the Supreme Court accepted an appeal from students that the criteria of granting “income insurance,” a government supplement granted to people of low income status, “should not differentiate between avrechim and students learning in various institutions,” and only after public storm and great efforts did the government authorize the continuance of the income insurance to avreichim for at least the next few years.


There are no quick solutions. It is unlikely that any new draft law will be legislated during the Knesset summer break that is scheduled to last until the middle of October. Until then, the Torah world will need to wait in suspense for whatever else Barak may have up his sleeve.



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