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.
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.
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.