Op-Ed: The I.D.F. Recruitment Crisis
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish...
Tensions surrounding the issue of recruitment of yeshiva students for the army are rising. Quite certainly it can be assumed that previous arrangements exempting members of the hareidi community from military service, while at the same time, they receive funding from the national coffers for studies in yeshivot, cannot continue for long. The secular public will not agree to this anymore, and the crisis is approaching the point of exploding. These views are evident in recent election campaigns.
The problem of army recruits – that they feel like ‘friars’ (suckers) – is far worse when nearly twenty percent of Israel’s civilians are Arabs, to whom the State grants full rights, but on the other hand, from whom it does not demand enlistment. At the age of eighteen they can begin learning a trade or start working, while the Jewish citizens must first serve in the army, or commit to study in yeshiva, without being able to work or acquire a profession.
The problem will become even more severe in the future, because approximately half of the first graders in the State of Israel currently learn in hareidi or Arab educational frameworks whose students do not enlist in the I.D.F. In such a situation, it is extremely difficult, morally speaking, to grant equal rights to all citizens, while on the other hand, require only half of them to serve in the army for three years.
Difficulty of Maintaining an Army in a Modern State
In all Western societies, (to which, to a great extent, Israeli society is very similar), compulsory conscription has been abolished. For example, in the United States, Britain, and France the draft has been cancelled. One of the major considerations for eradicating this law is that in a developed country, it is preferable for those suitable to enter the fields of research, elite industry, initiatives, and business – working in areas in which they are qualified, developing the country scientifically and technologically, strengthening its international standing, enriching its coffers, and enabling it to maintain an army equipped with the most modern weapons - manned by professional soldiers receiving wages.
An additional reason for getting rid of the draft is that the development of new weapons currently enables a limited number of soldiers to cause horrific destruction and devastation. Most countries manage to generate significant deterrence with a relatively small, but well equipped, army.
What's more, the predominant culture of freedom, permissiveness, and hedonism which has spread throughout the West is totally incompatible to demanding, military service, requiring dedication and sacrifice – especially when it is ‘seasoned’ with a subtle pinch of moral pacifism, sporting slogans of “brotherhood” and “peace”.
The Crisis and its Results
If a solution is not found for the recruitment crisis, there will be no choice but to eliminate the compulsory conscription law. The army will cease to be a ‘people’s army’, and become a professional one. Some argue that this is an inevitable process: the State of Israel is part of the Western world, in which the majority of countries have abolished the compulsory conscription law; instead, their armies are composed of professionals who enlist for wages. And even in countries where military recruitment is still mandatory, such as Denmark, Sweden, and Austria, most likely in the coming years, the law will be cancelled.
However, there is a fundamental difference between Israel and other countries. Western countries are not surrounded by throngs of enemies threatening their very existence. True, a nuclear threat does exist, and in order to counter it, Western countries invest huge resources. But they do not require large armies to defend their borders. Their military is mainly used as a deterrent force, and occasionally, as an intervention force in distant countries. The State of Israel, however, is surrounded by enemies threatening its very existence. Any sign of weakness immediately invites war. Therefore, we are obligated to maintain a large and qualitative army, a ‘people’s army’, mainly composed of reserve forces, that is capable of dealing with the armies of large countries.
The National Difficulties Involved
However, a reality in which a large percentage of the citizens do not serve in the army creates serious tensions which greatly damage the national strength of the Jewish state.
The most severe and dangerous rift is the one between the secular and hareidi communities. The secular are angry at the hareidim because they do not participate in the burden of military service; the hareidim are angry with the secular who are not loyal to their heritage, and do not appreciate the hareidi community, who clung to the Torah and mitzvoth throughout the generations. Many secular people are angry with the State for not requiring them to enlist in the army, while many of the hareidim are angry with the State for not giving enough respect to their adherence to tradition, and requiring them to enlist in an army which is secular in nature, and endangers their spiritual future. This anger causes alienation and avoidance of responsibility, and creates a dangerous situation for a nation surrounded by enemies.
Additionally, this tension prevents us from dealing with the problem of loyalty of Arab citizens, who are presently entitled to all rights, but do not bear the burden of military service. The lack of treatment of this problem entails significant risk to the national strength of the country.
Proposal for a Solution
Before the national rift grows to a point where the country cannot maintain a ‘people’s army’, causing serious damage to Israel’s deterrence and raising the risk of an outbreak of a difficult war with our neighbors, a solution needs to be offered.
I believe such a solution is possible, but for it to ensue, the I.D.F. must undergo a significant change in three areas: 1) reducing mandatory service, 2) turning the I.D.F. into a ‘people’s army’ in a moral sense – i.e., a Jewish army, and 3) significant benefit packages for those serving in the army.
Shorten Service Time to Prepare a Reserve Army
Compulsory service should be reduced to a one year period, which should be dedicated mainly to training, in order to prepare a large and skillful reserve army, ready for war. In almost all combat units, training courses take less than a year. This is the period of time required for compulsory service. “To teach the children of Yehuda the use of the bow; behold, it is written in the book, Yashar” (Book of Samuel II, 1:18). To maintain their level and preparedness for war, a number of days of reserve duty will be necessary annually. God willing, in conjunction with proper policies, such a large reserve army will be able to deter our enemies from launching an all-out war against us.
In order to maintain routine security operations, soldiers should be recruited for extended service, and receive appropriate wages.
Parallel to this, the law of compulsory conscription for women should be cancelled. Any woman who wishes to enlist in the army, and is needed, will receive a salary. This is essential, because it is absolutely impossible to have an equal law of compulsory conscription for all women, and therefore, the draft should be reduced to a minimum.
It should be noted that such a program will save a lot of money for the State Treasury, because the current payments for days of reserve duty, and the loss of workday’s for Israel’s economy, is more costly. Moreover, the postponement of higher education of young adults and delaying their entry into the workforce indirectly causes significant damage to the State Treasury, as well. Shortening military service will strengthen the Israeli economy, and make it easier to maintain a professional army for the sake of routine security operations.
A Jewish Army
To enable recruitment for everyone, the I.D.F. must be prepared to absorb thousands of strictly observant soldiers, and remove any obstacles standing in the way of religious Jews. This must be determined by law; namely, that I.D.F. commanders have a duty to ensure the fulfillment of the religious demands of the soldiers, as commonly accepted by recognized, religious law authorities.
At present, the status of the Military Rabbinate is one of a consultative nature; in actuality, a commander is entitled to issue an order obligating a soldier to violate Jewish law. Additionally, the Military Rabbinate sometimes endorses a position which is not accepted by the members of the hareidi community and also many members of the religious community (this came to light recently regarding its directive concerning the hearing of women singing).
In order to explain just how necessary it is for the I.D.F. to accommodate religious soldiers, it should be noted that approximately twenty percent of the religious community abandons Jewish tradition – mostly during, or as a result of, military service. Even amongst those who remain religious, quite a few are significantly weakened in the army. This is the main reason the hareidi community opposes military service. This is also the reason why many members of the religious community cross over to the hareidi side. According to an analysis of data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, nearly half of the parents whose children learn in the hareidi educational system today are themselves, graduates of the regular, religious education system.
There is no intention of imposing secular soldiers to become religious, but rather, to allow all Jews who wish, to maintain a full, religious life in the army. The most painful and problematic area in the army is the question of modesty. What is considered reasonable or tolerable amongst youth in secular society, are absolutely unacceptable according to Jewish law and tradition. To enable a soldier to maintain Jewish tradition, anyone who so desires should be allowed to serve in a separate gender framework.
Favoring Those Who Serve in the Army
Together with this, a large benefit package should be created for those serving in the army, including mortgages for purchasing an apartment, financial assistance for higher education, and child allowances. At the same time, all the various frameworks of ‘Sherut Leumi’ (National Service) must be cancelled, for only security needs justify compulsory conscription and granting significant benefits; all other civilian areas should be dealt with as is customary, without any parallelism to army service.
Shortening service, together with a clear financial preference for enlistees, will reduce the motivation to evade the army amongst the secular and traditional public, and allow members of the hareidi community to consider military service, since it will no longer entail a three year separation from the framework of home, yeshiva, and community; rather, only one year of service, with a clear, national purpose – fortifying the State of Israel’s strength.
The Purpose of the Army
To implement the three parts of this proposal, we must return and once again define the task of the I.D.F., so it can be directed towards its true role – to protect the security of the State of Israel in general, and the lives of the Jews living there, in particular.
The task of security is important enough – there is no need to add any other goals to it, as our Sages said: ‘Kol ha’moseef gorey’ah’ (one who adds, [in effect] detracts). To this end, the army must change direction. Instead of promoting liberal and feminist values via the army, it must engage exclusively in strengthening defense, while providing a suitable place for all segments of society – including the hareidim. As a result, it will be easier to garner broad support from all sections of society in granting clear preference to those who serve in the army.
Most likely, after implementing all parts of the proposal, in less than ten years, the vast majority of the hareidi community will agree to participate in the burden of defense – ‘for the glory of the people, and the country’. The severe national rift will be healed. As a result, draft deferments for yeshiva students will then be granted out of a broad consensus, and by means of committing to extended studies in the yeshiva, along with combining a short service of a few months, they too will receive all the benefits for those serving in the army.
The Arab Public
If we merit returning the army to its rightful place – as a ‘people’s army’ – the destructive cooperation between the hareidi and Arab populations will be breached, and subsequently, we can appeal to the Arab’s in a dignified and fair way, offering them the choice of either being loyal citizens and receive full rights in a Jewish state, or, non-participation without getting the same benefits as those who serve in the army. Arab citizens who wish to enlist for military service, alongside readiness to fight shoulder to shoulder against Israel’s enemies – will receive full rights. Those who prefer not to serve will be treated decently, but will not receive full rights.
 The desire to keep soldiers in a military framework for the duration of three years, to a certain extent, stems from the ambition of turning the I.D.F. into the “melting pot” of Israeli society. Meanwhile, the talents of these young adults, which could be better contributed to society in the fields of science, technology, and business, are wasted.