Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Biggest Political-Religious Issue in Israel Today

Well, it might not be the biggest issue because there are so many in Israel but it is certainly a leading contender and currently capturing regular headlines. And that is the matter of yeshiva students or Torah scholars serving in the military. Israel, of course, has a high need for security and the burden of maintaining that security should be a community value. But the study of Torah is also central to Judaism and thought by many to be part of the process of bringing about the coming of the Messiah. Religious leaders argue that these Torah scholars should be exempt from military service.

During the beginning of the state David Ben-Gurion came to an agreement with religious leaders that a specified number of yeshiva students would be exempt from military service, but since then that number has been growing. These exemptions arouse tremendous resentment especially in secular society. The strongest and most emotionally compelling charge is that secular and non-Orthodox young men and women go off and fight and die protecting the lives and rights of yeshiva students who don’t serve.

There are strong and defensible positions on both sides: cases can be made on the basis of authoritative texts for both compelling military service and being exempt from it. A good review of the issues appears here.

The Best Case for Military Service and the Ultra-Orthodox

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox students avoiding the military – sometimes on the basis of pretty thin claims for Torah scholarship – is simply unfair and can be justified on religious grounds. There are four main arguments for why yeshiva students should serve in the military.

  1. There is a commandment to study Torah called Bilul Torah and the argument is military service will detract from such study. But there are other commandments and performing one does not take automatic precedence over the other. Protecting the land of Israel is also a commandment and military service would be supportive of such a commandment. There remains the question of how much Torah study constitutes a sufficient amount. It is probably possible to both serve in the military, just like working at any job, and still study Torah even though this is not the definition of “full-time” Torah study.
  2. A second argument is that Torah students are special in that they are separate from the empirical world and are set aside to serve God. For yeshiva students their full-time occupation is the service of God and the study of Torah. Once again, a commitment to studying Torah does not remove all secular obligations. Concluding that yeshiva students live separately in a special relationship with God confers saintliness on them, which is quite contrary to Torah scholar identity.
  3. Another claim is that yeshiva students are in constant training to protect the spiritual world and not protection of the physical world. But Torah scholars are still obligated to take part in protection of the community. This means service in the military because they do not have the right to demand that others protect them.
  4. A final argument is much more practical in that the Orthodox community points to the incompatibilities between their life and the military. Problems with keeping kosher, separation of men and women, religious obligations, and interpersonal relations all pose almost insurmountable difficulties. But the military already has experience in meeting the individual needs of certain groups. Although there will be certain challenges the more orthodox Torah students enter the military the more the military will adjust and adapt to their needs.

The answer to this problem is not clear-cut. As of now it looks like the conscription bill will pass and more religious students will enter the military. The secular-religious divide is one of the widest in Israel and it is clearly exacerbated by military exemptions for Torah students. I think it’s important that these religious students do not stand on the sidelines while Israel struggles with issues of defense and security. It is already the case that their alienation from political society produces difficult conflicts. Military service is the most potent route to the type of integration necessary to close up this divide.

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Are There War Clouds Over Israel?

I smell war in Israel. I’ve had the feeling for some time that Hezbollah will flex its muscles and even try to provoke Israel and Iran, although they will not succeed. I arrived in Israel a few days ago and after reading more of the local news I had my suspicions confirmed.

The Jewish News Service reports that the Israeli Defense Forces are drawing up plans for an offensive attack on Hezbollah. But equally as interesting, the IDF is also working on defensive strategies. The population is being as prepared as possible realizing it’s always impossible to prepare perfectly. This is especially true because Hezbollah is not the same organization it was in 2006 during the second Lebanon war. At that time Hezbollah fired about 6, 000 rockets into Israel and none of them struck anything of significance and could not even travel the distance of the country.

Those days are over! Hezbollah can now fire with greater accuracy and reach any space in Israel. This means that sensitive and important targets along with more people will be struck. The death toll will be higher and the damage to the infrastructure greater. This will escalate the consequences. As more Israelis are hurt and more damage is done to the country Israel will, as is expected, retaliate even stronger thus exacerbating the whole problem.

Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy group and they have gained experience by fighting with the Syrians. They are better prepared for different military situations including training in infiltration. Israel has ratcheted up its preparation by training volunteers, first responders, and those responsible for providing information. New technology including smart phones, alerts, and computers are all being integrated into Israel’s defensive positions. Local authorities such as police and administrators will have more authority and be responsible for directing community responses.

Iran

If Hezbollah is not enough trouble, the relationship between Iran and Israel has deteriorated and already seen some share of violence. The relationships among Iran, Syria, the Kurds, the Turks, Hezbollah, ISIS, the United States, and Israel are a complex matrix of influence and aggression. The Syrians and Israel have already exchanged fire which is a highly provocative and dangerous circumstance. And the one thing all of these groups have in common (except for the Kurds and the United States) is a contentious relationship with Israel. Russia cannot be ignored because they support the Syrians but dislike Islamic motivated religious groups like Hezbollah. So what is going to happen? Here’s what I think is going to happen:

  1. All out war between Israel and Iran is unlikely. It’s too dangerous. This is one advantage of a form of mutual assured destruction; it causes both sides to become more conservative and cautionary.
  2. Also, Iran has difficult internal strife with intensified protests and more challenges to the Iranian leadership. The Iranian population seriously objects to money spent on outside political adventurism and the failure of the leadership to turn their attention to internal problems of employment and quality of life
  3. Iran sees itself as a leader among the Shia and spends billions of dollars, which it can little afford, supporting Hezbollah, Lebanese Shiite militia, and Shiite regimes in Iraq and Syria. A war with Israel would just be too costly especially under the pressure of sanctions.
  4. A war between Iran and Israel would very quickly include the United States. The United States of course would support Israel thereby increasing pressures on Iran.
  5. Russia maintains relationships with both Iran and Israel and stands to lose important economic relationships. Russia has increasingly friendly relationship with Israel and would not easily take the side of Iran–a religious extremist country. No one wants to see Iran consolidate power.

The complexity of these political arrangements is actually an advantage because there are so many different types of relationships and path dependencies that some route can always be blocked. Let’s hope it’s the most violent route that cannot find its way to its endpoint.

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