Haredi Draft Could Cause Gender Issue

Discrimination Fears If Ultra-Orthodox Men Wind Up in IDF

Exempt No More? If the law that exempts Haredi men from serving in the Israeli armed forces is changed, they will join the ranks. But at what cost to Israel’s female soldiers?
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Exempt No More? If the law that exempts Haredi men from serving in the Israeli armed forces is changed, they will join the ranks. But at what cost to Israel’s female soldiers?

By Nathan Jeffay

Published May 20, 2012, issue of May 25, 2012.
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What is more, Kadima is highly enthusiastic about drafting Haredim and will be in charge of writing the new legislation. The Kadima lawmaker drafting it for the government, Yohanan Plesner, told the Forward that despite speculation to the contrary, there is no way that the new law will compromise by letting all Haredim perform civil instead of military service. He promised a “gradual but dramatic increase in members of the ultra-Orthodox community serving in the military and civil service.”

The rapid growth of the Haredi community means, according to Plesner’s projections, that in a decade, about one-quarter of Israelis reaching the conscription age, 18, will be Haredi. Israel, he said, “cannot afford from a moral point of view nor from the army’s operational needs” to exempt them. Leaving the exemption for female Haredim in place, and accounting for some Haredi men entering civil instead of military service, he expects his law to result in one in 10 soldiers being Haredi.

The question for which nobody has a detailed answer is how the IDF could handle such a large influx of Haredi soldiers without the effects of their religious demands being felt across the military.

Currently, the religious requirements of the few Haredi soldiers who serve — fewer than 1,000 out of the IDF’s estimated 175,000 active soldiers — hardly affect the operation of the army. This is because they are drawn mostly from the liberal fringes of ultra-Orthodoxy and because they are segregated in special Haredi units. But the army is resolute that it will not go down the segregation route for everyone once a Haredi draft is in place. Chief of Staff Benny Gantz told Haaretz in April that all-Haredi units should be a marginal phenomenon. “I don’t want to create an army like the one in Lebanon, with a brigade for every sect,” he said. Plesner told the Forward that he doesn’t want all Haredim in separate units.

Haredi leaders are virulently opposed to members of their community being drafted. But even if they are somehow brought around to the idea, it is widely accepted that, in an era when segregation is expanding into new areas of Orthodox life, such as transport, their ultimate red line will be that Haredi men will not serve alongside women.

Rabbis argue that, politics of the draft aside, the gender issue is a non-negotiable matter of Jewish law. “They cannot serve in mixed units,” Nachum Eisenstein, aide to Israel’s most influential Haredi rabbi, Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, told the Forward, reasoning, “The Haredi posekim [religious authorities] cannot make compromises that are not based on halachic standards.”

Complying with this part of Halacha, Jewish law, would necessarily affect women. Wherever the army would seek to place Haredi men, there are currently women serving. The IDF prides itself on equality of opportunity for women and has women in all divisions, including 1,500 female combat recruits entering the army each year. It would be difficult for Haredi men to avoid serving with — or under the command of — women, as 50% of all officers are women and all roles are open to them.

Plesner admitted that he did not have a clear solution for how this “major challenge” to the issue of women’s status in the IDF could be reconciled. He insisted that it would not be harmed, but said that he has no “magic solution” and that he wants to “leave some of the problem solving to the people who will replace me in the future.”

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