Judaism: The Problem With National Service
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
As a result of my previous article concerning the public debate over army service, I received the following question:
Q: I do not understand why the suggestion of ‘Sherut Leumi’ (National Service) cannot solve the problem? Since the Haredim and the Arabs have a conscientious problem serving in the army, an alternative means of serving the country should be found, like the framework created for religious girls who do ‘Sherut Leumi’ instead of serving in the army.
A: The concern is that instead of solving the problem, serving in the framework of ‘Sherut Leumi’ simply delays it, and because it is not a real solution, eventually the problem will resurface, multifold. I will explain.
The sole purpose of army conscription should be for the concern of national security, and not the creation of a seemingly, equal framework. Moreover, only conscription to the army for the purpose of protecting the country against its’ enemies justifies compulsory service, and not any other type of volunteer work – not in the field of educational instruction in the army, nor in the field of immigrant absorption. Worthy values such as these should be implemented within a civilian framework. The army is designed for security purposes, and drawing it into other areas causes damage, foremost of which is the obscuring of the army’s most important and central role – to protect the Jewish people from its’ enemies. To this end, soldiers must be ready to sacrifice their lives, to accept upon themselves strict discipline, and agree to carry out orders. The importance of serving in the army should not be equated to any other civilian field.
The Solution of Civilian Volunteerism Will Destroy the ‘People’s Army’
The attempt to equate between civilian volunteers and soldiers engaged in defending the country, will inevitably lead to the cancellation of the concept of a ‘people’s army’, owing to the disparity between soldiers occupied with security of the country, and the various volunteers. These volunteers will receive all kinds of grants, without having participated in the arduous framework of the army – not even receiving minimum, military training for times of emergency. As a result, soldiers enlisting for combat service will once again end up being ‘friars’ (suckers).
In addition to this, the inefficiency of the volunteer organizations will eventually cause them to be cancelled, because in a highly developed country built on advanced technology such as ours, there is no need for so many inexperienced volunteers. However, seeing as these volunteers will be considered equal to soldiers, the State will have to grant them a living allowance, and in addition, employ a vast team of managers, clerks, and instructors in order to supervise them.
And if, nevertheless, the volunteers are placed in positions that do not require skills, the result will be that all of the country’s weaker citizens who lack vocational training to secure better jobs, will become unemployed. Not only will they lose their jobs and dignity, but the State will have to pay them income support benefits, while at the same time, bankroll the volunteers who took their places – and all this, to “serve the nation”.
A Few Examples
‘Sherut Leumi’ already suffers from inefficiency. Here are a few examples: A young Haredi man volunteered for ‘Sherut Leumi’ in one of the major libraries. However, as one of his co-workers related, whenever asked to find a book, he replied that he did not know how. When asked to move books from one shelf to another, he claimed he didn’t know where the proper shelves were, or that his back was hurting him. When asked to update the computer, he said he did not know how to use it. Thus, he spent his time in ‘Sherut Leumi” in complete idleness, or at the very best, reading books – all for “the sake of the nation”.
Another young man volunteered for a year in the fire department. When asked by his friends if he knew how to extinguish a fire, he honestly replied that he was extremely afraid of fire, and therefore, under no circumstances would he go out with the firefighters to put out a fire. In truth, he was actually willing to contribute more, and at first, ‘Sherut Leumi’ sent him to volunteer in a hospital, but, because he was placed on a staff that included women, he had no choice but to leave, and consequently, they sent him to the fire department, in spite of his telling them he was afraid of fire. What could he do?
The Organization is Guilty, Not the Volunteers
The volunteers are not to blame, but rather the organization, as the saying goes: “It’s not the mouse who steals, but rather the hole”. When a person works for a salary, he knows that if he doesn’t show up for work, he will be fired and lose his salary. Consequently, he takes the responsibility upon himself, and comes to work. When a soldier does not show up for duty, he is sentenced to jail. But as far as volunteers who do not arrive on time to their jobs are concerned, there are hardly any sanctions that can be taken against them, other than removing them from ‘Sherut Leumi’. Presently, however, the national interest is the exact opposite – allowing them to finish their service, and thereby “laundering” their evading army service.
Only individuals who embark upon ‘Sherut Leumi’ with high ideals and perseverance can serve appropriately, and make a real contribution. Ordinary people find it difficult to serve well in a non-military framework, or in a job in which they do not receive a monthly salary. As our Sages said: “A physician who heals for nothing, is worth nothing” (Bava Kama 85a). In other words, medical care given for free, out of goodwill, is worthless because, seeing as the doctor is not paid, he does not bother to complete the job properly.
‘Sherut Leumi’ (National Service)
‘Sherut Leumi’ was founded nearly sixty years ago, out of a concern to find a channel through which the religious community could contribute to the State. The young women who volunteered were imbued with a deep sense of mission, and in those days, since the country was in need of unskilled workers, ‘Sherut Leumi’ contributed significantly to the State. If ‘Sherut Leumi’ is converted into a national “laundromat” for dodging the army, a tragic situation is liable to occur in which a program started with good intentions ultimately will destroy the significance of military service, leaving no other choice but to turn the I.D.F into a volunteer army.
An Opportunity for Correction
The fierce public debate over the question of equal sharing of the national burden during both the election campaign and the forming of a coalition, along with the public rift and mutual insults involved, creates a golden opportunity for the army to make essential changes in order to adjust itself to its own fundamental goals.
With the aim of including all citizens in the framework of ‘Sherut Leumi’ without creating unemployment, army service should be reduced for all soldiers, while at the same time, encouraging top quality soldiers – even those who are not officers – to serve in ‘keva’ (standing army) for prolonged periods of time, both in combat and technology units.
In this framework, the question of Arab civilian service to the State must be dealt with. If directly recruiting them into the army poses a problem, then a serious channel must be found through which they can contribute to the State and its security – and not only for their own communities. For instance, a military construction unit, for the sake of building army camps and roads of strategic importance might be an idea.
Cancellation of Compulsory Conscription for Women
In this revised framework, compulsory army conscription of women should be cancelled, because clearly, according to ‘halacha’ (Jewish law), religious women cannot be recruited. Consequently, compulsory conscription of women merely perpetuates inequality. Women who wish to enlist can do so according to the needs of the army, for pay, or to volunteer. By cancelling compulsory conscription of women, some of the problems of immodesty in the army will be resolved, because of which, several religious men find it difficult to serve in the army, and many of the Haredi men find it impossible.
At the same time, another problem will be solved: In the present situation, women in Israel begin their higher education two years after that of women from Western, developed countries – without any genuine need.
Army, In; Teaching Liberal-Secular Notions, Out
Within the framework of comprehensive reform, the ‘Cheil Chinuch’ (Education Corps) should be curtailed to dealing solely with ‘moreshet krav’ (the heritage of military heroism), and not for the purpose of conveying liberal, secular worldviews.
It is totally absurd to think that in this day and age, the army can be used as an instrument to wage war against traditional Judaism, as many secularists believe. They view the army as a key tool for educating and changing the Haredi, religious, and traditional communities. The alarming fact is that the Leftists, who oppose the majority of the army’s military operations, support ‘conscription for all’ so that they can use the army as a device for liberal, leftist education, which is justifiably perceived by many as a type of spiritual assimilation.
The Painful Truth
The painful truth must be told: In the framework of the army, many religious youth abandoned the observance of Torah and mitzvoth. This unfortunate fact caused the Haredi community to become alienated in regards to serving in the army, and to view compulsory conscription as a harsh decree designed to ruin the education of the youth. Some Haredi functionaries went as far as comparing it to the decrees of the Cantonists in Russia a hundred and fifty years ago, in which young Jewish boys were drafted into the Russian army, and most of them never returned to Judaism.
In principle, the National-Religious community rightly chose to continue serving in the army, because it is a great mitzvah to defend the nation and the land. The problem is that this decision was accompanied by catastrophic errors. Out of a sense of good will, the religious community agreed to compromise on several issues, thus abandoning its sons to secular coercion in the army. In the distant past, the majority of religious recruits in the army became secular during their service. Today, approximately twenty percent abandon religion. For the religious community, this is a horrible price to have to pay. It is also the reason why such a high percentage of the religious community has become Haredi. According to an analysis of data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, nearly half of the parents of students presently learning in the Haredi school system, themselves learned in State-Religious schools.
Arguments against the Haredim
When people claim, on the one hand, that the Haredim must enlist in the army, but at the same time, do nothing to prepare the army properly to absorb them, in effect, they are claiming that the Haredi community must be coerced into changing its way of life. Instead of the Chief of Staff publically declaring that the army must educate its soldiers towards gender equality, including obligating them to listen to women sing at military events – as he did about a year ago – he should occupy himself in the field in which he is in charge of – security!
The quest to create a “melting-pot” for Israeli-secularism via the I.D.F. resulted in the inability of an increasingly growing public to find its place in the army. National accountability obligates freeing the I.D.F. from engaging in feminism, and the like. This is not a call to force a religious lifestyle on secular soldiers, but rather, that the Israeli army on the whole should commit itself to Jewish tradition, similar to that of the Jewish state.
If only the representatives of the Haredi public would work on behalf of strengthening the Jewish character of the army, and for the sake of recruiting members of the Haredi and religious public under ‘mehedrin’ (strictly religious) conditions, they would complete what the leaders of the religious public failed to accomplish. And then, instead of defending themselves and trying to explain why they dodge the draft, they will make a great ‘tikun’ (improvement), and many members of the Haredi community will be able to fulfill the great mitzvah of defending the nation and the land, within the framework of the I.D.F., ‘b’hidur’ (with enhancement).
The Attitude towards Torah Students
At the same time, the attitude towards individuals who study Torah will also receive its sanctified and worthy place amongst Israeli society, above and beyond any type of secular studies, because only the study of Torah constitutes an eternal foundation for the existence of our nation. Accordingly, in a situation where there are no urgent security requirements, the military service of individuals studying Torah diligently should be postponed.