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Israeli draft pits secular Jews vs. ultra-Orthodox
Question of the Day
The ultra-Orthodox reject the idea that they are leeching off the state. They say employment numbers are skewed, and that they contribute to public coffers through sales tax on purchases they make for large families. They also note that the government subsidizes areas that they have no interest in, such as culture, sports and the arts.
Unlike other Israelis, who mark graduations, military promotions, and professional accomplishments, the ultra-Orthodox only celebrate study. Later this month, for instance, thousands of believers are scheduled to pack a basketball arena to mark the completion of a full study of the Talmud — a seven-year odyssey in which 2,700 pages of rabbinical debates over Jewish law are meticulously dissected at a pace of one page a day.
Many ultra-Orthodox sects aren’t even Zionist and refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state until the coming of the Messiah. Some tiny extreme sects even side with the Palestinians and Israel’s archenemy Iran.
Most object to change on much simpler grounds. In Hebrew, the ultra-Orthodox are known as “Haredim,” or “those who fear” God. But it’s not death they fear in the military — it’s immersion in what they see as a secular and hedonistic society.
“The main reason that we can’t serve is that the military simply doesn’t suit us. The military is a secular melting pot,” said Chaim Walder, a well-known ultra-Orthodox author and activist.
It’s not clear how much the military even wants Haredi conscripts. While it formally calls for everyone to serve, military officials acknowledge it will be extremely difficult to incorporate them into the army.
Many Haredi men lack basic skills, like rudimentary math, because their independent school systems barely teach them. Their aversion to direct contact with women would require segregation and could undercut the military’s record of giving female soldiers equal opportunities.
Insubordination could also grow if ultra-Orthodox men found themselves forced to choose between religious beliefs and commanders’ orders. No one can predict what could happen if armed soldiers took their orders from rabbis.
The costs would also be high: Drafting this community would require special arrangements, such as kitchens conforming to the strictest interpretation of Jewish dietary law and a large chunk of the day set aside for bible study. And as those who are married and with children are entitled to higher salaries — the military would face another financial burden.
Inclusion has been successful in some areas however. The army has designed a number of roles specifically for the needs of ultra-Orthodox soldiers, including a segregated infantry unit as well as computer, technology and intelligence units.
A military official involved in the effort said 85 percent of discharged ultra-Orthodox soldiers went on to find jobs in civilian life.
But altogether, the numbers remain small. Fewer than 1,300 conscripts participated in these programs over the past year, military figures show.
Some leading rabbis have ruled that those not cut out for intensive seminary life or those who were already married — and perhaps less susceptible to the lure of the secular world — could be eligible to serve or take part in a range of civil service options being considered.
Still, any arrangement would likely involve inducting thousands of unwilling men over the objection of their rabbis.
Walder, the activist, insists Jewish study is sacrosanct and non-negotiable, saying that state must continue to fund it.
By Matt Kibbe
The short-term deal will assure long-term overspending
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