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Yeshiva exemptions undermine an Israeli ethos
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Yeshiva exemptions undermine an Israeli ethos

Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.

After six million Jews were slaughtered in the Shoa, David Ben-Gurion, leading Israel during the War of Independence, permitted several hundred fervently Orthodox, or haredi, men studying in yeshivot to obtain exemptions from military service. Ben-Gurion reasoned that the Jewish religious scholarship which was destroyed by the Nazis should be replenished and revived in the newly formed state, and that the haredi community would never grow beyond its limited size.

Before the Shoa devastated Jewish scholarship and Jewish learning, yeshiva study was respected and recognized even by left-wing Zionists. At that time it did not present a financial burden on the State; rather, an elite of full-time Torah learners was supported through communal charitable contributions.

After the State of Israel was established, the military exemptions remained in place. The concept of torato omanuto (loosely, “Torah study is their occupation”) came into fashion. The roughly 500 exemptions granted in 1949 have today grown to approximately 54,000 with no end in sight. By 1974, 2.4 percent of those of military age were exempted; in 1999 it was 9.9 percent; and it is projected for 2012 to be 15 percent. Today’s haredi population, with the support of their rabbis, is opting out of military service.

The growth of exemptions is matched by increasing demands for public assistance and social services from the haredim. While Torah study is laudable and positive, the unwillingness of the haredi leadership to accept communal responsibility, demand productive work from their community, and contribute to the financial burden borne by the State is demeaning to the majority of Israel’s citizenry. By not earning salaries and paying taxes, the full-time learners shift the burden for their welfare to the working portion of the society.

The level of expectation and entitlement which the haredim demand can no longer be justified by a modern state. Even if one were to excuse the haredim from military service and only require them to provide some form of national service, it could begin to change the culture of the society. While some suggest that the military does not need more recruits, a year of national service could have two benefits. It would provide relief and expanded services from which the entire country could benefit, and it would set a precedent that might eventually expand the haredi work force beyond their time in national service.

Nevertheless, haredi rabbis and community leaders — who know full well that only a minority of their followers are intellectually or temperamentally fit for full-time Torah study — continue to demand and justify services and benefits. In exchange for the same rights and governmental subsidies and benefits, all citizens — Arabs included — must provide some form of payback, by working, by providing services themselves, and by paying taxes.

Just as the Nazis did not distinguish among Jews they murdered, so too did all Jews fight together to save Jewish lives. In the War of Independence there were numerous examples of young yeshiva students fighting alongside the Hagana, in combat, in logistics, and quartermaster services. These young people risked and lost their lives to help create a homeland for the Jewish people. They understood the need for mutual responsibility. Sadly, that ethos is being lost.

On the other side there is also a need for those who are not members of the haredi community to accept the more religious Jews as equal partners in Israeli society. Beyond a small minority of militantly secular Israelis, the non-haredi citizenry is ready to respect a community committed to learning and mitzvot — but not so long as that community shirks its civic duties, hoards civic entitlements, and seeks to coerce other Jews to boot.

With the expiration on Aug. 1 of the “Tal Law” — which enabled full-time yeshiva students to indefinitely defer military service — Israel is now in a position to begin drafting haredi youth into the armed forces. In fact, both sides are sticking to the status quo, awaiting meaningful legislation that will integrate haredi recruits without burdening the army or encouraging haredi resistance.

It remains to be seen if the politicians will permit it to happen.

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