HomeAugust 2012Drafting Yeshiva Students

Drafting Yeshiva Students

In Yeshiva, learning would begin at 7 a.m. and end at 9:30 p.m., with breaks for meals, religious services and short personal time.  The schedule is much more rigorous than almost any university.  In the early morning and evening, the focus was on theology.  Daytime was focused on Talmud.  Students would prepare the page of Talmud, and then at midday, once they understood the text and the commentaries, there would be a lecture that would scrutinize the text and focus on apparent contradictions and modern-day applications.  In the afternoon we would review the class and have independent study of another tractate of Talmud.
Learning in Yeshivas is focused in a large study hall, Beth Hamedresh.  At our table were Americans and Israelis.  Dovid Mizrachi’s family had emigrated from Yemen; he, like all students in Chabad Yeshivas, would receive deferments until age 22 or 23, get married, spend a short time in additional learning and then enlist in the IDF, the Israeli Army.  He was killed in the Yom Kippur War.  He was not the only one.  One of my classmates would bring his six-year-old nephew to Yeshiva every Shabbat because his father had been killed in a clash on the Suez Canal.
Israel is debating ending deferments for Yeshiva students and enacting a universal conscription.  It’s a multi-layered debate.  Some advocating the draft want all to serve equally.  For others, the agenda is much more radical, to stem the growth of the religious sector that is being incubated by the Yeshiva system.  The Orthodox community is not monolithic.  Many religious Jews serve; others see a greater value in lifetime Torah study.
Sadly, in the recent months, harsh positions have been staked out by both sides.  The leftist – and I would say – anti religious Supreme Court overturned the deferment law, developed by a committee headed by former Israeli Supreme Justice Tzvi Tal and endorsed by the Knesset.  Parts of the religious community are vowing never to allow their students to be drafted.  With close to half of kindergarten children in Israel today religious, secular Israelites fear losing control of modern Israel. Observant Jews worry that it’s just a battle against their values and lifestyle.
Sixty years ago, Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion permitted deferments for a small number of Yeshiva students.  He thought that religious Jews would be a tiny minority, and other Jews, imbued with identity based on secular Jewish nationalism would be the future.  It did not turn out that way.  The Orthodox today are more than 30 percent of Israel’s population; another 30 percent are traditional.  The minority are secular.
The question is where to do we go from here.  It’s clear things need to change.  Israel’s economy cannot support tens of thousands not working and not serving.  There is no simple answer to the dilemma.  What is needed is a sensitivity and understating of both sides.  As Yair Lapid, head of a new secular political party, said to an Orthodox group.  “We thought you were going to disappear, and you thought we were going to disappear.  Neither is going away.”
Change will not come by judicial fiat.  It must be gradual.  As former Chief of Staff Moshe Yalom recently said in response to those who wanted legal sanctions against Yeshiva students, “No one should be jailed in Israel for learning Torah.”
We need many solutions: job training to move more religious Jews to economic  independence and more units in the army that understand the unique needs of religious Jews.  Sadly, as Lapid said, “Israel has become a country of tribes.”  The time has come for each side to learn to treat the other with greater respect.  And maybe the Chabad model that has been going for over half a century can be adopted by more: Yeshiva study for a few years, followed by army service.

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