The views of our Guest Bloggers -- including those of Douglas Aronin -- do not necessarily reflect the views of Nishma. Rather, we post them to spark reflection and discussion
Douglas Aronin, Esq.
Be careful what you wish for, the old adage goes; you might get it. With a government coalition so large that the chareidi parties cannot bring it down by themselves and a Supreme Court-imposed deadline rapidly approaching, the bulk of Israel's more or less secular majority is close to achieving a goal that has long eluded it -- the end of the virtually automatic exemption of chareidi yeshiva students from the military draft. With what has previously been a seemingly utopian vision now tantalizingly close to becoming a concrete reality, some of its long-time advocates are coming face to face with the law of unintended consequences.
According to a report on the front page of the 5/25/12 issue of the Forward (yes, I know I'm a little late in reacting; Shavuot threw my schedule off), there is particular concern that a large-scale draft of the chareidim would have "unintended negative consequences for the tens of thousands of women serving in the military." So serious is this concern that Anat Hoffman, who heads the Reform movement's Israeli lobbying arm, is quoted as saying that "maybe the cost of having [chareidim] in the army is not worth it." The particular problem to which Hoffman alludes is that the chareidim would undoubtedly refuse to serve in mixed gender units, forcing the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) either to maintain separate chareidi units or else to limit the military assignments open to female officers and soldiers.
Both the IDF's leadership and the leadership of the Kadimah party -- whose recent decision to join the government coalition has made the elimination of the exemption a realistic possibility, and whose leaders are expected to be the point people for the resultant legislation -- do not want separate chareidi units. Moreover, as the Forward article makes clear, there is concern about other unintended consequences of drafting chareidim in large numbers, including the logistical difficulties of providing food that meets the enhanced kashrut standards of the chareidim and the various costs involved in integrating the chareidim into the army. (One of these costs, which had never crossed my mind before, arises from the fact that married soldiers are paid more than unmarried soldiers. There are relatively few married soldiers today, but a larger proportion of draft-age chareidim are married.) And let's not forget that the Forward article deals only with those unintended consequences that the IDF has thought of and is trying to address up front. It is likely that other complications that no one has yet thought of would arise once a chareidi draft went into effect.
According to a slightly earlier report in Haaretz, draft proposal for legislation that will be submitted to the government as a replacement for the Tal law (which was nullified by the Supreme Court) does not contemplate a wholesale draft of chareidi men into the IDF. Rather, the proposed legislation would allow chareidi men to retain their exemption until age 20, at which time they would be inducted into police or firefighting units, although they could choose IDF service or civilian national service as an alternative. Some yeshiva students would remain exempt past that age, but the number would be capped. Whether such a plan, if it in fact becomes the legislation proposed by the government, would satisfy either the public or the Supreme Court, remains to be seen.
I am by no means an apologist for the chareidim or a supporter of the yeshiva draft exemption. It is easy to understand the anger of secular Israeli parents whose children risk their lives in defense of their country while charedi men of draft age spend those years studying Talmud full time. It is no doubt particularly galling for those parents to hear chareidim defend the draft exemption by insisting publicly that their full-time Torah learning does as much to protect the State as does the soldiers' military service. It's hard to imagine any defense of the draft exemption that would be less persuasive or would bring more discredit to the Torah in the eyes of the secular majority
But while I agree that the massive yeshiva draft exemption of today cannot be justified, I am instinctively skeptical of symbolic politics. Running a democratic country is hard enough when all concerned are genuinely seeking pragmatic solutions to pressing problems. When different sectors of society use political issues to score symbolic points in an ideological battle that is clearly beyond the competence of political institutions to resolve, the potential consequences of the ensuing estrangement can be catastrophic. Anger, it pays to remember, is an emotion, not a policy