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“I Want to Serve, but …”

Fear of ostracism—not lack of conviction—prevents some haredi men from enlisting.

A day before the haredi “million man march” called to protest the new drafting of yeshiva students, I sat in my synagogue in Jerusalem’s German Colony as Rabbi Benny Lau got up to speak. This rabbi is no stranger to the haredi world; he is the nephew of the former Chief Rabbi of Israel, Meir Lau, and cousin to the present Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, David Lau. But the congregation was not surprised to hear him lash out with vehemence against the planned protest. Calling it a hillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name, he declared that those who participated were ingrates to a state that had educated their children, provided subsidized medical care to their families, given them discounts on municipal taxes and protected them from their enemies.

Go Get Yourself Killed

When the march took place with a fraction of the numbers predicted, I wondered if my rabbi’s sentiment might not actually have been shared by many inside the haredi world as well.

Even before the march, Knesset Member Aryeh Deri, head of the Shas party, which represents Sephardic haredim, said, “This sort of thing will only help the enemies of Torah.” Similarly, MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism Party was quoted on the haredi website Kikar Shabbat as saying that “the only thing that will increase [MK Yair Lapid’s] number of seats in the Knesset is this demonstration. In the next election, he will show a million people [demonstrating against the bill] and say: ‘I was the only one who fought against them.’”

As predicted, the muscle-flexing did haredim little good. Public backlash was swift, with the Knesset easily passing the law haredim feared most, criminalizing draft avoidance and potentially putting yeshiva students who ignore draft notices behind bars. Lapid, who sponsored the law, crowed afterwards: “A 65-year-old historic distortion has been rectified and Zionism is back.”

Rather than responding with greater fury, the protest movement seemed to run out of steam. In fact, the next protest was held in Manhattan. “It’s no wonder they are traveling abroad to influence others, since, sadly, at home no one is willing to listen to what we have to say,” MK Rabbi Menachem Eliezer Moses from United Torah Judaism Party reportedly said.

Indeed, there is growing evidence that the most profound effect of these demonstrations has been on haredi society itself, as a growing number of dissenting religious voices have begun speaking up in a way that would have been unprecedented even a few years ago.

Take Rabbi Gershon Edelstein, the head of Ponevitch Yeshiva, the Lithuanian yeshiva world’s Harvard. During a discussion on the Talmudic story involving two brothers who admit to a crime they didn’t commit to save an entire city from retribution, Rabbi Edelstein expanded on the idea of self-sacrifice: “What is nationalism? It is love of your people.” In widely reported comments, he went on to praise those who serve in the Israeli army. “If a secular person is willing to sacrifice his life for the good of his people, than he is greater than you and greater than I,” he told his yeshiva students.

Saving the Jewish People with Torah Study
Saving the Jewish People with Torah Study

A well-known haredi blogger on Kikar Shabbat, who uses the pen name Daniel Yannai, wrote: “The old chestnut claiming Torah study is an important element in the IDF’s victories is an argument that will never convince anyone other than another haredi… it’s false and baseless. While the haredi soldier is fighting, those over and under draft age will continue to learn.”

The real reason for the objection to the draft, Yannai argued, is something else entirely, as is the refusal to come to an understanding with the rest of the country about this subject: “It’s a way for haredi leadership to completely separate their society from Israeli society.” For if the haredim could join the army, “one of the highest walls separating haredim from the rest of Israel would disintegrate… This way, haredi leaders make sure there can’t be a second of solidarity between the two sectors.”

While he himself admits to wanting that solidarity, Yannai says he can’t enlist because it would mean getting kicked out of the haredi world, losing all his friends, his family and any prospect of marriage.

His is not a lone voice. In a letter received by Avishai Ben-Haim, the religion correspondent for TV Channel Ten, an anonymous haredi listener expressed similar sentiments: “Many, many of us want to be drafted. But the government prefers to empower political parties and the heads of haredi institutions that represent no one but themselves.”

Israel, he wrote, should be helping people like him by firing rabbis who threaten yeshiva students and their families to keep them from complying with government draft laws. “A haredi person, as soon as he expresses willingness to serve, is on a lower social level, considered rotten, while amongst the secular he’s a parasite, and a draft dodger… Me and my brothers who want to serve are the big story. We want to serve, but we also want yiddishkeit. We want to continue being invited to the Rebbe’s tisch (table). But we also want solidarity with the greater world and to earn a decent, honest living, not underhanded business dealings. We want Torah and work. But we’re trapped.”

If and when the walls do come tumbling down, it will be in large measure because of such small, anonymous musings, particularly on an Internet that is more and more being recognized as the real threat to haredi political and social hegemony. Three thousand haredim are already wearing army uniforms. Despite protests and ugly slogans, most of us hope this is just the beginning.

 This article was originally published in the May-June issue of Moment.

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1 comments on ““I Want to Serve, but …””

  1. shelley (gaber) novoselsky

    When I read your Rabbi’s name, Rabbi Benny Lau, I wondered if he spent some time in the US. Did he spend time at Camp Yavheh in New Hampshire?
    If not, then I have the wrong person. If it is so, I would like to send my Shalom OOv’rachot.

    Shelley (Gaber) Novoselsky

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