It wasn’t easy leaving my wife and three young daughters to do miluim (reserve army duty) twice a year in my 30s and 40s. But like most secular and modern Orthodox Jews living in Israel in the 1970s and ’80s, I understood that the Jewish state couldn’t exist surrounded by enemies sworn to its destruction without its citizens pitching in.
So, I and my fellow citizen-soldiers twice a year practiced our army specialty — firing a 120 millimeter mortar — or did guard duty on Israel’s borders, in the West Bank or Gaza Strip for a total of up to 35 days of annual service during peacetime. (In wars, of course, reserve soldiers are called up for an indefinite period of time.)
But the members of my unit had a special problem as we went to do our service. The Schneller army base where we had to report at the beginning of each reserve duty and from which we would be discharged was located in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood, an ultra-Orthodox stronghold just west of the similar Meah Shearim quarter.
Every time we entered the base, leaving our families behind, we encountered dozens of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men who had never, and would never, do army service. Thus, at the start and conclusion of our miluim, we would come face-to-face with one of the clearest examples of injustice in Israeli society, for in serving we were helping to defend all Israelis from harm — including the families of those of our fellow citizens who were shirking their duty.
This untenable situation — which traces its origin to an agreement a harried David Ben-Gurion made with ultra-Orthodox leaders to provide haredi men who study in yeshivas a deferment from military service in exchange for those leaders’ support for the nascent Jewish state — may be ended shortly when the Knesset passes the Share the Burden bill requiring that the country’s haredim be subject to the draft.
This measure, fiercely opposed by the ultra-Orthodox community and its leaders, will not only “share the burden” insofar as military service, but, it is hoped, also will, in conjunction with other measures, encourage members of that community to join the workforce. Israeli economists and other analysts note that the Jewish state cannot endure when 10 percent of its population, a number slated to double in 20 years, does not work or serve in the army, becoming an intolerable burden on the rest of society.
This change will be a real challenge for the Israel Defense Forces — especially considering the ultra-Orthodox refusal to serve with women. (Unlike other Israeli women who serve in the IDF, haredi women are exempt from service under the proposed law.) But it is worth the effort.
In addition, the projected law could have an added bonus — it may bring secular Israelis closer to Judaism. Today, hundreds of thousands of Israelis are alienated from their religion because of the conduct of their fellow Jews. They see haredim as draft dodgers and shnorrers and conclude that if those self-proclaimed strictest adherents to the faith act in such an abhorrent manner, they want nothing to do with Judaism.
Apparently, they reason, haredim believe that they are exempt from the divine admonition “Tzedek tzedek tirdof” — Justice, justice you shall pursue (Deuteronomy 16:20).
So, for the good of the state of Israel, the unity of the Jewish people — and, perhaps, the greater spiritual fulfillment of secular Israelis — let us hope that the Knesset does its job as conscientiously as did the members of my miluim unit some 35 years ago.
Aaron Leibel is a member of Washington Jewish Week’s editorial staff.