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Day 172: Iron Swords War

By Leah Garber

“Where there is no flour, there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour.”
— Ethics of the Fathers, 3:17

One hundred, seventy-two days of harsh fighting, 172 long nights in which 134 hostages are still held captive in the darkness of Gaza. Almost six months ago, tens of thousands of families are still displaced from their homes due to massive destruction and hostile worldwide public opinion ads to the hardship, which exact a heavy toll on all of us.

In addition to the pain, despair, and frustration, there is mental and physical fatigue that begins to take over. What will be? When will this all end? What awaits us in the Spring? Is a significant escalation in the fighting on the Lebanese border awaiting right after Passover?

And as if the many external threats and accusations outside the country, motivated by antisemitism are not enough, the society in Israel, which united in an exemplary manner through weaving a unique fabric from our blood and tears in the first months of the fighting, is beginning to unravel.

Following the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, compulsory service in the army began. Back then, the heads of the ultra-Orthodox sectors feared that the intensive service in the military, which is primarily secular, would incite yeshiva students away from a strict religious lifestyle and jeopardize their rigid religious observance.  The ultra-Orthodox community turned to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with a request to exempt yeshiva students from the obligatory draft while allowing them to support the fighters through prayers and Torah study. Ben-Gurion accepted their request, mainly because of the low numbers of yeshiva students of conscription age at the time and replied to the opponents by saying: “There are 400 yeshiva students. If they commit to conscription, the yeshiva houses would be at risk of closing”, and so it was agreed, they were exempt, and still are ever since.

Over the years, the number of yeshiva students benefiting from the exemption has increased, and with them, there have been repeated attempts by different heads of state to remove the exemption. Seeking to require yeshiva students to enlist in the army as any other Israeli citizen.

For political reasons, these attempts have failed time after time. Every coalition, whether a left- or right-wing coalition, depended on the votes of ultra-Orthodox parties, who conditioned their joining the government on the retention of the law that exempts their electorate, the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, from compulsory conscription. The issue of exemption from mandatory military service for specific sectors of society, while other sections, including the Modern Orthodox, has created increasing hostility towards the ultra-Orthodox, which appear, especially now, to be evading their civic duty.

The reality is approaching a boiling point and requires courageous leadership from both sides.

We have been in the midst of the longest and most difficult war in Israel’s history for nearly six months. A war whose end is not near, but predictions, which I hope will not come true, say that it will only get worse. This is a war in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis, reservists, left their homes with short notice and have served for close to five months, some longer. Now, most of those who have already been released are beginning to receive orders for additional reserve service. This load hits the reservists in all aspects, through their ability to support their families, Israel’s economy, financial stability, and more.

If the ultra-Orthodox sector had also harnessed themselves and mobilized, the load would have been distributed equally among all.

For 76 years, the Israeli people have mourned their fallen soldiers.  Since October 7, they have mourned the 600 soldiers killed in battle, bemoaned the painful toll the war is taking, and are now demanding equality. The blanket exemption angers and divides the people. Prime Minister Netanyahu, a former decorated officer, understands that, in principle, everyone must serve. Still, for his political interest, he cannot afford to jeopardize his current coalition, which relies on the ultra-Orthodox parties and continues to press for the existing status quo. The ultra-Orthodox public is not ready to be flexible, and its leaders declare that they are prepared to go to prison or leave Israel if the law is revised and requires them to serve in the army.

This week, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, will consider a proposal to change and adjust the legislation. Will history be made here, and a decades-old distortion will be corrected, or will the politics of special interest dictate our reality, perpetuate inequality, and continue to divide the people?

It is important to note that over the years, the rate of yeshivot boys enlisting has increased. More and more continue to enlist, some of them while being socially ostracized and dealing with boycotts from their own communities. To meet their needs, the army introduced changes in the military system to allow soldiers to serve in gendered base units, to incorporate hours for prayer, learning Torah, etc., into the daily routine. It is also important to emphasize that many yeshiva students would be happy to serve in the army but are afraid to do so as it is against the instruction of their rabbis.

Military service is not only a right civil act but also invites this community into the wider Israeli society, which includes greater employment opportunities at the end of the service, financial incentives for apartment buyers, and more. Above all, the army is the ultimate melting pot of Israeli society. In the army, Israelis from all sectors fight side by side: religious and secular, the townspeople and the kibbutzim, right-wing and left-wing supporters, Jews, Bedouins, Muslims, Christians, and Druze. The army is the people’s army, and there is no greater, more significant, and more committed friendship than the warriors’ loyalty to each other.

It was not for nothing that our sages said, “if there is no flour, there is no Torah.” The Torah, the world of the spirit, the world of values, the world of content, cannot exist without the physical support of action, of a base that allows the spirit to rise, and vice versa. In times of trouble and distress, when the people of Israel are fighting for its existence, the spirit cannot be freed to rise without a firm and solid foundation that will preserve and protect it and allow it to exist.

This is a time of trouble. On the battlefield, religious soldiers fight, yet follow their religious rituals and traditions and learn Torah when possible.

I wish we could reach the day when we can give up some of the fighters and allow for more spirituality in different fields—Jewish content, scientific research, artistic growth, etc. Those days are far away; in the meantime, we need everyone to protect our homeland. The one home we have. Because only…

…Together, united, we will overcome.

Leah Garber is a senior vice president of JCC Association of North America and director of its Center for Israel Engagement in Jerusalem.

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