My father broke with his ultra-Orthodox brothers when I was drafted into the Israeli army. Seeing his nephews being “drafted into God’s Army,” while my life was in danger in Israel’s army, was a dissonance too great for him to bear. This same feeling is experienced every year on Memorial Day by masses of Israelis who, like my family, mourn the loss of a family member or friend and stand in pained silence in military cemeteries across the country, while ultra-Orthodox are deaf to the memorial siren and continue to walk around as if nothing happened.
This dissonance and inequality led Israel’s Supreme Court to strike down the Tal Law, which exempted yeshiva students from military conscription. In doing so the Court gave expression to the rightful indignation felt by many Israelis. Equal rights must be accompanied by equal responsibilities, and the feeling is that the haredi community, which has mastered the art of taking its share of society’s resources, must begin to develop a similar mastery when it comes to contributing to society’s needs.
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On a personal level, the pain and insult that Israelis experience is understandable. Nevertheless, I believe that the forced conscription of the ultra-Orthodox community (and for that matter, the Israeli Arab one) is a mistake, and does not sufficiently take into account the current peculiar nature of Israel’s multinational Jewish identity.
There are two main types of democratic nation states. One, similar to the United States, forms a new national identity from the amalgamation and assimilation of multiple ethnic, religious and national groups, creating a new and distinct community. Israel, like most European democracies, is a second type, and is built around a pre-existing national community that comprises the majority alongside one or more minority national groups.
In the US model, the constitutional challenge is to ensure that no particular community hijacks the shared public national identity and forces its particular values and standards on it. In the Israeli and European model, the challenge is to enable, preserve and protect the rights of the majority group to define the values and standards of the public sphere, all the while protecting the inalienable rights and space of national minorities.
Israeli society recognizes the distinctness of the Arab minority, and works, at times successfully and at times less so, to protect its rights. One of the core expressions of this is the broadly supported exemption of Israeli Arabs from conscription in the military.
While they are taxpaying and voting citizens, there is recognition that they are not fully one of “us” in the sense that they are a minority within a country whose identity is that of being the national homeland of the Jewish people. If the Law of Return does not equally apply to Arabs, it is wrong to demand of them equal responsibility in defending the country.
Our Judaism divides usWhen it comes to the ultra-Orthodox, a fundamental anomaly, embedded within our national identity, necessitates a similar accommodation. On the one hand, the ultra-Orthodox are part of the Jewish national majority. At the same time, they see themselves, and are seen by others, as a distinct community, a national minority within the national majority. We may have a common historical narrative and shared ethnicity, but we do not share a common system of values when it comes to the democratic State of Israel and the role of Judaism in it.
It is time to be honest: While haredi Judaism rejects the value and values of the modern State of Israel and the legitimacy of the Judaisms lived by the majority of its citizens, this majority also rejects their values. The haredim want to protect themselves from us, and consequently gravitate into separate communities. In truth, we have no desire to share our country with them and prefer that their integration be limited, all the while hoping for their religious assimilation.
There is no way to merge the modern, Jewish and democratic State of Israel with haredi ideology, and as a result many are rightfully frightened of a haredi population explosion, for Israel with a haredi majority will simply cease to be Israel. There is no way for us to build a common value system for our shared public sphere. We speak different value languages, and our Judaism does not unite us; it divides us.
Within this reality, coexistence is to be facilitated only through divided and distinct spaces and not in shared ones. So long as the majority allocates sufficient space to the haredi minority to define its space as it sees fit, and so long as the haredi minority stays within its space, does not try to dictate the life of the majority, or does not violate the fundamental values and standards of democracy and equality, we can continue to live in peace - and in political coalitions - with each other.
Obligatory conscription into the military, however, blurs these distinct lines and separate spaces. A small haredi presence in the military can be afforded its own units and rules. Massive haredi conscription will not allow for distinct units, and necessitates a common code of values and conduct and a shared willingness and ability to live together, both of which simply do not exist. In the current reality, an obligatory draft, while seemingly equitable, is in fact punitive, as it attempts to force a so-called shared collective life on a community that sees itself, and is seen by the rest of society, as distinct.
A time may come - if and when Israel ceases to commit collective suicide by continuing to fund an uneducated and unemployable haredi community - that haredi Jews fully integrated into a modern workforce may develop a more moderate brand of ultra-Orthodoxy that incorporates some modernity within its Torah, and which can assimilate into the larger modern democratic State of Israel.
If and when such a transformation occurs, the majority of Israelis can cease to see them as a demographic threat and we can begin to work together on building a shared value agenda for our common national homeland. Then and only then will it make sense to speak of a shared participation in carrying together the burden of securing our common future.
Rabbi Dr. Donniel Hartman is president of the Shalom Hartman Institute