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Why haredi Jews should resist military service

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The battle over whether ultra-Orthodox (or “haredi”) Jews should serve in Israel’s armed forces never seems to end – but it also never seems to touch on the right issue: the occupation.

On June 3, the Jerusalem Post reported that a handful of haredim who serve in the IDF have complained to police about the distribution of flyers and posters by some of their own coreligionists “depicting IDF soldiers as pigs, unintelligent, unclean, and as kidnappers of haredi children.”

This episode is yet another chapter in the long history of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox leadership’s vituperative opposition to military service. As explained two years ago in the popular Orthodox weekly Mishpacha (May 21, 2013), in clear if somewhat hysterical language, the rabbinate’s position boils down to this: since the Torah commands Jews to “observe all My decrees and all My ordinances” so that “the land to which I bring you will not disgorge you,” and since the rabbis assume that military service exposes soldiers to “adultery, homosexuality…and all the rest” – in other words, all the sexual offenses forbidden by Jewish law – putting religious Jews into uniform poses a greater threat to Israel’s survival than “that slithering Persian snake,” the “lunatic of Teheran” who (the article insists) dreams of “a world without Jews.” Only constant Talmud study can avert the dangers aimed at Israel by such “lunatics.” And Talmud study is precisely what will diminish if haredi Jews serve in the army.

Now to me, as an Orthodox Jew, what’s most significant about this line of argument is what it does not say. The haredi rabbinate is so intent on distinguishing its community from the rest of Israeli society that it cannot see the real reason it ought to resist military service, which is rooted not in its special religious “values” but in what should be an uncontroversial Jewish reaction to the moral morass of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

First of all – oddly enough – the rabbinate’s stated rationale for refusing military service runs counter to rabbinic law. The universal obligation of military service in times of emergency (for full-time Talmudists along with everyone else) is clearly stated in the Talmud (Sotah 44b) and codified by Maimonides, among others (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhoth M’lakhim 7:4). So while haredi rabbis are venting holy wrath against the army as “a spiritual threat to [Orthodox] recruits” (Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman), they’re offering precious little evidence that their principles have anything to do with their practice.

And that only underscores the really astonishing omission in the rabbis’ argument. Never once has the haredi leadership raised the issue that would justify its community’s refusal to serve: namely, that the IDF is first and foremost an illegal army of occupation.

That fact is certainly not hard to establish. Apart from periodic attacks on neighboring countries, the primary purpose of Israel’s military is to control and repress the civilian population of the occupied Palestinian territories in order to ensure continued Israeli dominance. “Israel has created in the Occupied Territories a regime of separation based on discrimination…[that] is reminiscent of distasteful regimes from the past, such as the Apartheid regime in South Africa,” mourned the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem in 2002.

What is more, since Israel lacks legal title under international law to any of the land it has occupied since the June 1967 war – a point affirmed by all 15 judges on the International Court of Justice in 2004 (including the American judge, Thomas Buergenthal, who is Jewish and a Holocaust survivor) – the IDF’s raison d’etre, in plain terms, is the theft of other people’s property. “[W]e are behaving disgracefully” in the Occupied Territories, admitted the former head of Israel’s secret police, Avraham Shalom, in 2003. Political economist Sara Roy, senior research scholar at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, similarly minced no words in an authoritative 1995 study: “Israel’s ideological and political goals have proven more exploitative than those of other settler regimes,” she wrote, “because they rob the native population of its most important economic resources – land, water, and labor – as well as the internal capacity and potential for developing those resources.”

And the situation worsens every day. Just last week, the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy described a new settlement now under construction in the West Bank:

[C]hildren are already frolicking in the new playground, splashes of color in a sea of gray…. No one will ever tell them their settlement was built on stolen Palestinian land, with the aim of sabotaging the last prospect of a political solution. They will grow up in a national-religious community in homes with four exposures, advanced solar-heating systems, all superbly planned and designed, in what will be considered the center of the country, not far from the forgotten Green Line.

Note the key words, which are clear as they are grim: Israel’s occupation is “disgraceful,” “exploitative,” “built on stolen land,” “sabotage,” “robbing the native population,” and so on… All of which, of course, is to be enforced by IDF.

For religious Jews, the conclusion ought to be obvious. Given current Israeli policies, to serve in the IDF is to contribute to wholesale robbery and systematic exploitation – conduct that violates basic principles of Jewish law.

Commenting on Deuteronomy 25:17, the great medieval glossator Rashi (quoting a rabbinic text) says that if Jews violate the Biblical prohibition against keeping dishonest weights and measures – that is, if they permit themselves even trifling thefts from other people – God will put them in fear of an enemy attack. Note that this warning embraces exactly the point the haredi rabbinate would like to stress: not only is such conduct immoral, but from a religious perspective it exposes Jews to more danger, not less. And that’s how rabbinic law stigmatizes cheating on a small scale – imagine how severe a matter it must be to deprive an entire people of its land!

So why doesn’t the haredi rabbinate cite the occupation of Palestine as its reason for resisting a role in Israel’s armed forces – a position that would be morally unassailable and that might well boost the prestige of a community that is often derided in Israel for its isolationism and self-centeredness?

I think there are two main reasons. One is simply ignorance. Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum, whose writings generally reflect the consensus of haredi rabbinic opinion, claimed as recently as 2010 that Israel was attacked “by multiple Arab armies” in 1967 and that “it is only the presence of Israeli troops in the West Bank today that prevents a Hamas takeover of the West Bank.” You have to ignore a whole lot of readily-available scholarship not to know that Israel was the attacker in 1967 (its intelligence services did not believe Israel faced a military threat). As for a threatened “Hamas takeover,” the Palestinian Authority has repressed Hamas and other resistance groups in the West Bank even more effectively than the Israelis themselves – a fact Israel’s own officials have openly acknowledged.

But there is a deeper reason than ignorance for the rabbinate’s silence. Although the haredi leadership does not favor Zionism, its fear of the outside world has made it extremely susceptible to Israeli propaganda that presents the Jewish State as perpetual victim and its non-Jewish neighbors as dangerous by definition. Knowing its fears, and fully aware of its suspicion of “secular books,” the government has artfully manipulated the haredi rabbinate even as it pretends to complain about its insularity.

The problem, then, is not that the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate has a strange moral code or that it relies on superstitions while the rest of the country acknowledges the need for military protection. The real problem – and it’s a big one – is that, in striving to be “pure,” the haredi leadership has kept out the light, so much so that it cannot see the facts that ought to trigger its own virtues. By focusing entirely on the Talmud, it has forgotten its place in the real world. By boasting of its moral uniqueness, it has lost touch with its own moral values. By seeing the IDF as one vast sexual temptation, it has managed to blind itself to the very real evils to which that army is now dedicated.

To me, that is the real tragedy. The haredi leadership desperately wants to stand apart from the norms of Israeli’s ruling elite, but in fact the haredim are playing into its hands. They are fighting the government over mere matters of “lifestyle,” while missing the true moral battle in which their voices might help to awaken the conscience of a nation.

About Michael Lesher

Michael Lesher, an author and lawyer, has published numerous articles dealing with child sexual abuse and other topics, including the Israel-Palestine conflict. He is the author of the recent book Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., Inc.), which focuses on cover-ups of abuse cases among Orthodox Jews. He lives in Passaic, New Jersey. More information about his work can be found on his web site

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9 Responses

  1. piotr
    June 12, 2015, 10:44 am

    I would give the “Rabbinate” (there are several in Israel) a benefit of the doubt that they know how to interpret Rabbinical law. For example, perhaps Maimonides explained why “The universal obligation of military service in times of emergency” is justified. By admission of the leaders of Israel, there is no emergency, to the contrary, the chief danger is BDS, and hard to see how additional IDF recruits can help. IDF needs manpower to harass villagers more effectively, but quite possibly the current level is sufficient.

    Majority of Haredi rabbis are convinced that prayers and Torah studies are more effective in maintaining the occupation than purely military means. Even that can be correct. After all, however secular Israel is, the justifications for occupation and oppression are in religious zealotry. They may also be correct thinking that IDF service can be detrimental to the preservation of medieval values in their communities.

    In short, extracting moral values that are useful in XXI century from ancient religious texts is a hard effort that can well be futile.

    • Michael Lesher
      June 12, 2015, 11:14 am

      Piotr, thanks for your comment.

      I agree with you that Israel today faces no actual military emergency. However, as the text I quoted shows, the haredi rabbinate’s position is not based on the absence of an emergency; in fact, the rabbis’ spokesmen insist on the opposite. Under those circumstances, it’s hard to square their claim about the priority of prayers and study over actual military service with the clear letter of rabbinic law.

      As for the moral values contained in Jewish tradition, I quoted one well-known example of the rabbinic stress on ethical conduct; many more could be cited, of course, but I’m not trying to argue theology here. My point is that it’s possible to miss those values for more than one reason. You may not see them because you’re simply not interested in the relevant texts at all. Or — as in the case of the haredi rabbinate — you may miss them because you’re looking so hard at other details (and not looking at the factual situation) that you sacrifice moral perspective. I can’t argue with people who aren’t interested in traditional Judaism — that’s a matter of personal choice — but I do think it’s tragic when the putative guardians of that tradition can lead it so far astray, while all the time proclaiming, quite sincerely I’m sure, their fidelity to the religion and how much it matters.

  2. just
    June 12, 2015, 11:28 am

    A very interesting article, Michael. Thank you.

    “They are fighting the government over mere matters of “lifestyle,” while missing the true moral battle in which their voices might help to awaken the conscience of a nation.”

    So far, I have found that “the true moral battle” is being waged by Gideon Levy, Amira Hass, Haneen Zoabi, and some others. For me, they are trying mightily to “awaken the conscience of a nation”. The most instructive thing is that 2 of these folks need bodyguards in Israel, and that all of them have had threats made against them by the GoI.

  3. Citizen
    June 12, 2015, 1:07 pm

    They Amish, for one, also have all kinds of nutty old rules unfitted for the 21st Century, but at least they only try to control their own clan, and don’t step all over “the other” with hobnail boots.

    American men who would be classified as Conscientious Objectors if they were drafted must still register with Selective Service. If a draft begins and they are called, they would have the opportunity to file a claim for exemption from military service based upon their religious or moral objection to war.

  4. Mooser
    June 12, 2015, 1:12 pm

    The picture needs a caption:

    “But Rabbi, what if the Arabs should kill me?”

    “But my dear boy, why would the Arabs want to kill you? What have you ever done to them?”

    • Citizen
      June 12, 2015, 1:19 pm


      “But Rabbi, I don’t feel right in this stupid uniform; I prefer my own like comfort food.”

      “Young man, nobody’s more kosher than you–keep the faith. And keep your pecker in your pants.”

  5. Citizen
    June 12, 2015, 1:16 pm

    If the neocons continue to have their way, say under Hillary, it will be entertaining to watch a call for conscription that includes females. Attacking Iran could do this. Neocons are not prone to fathom unintended consequences.

  6. Bornajoo
    June 12, 2015, 5:11 pm

    Thanks Michael Lesher

    “For religious Jews, the conclusion ought to be obvious. Given current Israeli policies, to serve in the IDF is to contribute to wholesale robbery and systematic exploitation – conduct that violates basic principles of Jewish law”

    IF the Haredi refused to do military service based on these premises it would be a HUGE step in the right direction as it would put a massive (possibly irreparable) rift in the unhealthy fusion between Zionism and Judaism

    Unfortunately, as you point out their arguments for not wanting to serve are lifestyle based and nothing to do with the principles of orthodox Judaism.

    But isn’t another factor that Haredi Jews in israel are so dependent on the state financially? Does that trump principles?

  7. RobertHenryEller
    June 13, 2015, 10:31 am

    “For religious Jews, the conclusion ought to be obvious. Given current Israeli policies, to serve in the IDF is to contribute to wholesale robbery and systematic exploitation – conduct that violates basic principles of Jewish law.”

    To serve in the IDF violates Jewish law?

    How does living in the Occupied Territories in and of itself not violate Jewish law?

    In fact, it can be argued, given how Israel was created, living in Israel violates Jewish law.

    And the author is arguing against “orthodox” Jews serving in the IDF? If one benefits from the sins of an army, one is complicit in those sins.

    Just as all Americans share in the sins of invading Iraq and Afghanistan, and Vietnam, and all the literally dozens of other atrocities committed by the U.S. military and the C.I.A. around the globe, particularly since the end of WWII, in the name of “freedom and democracy,” in the name of all Americans, so too do all Israelis share in the sins of Israeli armed forces, formal and otherwise, and all Israeli governments, in the lying, the stealing and the killing, prohibited by the Ten Commandments, done in their name.

    I’m still waiting to hear where and when the Jewish God said, “OK, because of the Holocaust, I, the Lord your God, am rescinding three of My Commandments. You no longer have to live and act as Jews. You are now to be Zionists, and to do everything you deem necessary to defend Zionism. I, the Lord your God, will simply look the other way.”

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