Fact: Military duty in Israel is mandatory for men and women.
As these words are written, there’s a major demonstration brewing at the entrance to Jerusalem. By the latest count, hundreds of thousands of orthodox Jews are protesting Israel’s supreme court latest decision: to draft them into the military. The move to enlist them is one of the campaign promises made during the last general election. Everyone – Secular Jews, Orthodox Jews, Arabs – are told to share the country’s burden, to pitch in, to carry their own weight.
The load is heavy on the non-orthodox, secular Jews. For the most part, they make up the middle class. They pay the most taxes, they and their children enlist in the military.
The devout Jews do not enlist in the army, at least not in any meaningful numbers. Instead, they study the Torah (bible) in seminaries. Their learning, room and board are largely financed by the government. Donations from abroad make up the rest. When the State of Israel was founded in 1948, there were 400 such scholars. The country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, let them be. He rationalized exempting them from the military on the grounds that they were few, that they carried the torch of the Jewish faith, and that they couldn’t shoot a gun anyway.
Today the devout faction has grown to 60,000. And they’re refusing army enlistment. Many are a thorn in the side of “regular,” secular Jews. The orthodox don’t mix with the rest of Israeli society; they have their own neighborhoods and cities, their own bus lines, schools, grocery stores. They dress in black, speak Yiddish and Hebrew; they respond to a higher calling.
Avoiding the draft is nothing new and it’s not unique to Israel. Up until 1973, in the United States, the draft was mandatory. Young American men ran off to Canada to avoid being sent to Vietnam. Even Muhammad Ali, the boxing champion, refused to enlist and was sentenced to jail.
And would you believe that during Israel’s War of Independence, in 1948, when the young country was fighting for its survival against the Arab nations – even then – Jews deserted from the Army.
During “Operation Betzer” squads of enlisters combed the beaches and cafes of Tel Aviv, the largest city at the time, to round-up men to go and fight. They knocked on doors, raided homes, arrested almost three thousand able men and women.
Under the new proposed law, more orthodox Jews will be enlisted, 3800 in 2014, 4500 in 2015, and 5200 in 2016. To many, that’s a drop in the bucket. And they will serve half the term: 18 month vs. 36 months. Also, they will not enlist at the standard age of 18. Many will be allowed to postpone their tour of duty until age 24. By then many of the orthodox men are married with children. Required to support their families, their military salary will be ten times more that of the “regular” secular soldier. And there’s talk that “custom” barracks or bases will need to be built for them.
Sharing the load?
I can’t help but end this post on a personal note. The year was 1973, the Yom Kippur War, the year I turned 18. I was thrilled to enlist. Not because I was brave. It’s because it was the thing to do. No one questioned it. It was a given: elementary school, high school, army.
Like any would-be soldier I underwent medical exams. At the time I was fit, athletic, faster than most of my classmates. But that wasn’t enough. After a routine check-up, later followed by hospital tests, I was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat.
I was told I was not good enough to enlist. I was let go. I cried for days. Nothing consoled me. How was it that “schmendricks” who were flabby and near-sighted could fight in the army? And I, who could do 50 push-ups without breaking a sweat, was told to stay home. Every time I saw my friends come home on leave, with their green army uniform and rifles, my (irregular) heart twitched with envy.
So, religious orthodox Jews – rather than rebel, shout, and denounce the State of Israel that defends, protects and pays your way – pick up a shovel and go work in the fields, volunteer to help the sick and needy in hospitals, feed the hungry, teach.
Help your brother. He ain’t heavy. Isn’t that the ultimate Mitzvah?
“You’re in the Army Now” by STATUS QUO
“He ain’t heavy – He’s my brother” by THE HOLLIES
Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.
He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com
or at BN.com