Orthodox Jews Threaten to Quit Israel Over IDF Draft

Sunday, March 02, 2014 |  Tsvi Sadan

Equal burden means that every Israeli citizen must serve in the IDF. In practice, however, 67 percent of the Jewish community and just 50 percent of all Israelis perform national service. To put it negatively, 50 percent of young Israelis are exempt from this burden, while the other half of society has to carry the extra weight.

Those who are exempt are primarily Arab Israelis - both Muslims and Christians, religious Jewish women, Orthodox yeshiva students, and other Jewish young men and women who can’t serve in the army for physical or psychological reasons. There are also thousands of Israelis who refuse to serve in the military for political reasons.

The newly-passed “equal burden law” is intended to enforce enlistment of all eligible people to the Israeli army or to some other kind of national service. However, the truth is that this law really targets only the Orthodox yeshiva student.

Yeshiva students are religious Jews who study Torah as a way of life. It is their profession, which for the Orthodox community is the highest achievement a Jew can attain. Torah study is perceived as one of the most important biblical commandments, and from the religious point of view, Israel cannot exist without these students, whose fight for Israel's existence in the spiritual realm is deemed even more important than fighting for Israel on the battlefield.

Forcing yeshiva students to enlist is therefore is seen by the Orthodox as an attempt of to stop Torah study all together. From the legislators' point of view, however, many yeshivas have become places of refuges for religious Jews who simply don't want to serve in the army.

In a nutshell, the equal burden law represents the deep schism that divides those who see Israel as the national secular Jewish state and those who see Israel as a place where Jews must live, first and foremost, in obedience to God and His Torah. The first are hinging the wellbeing of Israel on democracy and a strong army. The later hinges it on faith in God.

The attempted legislation has brought about an unprecedented unity among the otherwise fractured Orthodox community. On Sunday, up to one million Orthodox Jews were expected to gather in protest on the streets of Jerusalem. It would be one of the largest Orthodox protests ever.

The sense of urgency that engulfs this community was further expressed by the newspaper Hamachane Hacharedi (The Orthodox Camp), which informed its readers that leading rabbis are planning a mass away from Israel should the government try, in their eyes, to limit Torah study. The red-lettered headline on the newspaper’s front page annoucned: "Preliminary preparation for mass immigration. American senators promised to obtain refugee status for every family."

This apocalyptic scenario is unlikely to happen, not because the Orthodox are not serious about it, but because many Knesset members and government ministers object to a situation where they would be viewed as jailing young yeshiva students for the “crime” of studying Torah.

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