Myths and Facts about Conscription of Yeshiva Students

Statement 1: The IDF is arresting haredim who do not conscript.

Myth.

The arrests that can be seen in many Youtube-published videos are for obstructing traffic or throwing rocks at police during anti-conscription demonstrations. The IDF does not currently try to apprehend military service evaders and it is doubtful that it ever intends to do so.

Statement 2: The objective of the new Equality of Burden conscription law is to lead haredim into apostasy through assimilation into secular society.

Myth.

The new law was prompted by an outcry on the part of mainstream Israeli society that haredim are not participating in their civic and military responsibilities. Worse, they largely rely on government handouts for survival. The purpose of the law is to redress this perceived unfairness in the “sharing of the burden” (hence the law’s name), not to change the nature of haredi lifestyle.

Statement 3: The military is creating and enforcing new, more stringent regulations that implicate many haredi men with “law of conscription” violations.

Fact.

The new law makes it very plain that the objective is to increase haredi enlistment. As part of that endeavor, the military is making it harder to evade service. e.g. by requiring that a yeshiva meet specified criteria in order for its students to qualify for postponements. The hope is that those who don’t qualify, e.g. they are studying full time or are not enrolled in a large enough yeshiva, will join the army.

Statement 4: The haredi political parties in Israel are silent on the matter because they fear the government will cut off funding or otherwise punish haredim if they protest.

Fact.

The 2012 Plesner Committee had proposed much harsher haredi conscription terms, e.g. that 80% of haredim would be enlisted by 2016 on pain of incarceration and financial penalty, and dodgers would, additionally, forfeit welfare aid. Netanyahu did eventually succumb to haredi party pressure to dissolve the committee but it sparked a backlash from the champions of haredi conscription. UTJ (United Torah Judaism) was held over a barrel to accept the present conscription terms, codified in 2014, on pain of the enactment of the original, much harsher terms if it resisted.

Statement 5: The new law stifles Torah study.

Myth.

The law hardly does so. For one, the new law provides for the continuation of postponements until the age of 21, thus giving haredi students the privilege (vis a vis their secular counterparts) to immerse themselves in Torah study for an additional three years beyond their official graduation from school at age 18. Secondly, the length of enlistment is now reduced from 36 months to 32 months. Thirdly, the law makes an exception for 1,800 of the most gifted students to receive a full exemption even if the conscription targets are not met. Fourthly, haredim (and only haredim) have the option of choosing civil service instead of military service, which may enable them to continue studying torah for themselves in their spare time on the job, e.g. a firefighter can study Talmud in the firehouse while on call.

Lastly and most importantly, the notion that 100% of enrolled haredi students are actually studying Judaic literature is fanciful. Every dean and impartial observer knows that there is a good percentage of students who virtually never learn a single minute of their time spent “between the walls of the besmedrash”. They chatter away with their havrusa or idle their time elsewhere all day long. The law was not meant to impede sincere students from studying, even though a case for that could be made. The law is meant to siphon off the weakest elements from the besmedrash, those who are not academically oriented anyway and who probably secretly crave the pragmatism and adventure of military service.

Statement 6: The effect of the new law is to make haredim who serve less faithful to the haredi lifestyle.

True.

It is hard to square the physical-fitness and combative mentality that the military imbues in its charges with the effete haredi mentality of academics, neglect of bodily needs, and submission to God’s will. There is, indeed, bound to be a change of perspective by haredi students upon serving in the military. But such a transformation is hard to quantify and may be minimal given that haredim serve in all-haredi typically-non-combat units. Also, those haredim who are inclined to enlist may already be at odds with the prevailing haredi submissive mentality and are not being militarized by the army.

However, the assertion that haredim are apt to abandon their commitment to haredi practice altogether is not true. There is no evidence, nor anecdote for that. There is absolutely no pressure to trim a beard, eating non-kosher food, be in the company of women, or violate any other core haredi principles.

Statement 7: The Equality of Burden law is spiteful. Its advocates seek to impose a burden or punish the haredim because they harbor hostility towards them.

Myth.

It is true that there are some secular elements who harbor intense hatred toward haredim, but they are in the minority in Israeli society and they do not stand behind this law. (They would consider the law far too mild to support it.) Not only was the law not meant to hurt the interests of the haredi sector, but it in fact is supportive of their interests. For example, the new law gave an instant, unconditional exemption to all haredim over age 22 so that they could get a job without being hampered by not having served in the military. The new law also permanently lowers the age-based exemption to 26 so that even those who illicitly don’t serve could get a job and earn money.

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