Enlistment of Religious Jews, Where Is the Debate Headed?

In the early 1990s, Israel’s education minister Shulamit Aloni embarrassed the government of Issac Rabin when she announced that “the religious Jews are turning Israel into a Vatican for Jews only to impose on us religious traditions which discriminate against women’s rights and treat non-Jews as second class citizens, which we will never agree to.” Rabin was forced later, by the religious Jews, to move her out of the ministry of education.

The ‘Haredim’ are the most outspoken religious Jews in Israel because they head the religious rabbinic establishment, while the ‘Hasidimists’, followers of a movement within the Haredim have constantly been criticizing secular personalities occupying high positions in the high court and in the army. Yet, the religious parties have been playing a major role in Israeli politics and their presence in every coalition government might lead to its fall-as the case was on many occasions- if their conditions to join are not met. Shas, headed by Rabbi Ovida Yousef, is the most influential Haredi party.

The first prime minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, permitted a very small number of students studying in religious schools to be excused from enlisting in the army. His pretext was to keep intact their way of life which is supposed to mainly focus on the pursuit of spiritual knowledge and values. This issue which was supposed to only cover a few hundreds of students has become so enlarged now to the extent of covering more than 10% of the population of Israel. In 2010 only, 63 thousand students were excused from enlisting in the military service, a number which equals 15% of the total enlistment. Apparently responding to the heated debate, the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his (until recently) coalition partner, Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz, pledged to pass a law that ends the tradition of excusing religious students from military compulsive service that has been leading to a heated conflict between the religious and secular groups in Israel. Many analysts, said Karin Brulliard of the Washington Post in an article, “see that the time to contain this conflict has passed, especially now when the vast majority of secular Israelis are extremely angry with the behavior of the Hasidim, the religious Jews”.

The issue of forcing ultra-religious Jews to enlist in the army like other Israelis goes beyond the military service. The religious Jews receive a vast amount of financial help from the government for their religious establishments and a greater amount for welfare payments to their families whose only job is to breed without going to work to pay taxes like the rest of the Israeli tax payers who have to serve in the military. Such a free ride has allowed the religious Jews to be the most influential political group in Israel. Uri Regev, a religious reformer who is very disturbed by the behavior of the religious Jews, believes that “the behavior of the religious extreme is affecting the advancement of social, cultural and economic life which is the very spirit of Israel. The way of life of the religious extreme represents a clear danger against our stability”. Yonatan Flesner of Kadima (the opposition party) warned recently that “the attempt of the religious youth to avoid enlistment in the Israeli army is creating a raging conflict within the Israeli population affecting the army and our national security which needs immediate solution”.

An official study in Israel showed that “one out of four called for military service is a religious student who prefers to go to a religious school instead of enlisting in the Army”. The same study revealed that “until the 1990s, only one of twenty used to go to religious schools instead of enlisting in the army. There is a continuous increase in the number of religious students who demand to be excused from compulsory military service in order to go and pursue their religious studies in religious schools run by the extreme religious right in Israel.” What is more dangerous is the current trend, the study indicated, “that allows the extreme religious to attain high ranking positions in the military and political establishments in Israel which gives the upper hand to the commands and instructions coming from the rabbinic religious circles over the ones coming from the command of the Israeli Army”. To General Shlomo Gazit, the ex-chief of the Israeli Intelligence, “religious soldiers reminded him of the double loyalty of the military officers in the Nazi army”.

 The influence of the extreme religious circles over the military command in the Israeli army has brought about increased violence against the Palestinians in the occupied territories, especially in view of religious opinions issued by rabbinic councils calling for killing Palestinian civilians and the eradication of Palestinian presence in “the Land of Israel”, which – to them – consists of all historical Palestine!!! The rabbis are asking the Israeli soldiers not to follow any army command that contradicts with rabbinic orders. Yediot Ahronot newspaper reported that high officers in the Israeli army sent a memorandum to Netanyahu, asking not to enlist the Hasidim youth because it is negatively affecting the make-up of the Israeli occupying forces. They voiced concern and worry as they observed “the extreme religious wave sweeping the army”.

The question that arises now after the split between Netanyahu and Mofaz and the refusal of the former to support a law forcing the religious Jews to enlist, is, where is Israel headed in the midst of the current raging conflict between the religious and the secular?