By Rabbi Dow Marmur.
Yesh Atid, the political party led by Yair Lapid, has tried to assert its pluralist and vaguely secular nature (despite its Members of Knesset who’re Orthodox) by promoting legislation to compel Orthodox men to serve in Israel’s army. So far, as pointed out by one of the ultra-Orthodox (haredi) parliamentarians recently, the most tangible result has been to bring together the leaders of all the haredi factions to form a united front against the proposed law.
The ayatollahs of the ultra-Orthodox groups – Hasidim, anti-Hasidim and Sephardim – held a meeting the other day in which they announced a common front against the government and called for a massive country-wide demonstration early next month. It’s reasonable to assume that, in one way or another, the government will cave in, whatever the law books may come to say.
One reason is said to be the reluctance of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to absorb large numbers of haredi conscripts. As has been often pointed out, this is at least in part due to the special religious provisions that would have to be made for them. However, there’re probably much more important considerations.
Jim Lederman, Canadian born Israeli foreign correspondent and analyst, spelled out some of them in a lecture in Jerusalem last Monday. He pointed out that what every modern army needs nowadays – and the IDF even more than others – isn’t brawns but brains. Modern warfare isn’t about the amount of cannon fodder that a country supplies but the intelligence (in every sense of the word) that it applies.
Haredim may be as intelligent as others, even though the alleged sharpening of the mind that Talmud study provides is probably greatly exaggerated. But their lack of scientific education renders them relatively useless in the armed forces. Whereas the largest section of the IDF is nowadays said to consist of intelligence, the haredim would make poor soldiers on the battlefield and be largely ineligible for computer warfare.
Haredi girls have, on the whole, more secular education than the boys, but they’re to be exempt from military service. And it’s them that the army would really need.
But, according to Lederman, the problem is even larger: the Israeli education system, whether secular or not, doesn’t provide enough opportunities for students to acquire knowledge of mathematics and related science subjects to turn them into the kind of military women and men Israel needs. And among those who do qualify, a considerable proportion chooses to take their postgraduate studies overseas never to come back. This includes several Israeli Nobel prize winners.
The inference is, of course, that if Israel spent the money on higher education for all, instead of supporting yeshivot for haredi boys where the potentially least productive IDF recruits are being trained, things would be much better.
They would also look up if the middle classes – who, on the whole, are less haredi and more committed to secular education – had the wherewithal to send their children to pursue advanced studies in Israel. The ostensible commitment to the middle classes of Yesh Atid can perhaps be best understood in this context.
Sadly, however, Yesh Atid and especially its inexperienced “charismatic” leader may not be much of a force after the next general elections in Israel. The haredim will.