Sign at a demonstration reads, “Only in Israel is it a felony to learn Torah.”
Sign at a demonstration reads, “Only in Israel is it a felony to learn Torah.”
Sign at a demonstration reads, “Only in Israel is it a felony to learn Torah.”

Our Aliyah Chronicle

By Shmuel Katz

Last Thursday, I jumped on a bus to head home. That bus runs through a major intersection in the Modiin area known as Tzomet Shilat. It is also the major intersection closest to Kiryat Sefer (a major chareidi city). As we made our way in that direction, one of the passengers called out to the driver that the intersection was closed because of a demonstration.

As we approached the intersection, we all got to see what she had been talking about. The police had arrived and moved the demonstrators to the sidewalk, while more people streamed in. I later learned that there were large demonstrations throughout the country that day, all in protest of a Supreme Court decision to cut funding to yeshivot that do not submit their students for military service.

I have written about this issue several times before, each time provoking many angry responses and several supportive ones as well–fewer people write when they are in favor of something. I believe that Israel is a country for Jews and the fact that we can live in the land set aside for us by G‑d is an incredible miracle and creates an obligation upon every Jew to either live in Israel or sorely lament his inability to do so.

Whether or not you agree with my Zionistic approach, one thing is indisputable: Israel is, at this time, a democratic and self-governing nation. The government, like any other government worldwide, has the right to establish laws and policies, and enforce them. Including the right to conscript its citizens into military service.

Our people’s history is filled with stories about conscription into foreign armies. The Noda B’Yehudah and Imrei Eish even disagreed (in the 1700s) about paying to get children out of military service (yes, I am oversimplifying). We have been conscripted for the military throughout the generations. It seems sad that we cannot rise above that level.

But when some citizens are forced to serve 32 months (it is being changed down from 36) while others serve 0 months, there is something wrong. Many Israelis are eager to serve. A few years ago, we had more volunteers for combat units than we had combat jobs for. However, in my opinion, this is a result of the mandatory draft.

Were Israeli youth–all Israeli youth–given the choice to exempt themselves from military service, I believe those numbers would plummet. If we went to a total volunteer military, I believe we would be understaffed. Why can’t a whole group of new soldiers come in to reduce everyone’s obligation to 24 months?

My grandfather served in the U.S. Army in WW II (and according to one cousin, he hated to eat potatoes after then because it was the only food he could eat in the army). Goldie’s grandfather was conscripted to the Russian army. Our family is no stranger to serving in the military of the country we live in.

In some countries we served with pride. In others we served because we had no choice. Often, we went to great lengths (as noted above) to avoid conscription. In the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Americans (both Jewish and not) fled the country to avoid being drafted. In earlier times, our people fled Poland and Russia (among others) to avoid conscription.

I understand the desire not to serve. I understand the fear (I share it) and the need for isolation (which I do not share) which scares the chareidi public into resisting the call to serve. Yet I also understand that if you want to live in Israel, and the law says you must serve, then you must serve.

The arrangement can be similar to hesder (whose students now will be serving, with the new law, about 17 months in the army with 3 years’ learning), Nahal Haredi (32 months in units with similarly religious soldiers), or some other type of service. You like MK Rabbi Dov Lipman’s plan to exempt the top several thousand scholars from any service? Fine. Go ahead and choose.

I understand that people don’t want to serve, and it reminds me of a conversation I once had with a rebbi in the Yeshiva of South Shore. Week after week I would meet with specific staff members, and this rebbi used to constantly heap on the complaints with the yeshiva as an employer. Some of his points were valid and needed addressing. But his attitude drove me crazy.

Every week came another complaint. Finally, after close to a year of hearing all the different wrongs of the yeshiva, I asked him, “Rabbi X, if this is such a terrible place, why are you still working here year after year? Is someone forcing you to stay?” My point, which he got, was not that I wanted him to leave. It was, rather, that the yeshiva did many things right and he needed to put some of his issues in perspective.

Similarly, if you look at the history of Torah philanthropy, you will find no single greater financial supporter of Torah education than the government of the State of Israel. Bar none. No matter if the motives were pure, or simple political necessity, Israel has spent more money to support Torah learning and scholarship than anyone, ever. The budgets for all Torah sectors are truly impressive. And, like any other government (and I have said this before), the government has the right to demand specific things of anyone who accepts such funding.

The government wants to continue funding Torah in a huge way. But we cannot afford to continue funding at the current level because we have no money for it. We spend a lot of money on defense, too, as we are surrounded by potential enemies wherever we turn. Is there a connection?

I went to the U.S. Selective Service website earlier today. In a section directed to immigrants and aliens (but I believe applicable to all), it states, “If you are a man ages 18 through 25 and living in the U.S., then you must register with Selective Service. It’s the law. According to law, a man must register with Selective Service within 30 days of his 18th birthday. Selective Service will accept late registrations but not after a man has reached age 26. You may be denied benefits or a job if you have not registered.”

If a person does not submit his name to Selective Service when he is 18—25, he might lose out on financial (or other) benefits to which he is otherwise entitled. There is no question that you cannot compare the American Selective Service to the Israeli draft. But is the stated standard not exactly what Israel wants to impose?

Forget the rhetoric (we’ll get to that later) and the misinformation you have been fed. There are “experts” clamoring for attention on both sides. Do we need fewer soldiers and more expertise? Do we need more numbers and better training? I don’t know.

I do know this: The majority of secular Jews do not care about making the chareidim irreligious and forcing them to violate halachah. They are happy to have parameters set up that provide for a nurturing, supportive religious atmosphere for all soldiers. If only the chareidi leadership would help design it. And the majority of the Israeli public, the people who vote, have said that it is time for change and have appointed leaders with a mandate for change.

Those who still do not wish to serve would lose benefits. They might have problems getting work, or even face imprisonment. It’s the law. They can always avail themselves of the solution that our ancestors used throughout history: Run away. Leave the country.

As I told the rebbi in South Shore, nothing is holding you here. No one is forcing people to stay in the country. Those who feel that their religious identity is threatened should move somewhere they can live the way they choose to live. Most of the people we are talking about are not Zionists–so they should have no problem getting a p’sak that allows them to leave the land to avoid conscription.

I absolutely do not want them to leave. I want them to stay and be a viable part of our country more than anything else. I think it would be tragic if it ever had to come to that. I believe that every Jew belongs in Israel. But why should I advocate requiring them to stay here in an untenable situation? If they actually would leave, we will have failed. But they need some perspective. You cannot claim that you have every right to be here and no obligations to the society.

Can they demonstrate in opposition to policies they are against? Certainly! This is a democracy with some freedom of speech! But at the end of the day, can’t rule of law prevail?

OK, Shmuel, we know. But you said something about hatred in the title of the article–what is that all about? Well, it has to do with the manner in which the chareidi public, including their leaders, express themselves (and unfortunately, all too often, how we react to it). Example: Last November, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman was attacked by a chareidi avreich who followed the opinions of Rav Shmuel Auerbach on the subject of military conscription.

In a column in Mishpacha Magazine, Rav Moshe Grylack analyzed this attack, and while certainly understanding that it was a lone individual, he expresses concern that it was chareidi leadership and chareidi press that incited him to such action. Rav Grylack says in his article, “I have met several young people who are actually convinced that Rav Shteinman and Rav Chaim Kanievsky have left the path of Torah!” because of accusations hurled against the two rabbanim that he terms “slander.”

Is this really how the chareidi world, one which claims to hold itself to the highest standards, is supposed to act? Slander? Smear campaigns? Inflammatory rhetoric and accusations designed to incite people?

Another example goes back to the demonstrations last week, this time in Yerushalayim. Former Five Towner Naomi Berman Schwartz (whose son is in hesder) happened to be passing by and had a young chareidi man (she thinks around 19) call her a “Nazi” in hatred and anger. Sigh.

This might be the most asinine and moronic tool the chareidim use. The police arrest someone who threw tomatoes at little girls? They must all be Nazis! Someone whose son is currently doing his military service is taking pictures of your demonstration and doesn’t look like you? She must be a Nazi!

The use of that term as a label is an insult to my grandfather who served in the U.S. army in the war and to all our relatives who were brutally murdered by the Germans. It shows no respect for their memory. Yet it is a term frequently used when chareidim (and sometimes their leaders) want to make a point. Why?

Because this is the only way such people know how to motivate their constituents to the fervor they need. If the leadership did not whip the common people into a frenzy, there would be no demonstrations, there would be no confrontations. They rely on the old tested and true method of motivation: blind hatred.

If they can get reputedly smart Torah students to call strangers “Nazi,” they know they have them fully impassioned and ready for action. Hatred is the only tool they seem to know how to wield. And it goes for both sides. I didn’t quote any, but unfortunately the other side has haters as well. Sadly, it breeds upon itself and makes a spectacle of ourselves for all the world to see. v

Shmuel Katz is the executive director of Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah (, a new gap-year yeshiva. Shmuel, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July of 2006. Before making aliyah, he was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at

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