I was at a wedding recently and struck up a conversation with a young American man who asked me for advice on how to stay in Israel without serving in the army. He preferred to continue studying Torah at a yeshiva in Jerusalem but understood that, according to Israeli law, he would soon be drafted. I have had too many such discussions with young men and women who reflexively opt for an exemption from mandatory military service.
I asked this young man why he wasn’t considering serving in the IDF. I’ve heard many answers to this question, and plenty of them are legitimate. When the State of Israel was founded, then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion created a policy according to which hundreds of yeshiva students were exempted from military service. There are now tens of thousands of such students today.
This exemption was intended to allow these students to serve the country by studying Torah as representatives of the Israeli people. Rabbi Alfred S. Cohen wrote, “Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, felt strongly that students in the yeshiva should not be called to the front, for in their betei midrash [study halls], through learning Torah, they were assuring the spiritual welfare of the nation, and ultimately, we rely on our spiritual superiority to save us, not on our military might. Others have also strongly maintained that the zechut [merit] of learning Torah is a more effective and more important shield for the Jewish community than military service.”
Unfortunately, Rav Kook’s position has regressed into an attitude that often demonizes service in the IDF. The young man I asked to consider serving in the IDF responded, “It’s not my job.” There is a fundamental problem when a Jewish person feels they have the right to unilaterally exempt themselves from serving the country.
Moreover, the blanket exemption given to some Jews and Israelis—whether they be haredi, Arab or women—is creating unnecessary division and resentment among Israeli citizens. Indeed, the exemption from national service is a policy that has been fought by both secular and religious Jews for decades.
Recently, haredi Health and Interior Minister Moshe Arbel of the Shas Party said, “As someone who served in the army and in the reserves until I entered the Knesset, and whose brothers all served in the army, one of them as an officer, I want to say clearly that being ultra-Orthodox is not a reason to be exempt from military service.”
He continued, “At the same time, a person who is a hitchhiker and takes advantage of this exemption, not to study but only in the name of the black cap on his head, is trying to evade military service. We should all work together to recruit him for military service.”
The issue of military exemptions is a political one and will be decided politically. A more fundamental issue, however, is the national mentality required for Israel to remain united. This is an issue of values.
The sense of responsibility for the nation is vital to the Jewish people’s continued strength. Israel isn’t a nation like other nations. It isn’t a collection of disparate individuals who happen to be located in the same place or happen to speak the same language. It isn’t even a nation built on an idea, like the United States. It is much more than this. Israel is a unique and ancient nation, with a culture, values and history that are thousands of years old. It can flourish only when its citizens feel responsibility for one another and for the state.
This sense of collective responsibility has always been essential. Israel’s founders brought an exiled people back to a barren land and rejuvenated both the people and the land. Had the early Zionists been solely concerned with their own success on the farm, in the study hall or in the marketplace, the State of Israel would not exist. It was only due to a sense of collective responsibility that it does exist today.
If Israel’s citizens unilaterally decide to opt out of this collective responsibility, it would be a death knell. There are legitimate reasons to exempt individuals from military or national service. But blanket exemptions from national service undermine the success, unity and cultural survival of the nation unless those exempted share a sense of collective responsibility with those who do serve. The shortsighted attitude that declares “It’s not my job” undermines this sense and only demoralizes and divides the nation.