Sixty-four years ago, when Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion agreed to give yeshiva students military exemptions, there were only 400 studying full time in all of Israel.
Today, that number is closer to 40,000, and their continued avoidance of military duty is causing stresses in Israeli society: secular Jews believe haredi young men are getting a free ride.
A tough assessment about a difficult issue, but those are not the views of an anti-haredi secularist. Rather, it’s the opinion of a consultant who works for an organization dedicated to bringing haredi youth into the Israeli military.
Mimi Kamilar, a Canadian who’s lived in Israel for 25 years, serves as a consultant for Nahal Haredi, a non-governmental organization that works closely with Israel’s Ministry of Defence and the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to facilitate haredi recruitment in the army. She was in Toronto recently to meet supporters of the organization and lay the groundwork for creation of a Canadian support group.
Kamilar said Nahal Haredi has been operating for 13 years, and during that time it has helped 5,000 haredi youths serve in the IDF. Today, around 350 are part of an anti-terrorist unit called the Netzah Yehuda Battalion.
Most haredim, she said, live apart from the wider Israeli society. Haredi parents could not conceive of exposing their children to secular culture, let alone military service. Their young people are brought up to consider lengthy yeshiva study as proper and normal.
Nevertheless, “not everybody is cut out for that, but that’s the way of the haredi world. Haredim believe that… by learning Torah they are holding up the world. If the world doesn’t have Torah, it will collapse,” she said.
For those who can’t dedicate themselves to a life of study, Nahal Haredi offers an alternative, one that integrates them into Israeli society, provides them the military pedigree important for subsequent employment and provides an education beyond the world of Torah and Mishnah, Kamilar said.
“Nahal Haredi will create an environment within the framework of the IDF that will enable haredi boys to serve in the army while adhering 100 per cent to their religious requirements, without compromise,” she said.
To accommodate them, the IDF, partnering with Nahal Haredi, ensures the food is not just kosher, but mahadrin kosher (very strict). Rabbis are available to help them study, if they choose; social workers provide counselling to help them adapt to a new and unfamiliar world; the counsellors also help them address family issues, “so their families can be proud of them and not embarrassed by them,” Kamilar said.
Other adaptations include making sure no women come on base; creating a Shabbat atmosphere, and providing a respite centre in Jerusalem for those who can’t or don’t want to go home while on leave.
Their military duty also differs from others in the third year of service, when instead of continuing combat training, they are permitted to study toward their high school matriculation.
“The idea is to prepare them for life outside the military,” Kamilar said.
In its early years, Nahal Haredi mostly dealt with troubled haredi youths, but lately more youngsters from the mainstream haredi community are enlisting, she said. It’s becoming to be seen as a legitimate path for young people – at least in some quarters, she said.
Kamilar’s visit to Toronto coincided with reports from Israel indicating the IDF had begun drafting haredi 18-year-olds. The move came one week after a new law requiring haredi military service took effect.
On July 31, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered the IDF to compose guidelines for haredi army service within 30 days, and in the meantime implemented the Military Service Law of 1986 with regard to the haredi, JTA reported.
The law requires every Jewish Israeli to serve in the IDF and includes penalties of up to three years in prison for those who do not comply.
A military source with knowledge of the issue told JTA that one week after the law’s implementation, the IDF has yet to encounter any significant problems in putting haredi youth through the draft process. The 18-year-olds are undergoing competency tests in math, Hebrew and general knowledge, as would any draftee.
Previously, under legislation known as the Tal Law, haredi youth would be able to go to an IDF induction centre with a letter from a rabbi exempting them from military service so they could study Jewish texts in a yeshiva. The Israeli Supreme Court invalidated the Tal Law last February.
Kamilar said the Nahal Haredi approach is best suited to bringing these young people to the army.
“I believe this is the quiet revolution that Israel needs. If you take 2,000 boys who won’t or can’t learn in yeshiva and give them the tremendous support, it sets them up for life. They can contribute to society and still learn Torah and still support their families.”