Is It Fair for the Israeli Military to Draft Ultra-Religious People?

The God Discussion recently reported on the efforts by Israeli reformers to draft the Ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi Jews, into military service… but the Haredim are pushing back:

The Haredim study the Torah and pray from morning to dusk, for a lifetime.  They believe that worship and duty is their purpose… The Haredim say that they already do their part to protect the country through the power of God.  They also feel that they must be separated from the rest of society and that if thousands of Haredim men are sent to the army, the principle of separation will be harmed.

The Haredim separate themselves from society and are offered government payments for schools and living allowances to “accommodate” their religious practices. Israeli government and culture continue to push back, calling the Haredim to be held to the same standards as all other citizens, including military conscription.

When the state was founded, the number of exemptions from military service given to the Haredi community stood at 400. The current number is close to 54,000, and is increasing each year.

Haredi prepare for night raid

The idea of Haredi soldiers serving is not unknown. The Netzah Yahuda battalion operates on strict Jewish rules and provides an opportunity for the Ultra-Orthodox to serve. Nahal Haredi, the supporting religious organization, provides this justification for the battalion: “physical strength alone is not enough — the spirit of Torah and Mitzvot must underlie all that is achieved.” The unit started with just 30 members in 1999 but has grown to full battalion size at over 1,000. However, this unit is still entirely segregated and not all are convinced that this example is sufficient for full conscription.

I contacted two members of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers who also live in Israel and have served in the Israeli Defense Forces. Michael Paskin, an Israeli Defense Force aircraft technician, has no patience at all for a religious exemption to military service:

It is indeed horrible that such a large portion of our young to-be recruits manage to get out of the military duty by claiming to serve and protect our country by praying to their so-called ‘god’. Some Haredim have even mocked me – when I serve my country with pride — for not being “smart enough” to avoid service.

Nadav Heipert, who recently finished his enlistment as an Israeli Defense Force Sergeant, agreed the Haredim should not have special treatment but worried the Haredim were not ready for the general military population (Haredi battalion notwithstanding):

As long as the Haredi separate themselves from the non-Haredi population, I’m not sure they will be able to blend into the army or any modern framework. Given their extreme views on other subjects and their tendency to assault those who violate their cultural values, they may turn to violence to avoid service as well. The integration of the Haredi should start with education, and replacement of government-funded Haredi “Yeshiva” schools with standard public education. After socialization and education along with other Israelis, they will be better able to integrate into military service.

There are definitely problems in the U.S., but it is interesting to compare how things operate in other countries. In the United States, we try to respect free exercise of religion so long as it does not adversely impact the military mission or directly violate existing laws. The debate in the US is whether women can be denied health care due to employer religious objections and to what extent the military will provide family services to gay and lesbian service members.

In Israel, the government pays people to pray and allows them to sequester themselves from education and mandatory military service.  Aside from the question of religion, there are secular questions about the handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the societal value of a mandatory draft. This international perspective allows us to step back from political and legal questions and consider more deeply the question of human rights and what is best for human flourishing.

Special Note: Pastafarians in the audience may be interested in supporting a petition to the Israeli government to recognize and provide for Pastafarians in Israel. This is in Hebrew, but Google does a pretty good job of translating the page if necessary. (… pretty good. Google translates Pastafarian as Hfstfrianistim; you can contribute a better translation). I tend not to promote the idea in the U.S. because deeply-held beliefs should not be confused with satire. Considering Israel pays people to pray and exempts them from service, then maybe some increased support for a variety of beliefs. For those who actually believe in the FSM — peace be upon His Noodly Appendages — then I’m all for equal rights along with the other faiths.

About Jason Torpy

**Comments at Friendly Atheist do not necessarily reflect the official policy or positions of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers are any other organizations.** Jason Torpy serves as President of the Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers (MAAF), a nonprofit community for atheists and humanists in the military. MAAF also educates military leaders about the needs of nontheists and advocates where necessary. Jason is a former Army Captain and Iraq veteran with a Bachelor of Science degree from West Point and an MBA from The Ohio State University.

  • cipher

    It’s a serious problem. When Ben Gurion made these concessions  – living stipends, exemption from military service – in exchange for political support, there were few of them. Their numbers have increased dramatically over the ensuing decades, and Israeli economists are predicting bankruptcy within a generation if they don’t get the Haredim off the social service rolls.

    Furthermore, Heipert is correct; they display a tendency to become violent when they don’t get their way.  In some areas, they’re now attempting to enforce segregation on public buses, and women have been beaten when they’ve refused to comply. Some congregate at the outskirts of their neighborhoods every Saturday, castigating passersby for not observing the Sabbath and throwing stones at passing cars. When they stage a protest, which they do frequently, their two favorite weapons are burning trash cans (they appear to have an adolescent fascination with fire) and dirty diapers. They’re operating at the cognitive and developmental level of children – and not particularly mentally healthy children, at that.

    On the one hand, most secular Israelis view them, justifiably, as parasites. On the other, it’s highly quesitonable as to whether or not it would be an intelligent move to arm them. Heipert is also correct in that it should begin with socialization and education – but their rabbis will resist any challenge to their authority and the established order, and these people will do anything and everything the rabbis tell them to. They’re indoctrinated from birth and the vast majority are completely incapable of independent thought.

    Frankly, I think the problem is insurmountable. They will be the destruction of Israel.

    • Stev84

      They also tried to enforce gender segregation in the military when they deal with more integrated units. Some of them flipped out a while ago when a couple of female soldiers sang at some event or ceremony. They demanded that the women be removed (of course it never occurred to them to just leave themselves) and initially got their way. But the episode was widely condemned.

      • cipher

         Yeah, I remember that.

    • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

      It isn’t just that when Ben Gurion made the initial agreement that there weren’t as many charedim- when he made the agreement it only applied to a small number of people. The Yeshivas were supposed to pick their best students essentially and others were expected to fight. However, to get the ultra-Orthodox vote, various politicians kept increasing the total number of exemptions until the 1970s when there ceased to be any cap whatsoever. So there have now been about 1.5 generations of charedim who take it for granted. 

      • cipher

        I don’t think I was aware of that. Well, that illustrates further the codependent relationship between the haredim and the politicians who’ve supported their lifestyle all these years.

    • Reuben Kellen

      In Start-Up Nation the authors describe how the exemption from military service essentially prevents Haredi folks from becoming fully-integrated economic units within the Israeli public. The network of contacts that your average Israeli citizen puts together during their military service seems to be absolutely vital for their personal success.

      • Phil Bellerive

        I would think devoting one’s life to studying ancient religious texts would tend to eliminate the need for networking, since it appears to have eliminated the need to be productive member of society.

        Also, is it me or is 4,000 years enough time to study something to death?  I doubt anyone’s going to find something new.

    • HughInAz

      Yes, they are parasites, and ultimately the US taxpayers are supporting them.

  • Koren

    I don’t think it’s fair for any country to force a human being into their military

  • Loren Petrich

    So the ultra-Orthodox are essentially a sort of warlock brigade?

    Or at least that’s what their defenders imply.

  • Icaarus

    Israel needs a general public service opt-out. That would allow then to drop the exemption, and remove the incentive for their own citizens to join the extremists. 

    • Reuben Kellen

      I don’t think that would work, as the issue for the Haredim is less that they’re pacifists opposed to combat, and more that they want to be allowed to dedicate a significant portion of their time to bible study.

      • Stev84

        One reason they refuse military duty is because they reject the existence of Israel and its status as a secular country that isn’t ruled by Torah law. They think that that Israel isn’t legitimate as it exists because it wasn’t established by divine intervention. They are waiting for their messiah to return and erect a  theocracy. That one they would defend gladly.

        • Icaarus

          Hey, not saying there aren’t other reasons for extremists to join the Haredim, just saying that opening up a reasonable option to their entire population would deflate some of the backing behind them. It would also create a situation where they could force a reintegration. Surely a secular government doesn’t want to pay for full time bible study. 

    • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

      Pretty much no one joins the charedim to avoid military service.

  • Simon

    Interesting question. Is it fair that Israeli Arabs aren’t drafted?

    • Phil Bellerive

      Show me a draft anywhere in modern times that was fair.  Somehow, someone always manages to carve out an exemption of some sort for someone.  Our own U.S. experience with it gave us the horror that was the Vietnam-era draft system, which favored the sons of the well-to-do at the expense of the working class, exempted ministerial students, and ended up inducting those who were less than fully able to serve for mental and physical reasons.  

      As bad as Israel’s system is with regard to the ultra-orthodox, it’s as about as fair as it gets!

    • The Captain

      No, they should also be drafted.

      Although interestingly it’s been for a different reason. As I understand it (which I admit may be wrong and would like to hear more) Unlike the Haredi who are the ones pushing fro the exemption, in the case of Israeli Arabs, it’s been the IDF that has said “we don’t want you”. Now many, many Israeli Arabs do not want to serve in the IDF because of the occupation, and support the exemption, but unlike the case of the Haredi the IDF (and Israel in general) has traditionally said fine, we don’t want you in our army anyway.

      Now this is also changing too. I believe the same bill that is pushing for the Haredi to join the draft also applies to Israeli arabs too. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/jasontorpy Jason Torpy

      They’re generally not citizens. However, I didn’t look into that. It would be interesting to have cited references regarding Arab citizens and non-citizen residents. Are they drafted? Are they rejected?

      • http://www.summerseale.com/ Summer Seale

        What?

        Not citizens?

        This is why most people really ought to close their mouths when they opine about this “conflict”. Israeli Arabs are *full* citizens. They are *Israeli* citizens. One of the highest judges in the land of Israel is an *Arab*. He sent the former President to *jail* on charges of rape.

        There are Bedouins and Druze who volunteer to serve in dangerous units in the military here. They are full citizens and I wish people would learn about Israel before buying into the propaganda.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    One issue that also may be relevant is that the charedim are also often very uneducated about basic things. Their education system focuses on religious study.  You see the negative impact this has when charedim leave the fold and as adults have tremendous trouble adjusting to outside society.  A similar issue occurs when trying to train charedim for the military- they are often lacking so  much in things like basic Hebrew literacy or how to use a lot of simple electronic devices like computers (although that’s changing now), that training them takes more resources than it would take to train others. Some of the charedi leaders seem concerned about this  but in almost the other direction- there’s a worry that military service will make more charedim have skills and exposure to independence that will make them more inclined and more able to leave the charedi world. 

    • cipher

      In addition to what Josh says above, I’ll add that it’s a huge problem here as well. In areas such as Brooklyn, in which they live in large numbers, they may as well be on another planet. Their leaders are terrified of the influence of the Internet because it affords them access to unbiased information from the outside world.

      There’s an organization called Footsteps (www.footstepsorg.org) that attempts to help those who leave to integrate into the wider culture, but as Josh said, it’s very tough going.

    • Adam Abramowitz

       The same4 could be said of ANY religion.  I knew a Muslim man, from Bangladesh (who’s now serving, I believe, a life sentence for conspiring to kill a Palestinian, I THINK, politician), he had a HORRIBLE time dealing with western society.   Anyone who grows up in an insular culture, will have a hard time.  As far as the leaders’ view, that the more skilled they are, the more likely they’ll leave their culture is accurate.  It’s why the christ-ian churches hate atheists so much…

  • jdm8

    It’s preferable to not have compulsory service, though a small state like Israel might have a hard time at best defending itself when most of its neighbors have been in a state of de-facto (and many times, actual) war since the day of the founding of the state of Israel.

    Even aside from that, I don’t think there should be exemptions granted to specific religious groups.

  • Aderek

    It seems to me that if the draft is a random drawing then the Haredim have nothing to complain about.  If a person’s name is selected it is obvious that their god wanted that outcome.

    • Erp

       It is not a draft.  Every able-bodied Israeli, male or female, serves unless they are Muslim (except Druze who must serve) or Christian or are male Haredim studying the Torah or women claiming a religious exemption.

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ trivialknot

    Do Haredim vote, or do they consider their civic duty fulfilled by praying too?  It’s completely unjust for a group to have political power over military actions while exempting themselves from the consequences.

  • Roxane Murray

    If anyone’s kid is drafted and put in harm’s way, everyone’s kids should be.  

    • Miko

      Couldn’t agree more: just like how if anyone’s kid is kidnapped, horribly abused, and then gruesomely murdered, then everyone’s kids should be.  Right?

      • The Captain

        That’s the biggest analogy fail I have seen in a long time. congrats! 

        But It’s nice to see you believe some people should have to bare the brunt and risk of serving the society they live in, while expecting the same from others would be the same as “murdering”them. Elitist much?

      • LesterBallard

        What a fucking moron.

        • http://theravenspoke.blogspot.com/ TheRaven

          This seems to be a theme with you Lester. You should open up a bit and try out new words and phrases. Insulting people is an art form. Explore the total palette. Repetition does not an artist make.

          • LesterBallard

            I’m not an artist. If a piece of shit Muslim, or a piece of shit Jew, or a piece of shit Christian is a murdering asshole, then I call them a piece of shit, murdering asshole. Fuck their oppressive, patriarchal religious bullshit.

            • http://theravenspoke.blogspot.com/ TheRaven

              Tsk tsk. Style matters. Still, it’s a good sentiment.

      • Adam Abramowitz

         WHAT THE FUCK does serving in the military have to do with molestation?  That’s like saying, “If you like porn, you must like KIDDIE porn”.  Seriously, WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU?

        • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

          Because all abuse is sexual abuse? Really, you’re the one with the problem here.

  • Miko

    An interesting side issue: atheists often point out a standard of help/harm when analyzing prayer.  For example, donating blood helps more than praying.  This is an issue where the sides are exactly reversed.  The main function of the Israeli military is to police the oppressed Palestinian people in Israeli-occupied areas, so that people who refuse military service due to their offering worthless prayers are actually helping make the world a better place solely through not being in the military.

    The debate in the US is whether women can be denied health care due to employer religious objections

    Seriously, this is a moronic argument, so people should stop making it.  The debate is whether employer provided health insurance should be required to cover certain relatively speaking not very expensive items.  Since insurance that doesn’t cover those items is cheaper to the employee (often cheaper enough to cover private purchase of the items not covered), making them buy it out-of-pocket instead of pre-purchasing it via their health insurance premiums in no way denies health care to anyone.  It just slightly changes how it’s financed.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jasontorpy Jason Torpy

      This isn’t exactly a health care discussion, but the statement of whether women can be denied health care due to employer religious objections is valid. The Conference of Catholic Bishops and related fundamentalist political organizations aren’t writing letters to congress to save women money with direct purchase rather than health care purchase. Maybe some libertarians have your ‘alternative financing’ objection, but it is also the case that there is a strong ‘conscience’ objection.

  • Lagerbaer

    A dark twist of this issue is that without the religious fundamentalists, there wouldn’t be the need for that many soldiers in the first place.

    • Icaarus

      I think you just minimized how horribly screwed up the middle east is. Yea without extremists Palestine and Israel would be settled by now. But there is a lot of other ‘moderate’ sources of hate between many of the neighbouring countries. 

      So LMFTFY – without religion there would be no need for that many soldiers. 

    • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

      That’s not really accurate in this context. In this context, the article is about the charedim or ultra-Orthodox Jews. Most of them don’t support the state of Israel almost at all, and in so far as they do, are generally pretty moderate in their support. 

      The religious supporters of the state who push for hardline policies and live in the settlements are not charedi but rather are dati leumi which literally means “religious nationalists”. But they are in many respects religiously moderate individuals, with small nit keepahs, who make sure their children get regular educations and college, and have their kids go do military service. 

  • LesterBallard

    I have a idea. Let the IDF stand down completely. Then have all the religious idiots pray their asses off while the modern nation of Israel disappears. 

  • Thomas Farrell

    > Given their extreme views on other subjects and their tendency to
    assault those who violate their cultural values, they may turn to
    violence to avoid service as well.

    Then throw them in a damned jail like you would anyone else who turned to violence to avoid their legal obligations. After enough of them go to jail for refusing to serve, the rest will start to get the clue that their choices are service or prison.

  • Adam Abramowitz

    What’s best for human flourishing?  On a philosophical/moral perspective, the complete and utter denial/destruction of ALL religions.  Do what the Soviets did, only take it one step further…  how far would we be, if Galileo HADN’T been persecuted by the Catholic church?

  • http://www.summerseale.com/ Summer Seale

    As somebody who lives in Israel, I can tell you that I want them to serve like everyone else. And everyone else that I know of feels basically the same way. Most people absolutely loathe the ultra-orthodox at this point.

    But since, as it has been pointed out, it may be unwise to keep them armed or in very difficult units, they should start with washing the dishes, painting tanks, and other services which needs to be done, and which may teach them the value of hard work – something about which few of them know anything about.

    After that, we can talk again.


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