My grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, was invited a few years ago on Holocaust Memorial Day to tell her story at a large workplace. Many hundreds were present. When I asked my sister, who worked at the workplace, how it was, she said that at the beginning of the lecture, my grandmother took the glass of water that was prepared for her, recited the beracha out loud, and added, “Answer Amen for the merit of IDF soldiers.” Everyone answered Amen enthusiastically.
My grandmother, who has lived in the heart of Bnei Brak for many years, raised five children, all of whom are blessed with their own children. She has dozens of grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. Her grandchildren grew up in the Charedi model of “nothing but Torah.” Men dedicate their lives to Torah study, and army service is distant from their minds. However, her identification with IDF soldiers was anything but superficial. The Charedi public feels a fraternal brotherhood with the rest of the Jews of Israel. It is anxious for the fate of the country and grieves the death of every soldier, cherishing him or her as a holy Jew who sacrificed his life for God and His nation.
Nevertheless, our distance from the state and the refusal to serve in the IDF inevitably breeds distance from the everyday experiences of Israeli life. I will bring a small anecdote that illustrates this point. My family on my grandmother’s side belongs to the Bnei-Barki-Lithuanian community, while my immediate family is more “modern,” living a prosperous life that includes openness to popular secular culture. When my husband enlisted in the IDF, a soldier in a blue army uniform (the IDF personnel division) came to our house. Misreading the uniform, I asked her innocently if she was from the police force. Even I, a “modern” Charedi individual with Internet access and a husband who proceeded to serve, am quite disconnected from the Israeli military experience.
Isolation creates distance, and distance can translate into alienation. It is difficult for us to sense what the entire Israeli public feels at this time. Most of us do not have family members and close friends serving on the front lines. We have never experienced the experience that 300,000 conscripts, their wives, children, parents, brothers, and sisters are experiencing now. We do not know what it’s like to know that our loved ones are on the battlefield, facing the wrath of an enemy seeking to kill. We attend military funerals and see only a token representation of Charedim in their black-and-white clothes.
For me, the penny dropped during a conversation I had with a friend who lives in Judea and Samaria. I suddenly realized that there are no people in my close circles who were killed by acts of terrorism or fell as war heroes, no stories of assassination attempts or similar traumas. The enemy is distant, and I expect to receive full protection from the great state in which I live—a state that feels distant, too (this was the case even after my husband was already serving as a rabbi in the Air Force).
To say we are in a difficult time would be an understatement. I find no point in saying words that will only diminish the experiences of the last few days and weeks. But I do want to talk about the negative consequences of the Charedi conscription exemption.
Although the principle of mutual responsibility permeates our education, our detachment from the experience of army service, alongside the distance from Israeli media and culture, exacts a high price of estrangement and sometimes even ingratitude towards the brave men and women keeping us safe. Among other factors, these are the feelings that are driving some Charedi individuals, albeit over the age of exemption, to enlist in the lines of the IDF. But the issue is far wider.
This raises a true dilemma. How do you glorify Torah study in the face of such a powerful ethos? The Charedi answer is by disconnecting from it.
I am a member of several WhatsApp groups, mainly somewhere on the Charedi spectrum, and some that include both Charedi and non-Charedi members, and I can say without reservation that it has just become far less pleasant to justify the Charedi army exemption. Our self-aware Charedi PR outwardly emphasizes the work we’re doing on the home front, the spirit of volunteerism (such as with ZAKA), and the labor of identifying the dead. On the inside, we try to pray, engage in Torah study, recite Tehillim, and bring in Shabbos early. In dire situations such as these, we fully understand that we are privileged.
It is a complicated situation, no doubt. Certainly, I am not calling for wholesale conscription into the IDF. Yet, I do think that the sweeping exemption from conscription should bother us. It should not be taken for granted, and, for many of us, the question of whether to enlist or not should be answered in the affirmative. The sparse representation of Charedi society in the defense of our nation is a moral distortion that is becoming harder and harder to justify.
Yes, we are privileged. But we are asking ourselves in ever greater numbers: Do we want to be? At the present time, I think this is a worthy question to ask.