Jerusalem — My oldest son, now 19, studies in yeshiva full time. I ask him, almost every day: “When will you do army service?” I say: “A person with an iPhone or laptop should be in the army!” This is my common refrain, one my children have heard so many times at the table on Saturday afternoons that they shrug their shoulders and simply say, “Pass the eggplant salad, please.” I may not be a Zionist in a conventional sense, but you don’t need a messianic belief in the State of Israel to appreciate the importance of national service.
“If you want him to go to the army,” a friend commented, “you’re his father — make him go.” She has seven-year-old twins. “Wait until they are teenagers,” I told her. “Then get back to me.”
The question of whether or not my son serves, maybe once in my hands is certainly no longer. And now, with the coming expiration on August 1 of the Tal Law, the bill passed in 2002 that has allowed yeshiva students like my son to defer army service, everything may change.
If you want to better understand the effects of your own youthful idealism — say, from 20 years ago — then look at your 20-year-old child. Me, 20 years ago: On a graduate fellowship at the Hebrew University, I devoted my spare time to Torah study in one of Jerusalem’s many ba’alie teshuva yeshivot, institutes for the recently religious. My wife and I were enthusiastic, even zealous, in our newly-embraced religious observance, eager to heed the rabbis who, after we made the decision to stay in Israel, advised us to send our children to ultra-Orthodox schools. These rabbis, Americans themselves, nurtured commitment, tolerance and a sense of responsibility. I assumed I would find similar values and commitments — reflecting those of my American teachers — in Israeli ultra-Orthodox educational institutions. But I was wrong, or maybe just naive.
I am proud of my son’s proficiency in Jewish learning, and his connection to the Jewish tradition. But when he was young — or rather when I was — I did not realize how much his education was accompanied by a nearly constant soundtrack of anti-secular and anti-Zionist polemic, and that there never was any emphasis on civic virtue or even citizenship, certainly not service to the state. In American synagogues — even ultra-Orthodox ones — there is the recitation of a generations-old prayer for the government and country in which one lives, as well as a prevailing recognition of the authority of the law of the land. But in Israel, it is not so. So my son never decided — it was never on his radar screen — not to go into the army. That decision was made for him by me, almost 20 years ago.
This family story is now, of course, part of an urgent national conversation about the expiration of the Tal Law. The Plesner committee, appointed and recently disbanded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who has been accused of bowing to ultra-Orthodox pressure), has advocated principles of a universal draft, with a goal of 80% ultra-Orthodox enlistment by 2016, reflecting a growing national consensus for changes to the status quo. The ultra-Orthodox reaction has been disappointing, if not discouraging.