A rabbi’s call to draft Israel’s ultra-Orthodox into military service

Surprisingly, Rabbi Dov Lipman, an Israeli Orthodox rabbi, had other things on his mind last week than Syria. He was … Continued

Surprisingly, Rabbi Dov Lipman, an Israeli Orthodox rabbi, had other things on his mind last week than Syria. He was in town for Rosh Hashanah the Jewish New Year and he headed back to Israel in time for Yom Kippur, this year marking the 40th anniversary of the Yom Kippur war.  Lipman is a member of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, a former American citizen who immigrated to Israel with his wife and four children nine years ago.

In fact, Lipman demurred on the issue of Syria. “On the ground there is no sense of panic, “ said Lipman. “We watch and protect our security. We’ve experienced flare ups in the past.” Lipman’s view reflects those of many Israelis who are sitting this one out. “We feel the U.S. has to make the decisions,” he said. “It is not our place to interfere.” Why so calm? Why no fears that Bashar al-Assad will try to gas Israel? There is a steely determination in his voice we have come to expect. “Assad will not use poison gas on Israel,” he says. “If he does it will be a big mistake…It would be highly unlikely for anyone to attack us. All precautions are being taken.”

Lipman’s biggest moral concern right now, it turns out, is the separation of church and state which he feels poses not only an economic problem but a security problem. According to him, there are 60,000 ultra-Orthodox who do not pull their own weight. When Israel was founded there were 400 who were given exemptions. They do not do military service, they have no formal education, they study Torah as their life’s work and they are subsidized by the government. Altogether there are some 800,000 ultra-Orthodox in Israel and their religious beliefs  say that it is better to die than be drafted.

Lipman’s goal is to bring the young men into the military in separate units without women commanders, separate prayer schedules and training to prepare them to enter the work force and contribute financially to the community. There has been considerable outrage and even death threats aimed at Lipman for saying these things. He did a radio show where the host confronted him, asking how he could ask these men to leave Torah studies and go to work. “I told him, Maimonides, (one of the great Jewish philosophers) says that anyone who chooses the Torah and does not contribute is a person who has disgraced and brought shame to the Torah and will have no place in the world to come.”  According to Lipman, the host was forced to acknowledge that core Jewish values are marrying, working and supporting one’s family.     

Lipman, originally from Silver Spring , Md., was ordained from Ner Israel Rabbinical College and has a Masters in education from Johns Hopkins University. Because he has challenged religious extremists in Israel, he was forced to take his children out of the ultra-Orthodox school system.

“They would have suffered too much,” he told me.

He will send his 16-year-old son to the military. He says that because he has insisted on training and education among the ultra-Orthodox, many of them, who would be afraid to support him publicly, will thank him privately for encouraging their children to get out and study and work.

This stubborn lack of engagement on the part of so many of the ultra-Orthodox leaders , says Lipman, “has damaged religion in Israel. I don’t want to be a part of it. If we integrate, the gap won’t be there anymore.”

The fact that Lipman sees the issue of separation of church and state, the attitudes  of the ultra-Orthodox community and their lack of involvement in the security of Israel as a huge threat is remarkable, given the chaos which surrounds Israel at the moment. That an orthodox rabbi, former American and member of the Israeli parliament would be in Washington during the high holy days focusing on this tells you a lot about the priorities which are being considered in his country. It’s almost as though he and his fellow Israelis are concentrating on getting their own house in order so as to remain strong for the potential attacks with which they are constantly being threatened.

As a rabbi, however, he understand the moral implications of Israel not stepping in to avenge innocents who have been slaughtered.  He says Israel won’t, at the moment, do anything except to set up field hospitals on its border to treat the wounded. “They know that if they get hurt, they should go west to Israel,” he says. But there is a slight warning there, too.  “Morally, taking off my Knesset hat, it reaches a point where you have a responsibility to stop people from ( hurting) their own people.”

What that sounds like is, don’t mess with Israel, but don’t go too far with your own people either. That, too, would be a big mistake.

Sally Quinn
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  • Geneva C

    Ranting now about whether or not it had been, all those decades ago, the right decision to exempt the (at that time) few hundred ultra-Orthodox students of Torah from Israel’s national defense duty does no one any good. That was then. Now is now. Ultra-Orthodox are roughly 800,000 or so, comprising about 10% of Israel’s population, exempted from national service just because they’re enrolled in Torah study.

    In the twenty-first century, Israel is a stable nation, one which has and will continue to have urgent needs for well-prepared military defense. Looking backward at whether blanket exemptions were or were not the right decision made back when the nation was just being formed is foolish. That would be like driving forward at freeway speed in heavy traffic while solely staring into the rear view mirror, not looking forward and to the sides to see clearly the current situation.

    One of the great benefits of Israel’s universal national service is that young adult Israelis get the experience of being exposed to and working together with others who have a variety of views. Even though step one of introducing ultra-Orthodox individuals into national service will almost certainly be serving in separate units, there still will be much more contact and necessary inter-cooperation with other Israelis than is the case today.

    It will be well for those on both sides of the question in Israel to stop looking backward at what had been decided decades ago. Those were different people coming to nationhood from a much different world history and with much different personal histories. The decision now needs to be made on the basis of what is right for Israel of today, and the Israel of the next several decades.

  • rick386

    I really don’t see a basis in Judaism for conscientious objectors. The Torah is full of stories of Isrealites, devout ones, fighting for Isreal. King David was a warrior.

  • VanZandt9

    haha conscientious objection in American sense is not even the issue with them…

    anyway many stories in Torah about refusing kings if not backed by God so I suppose it is more like that…