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Why We Refuse to Serve in the Israeli Army: A Clarification

May 6, 2012

We have already written on the Israeli Supreme Court's decision to end the Tal Law exempting yeshiva students from the army. Click here to read our article, written Feb. 22 of this year.

Recently, the issue has received much publicity in the American media. But we were dismayed to see an article in the Associated Press that completely misrepresents the position of Orthodox anti-Zionist Jews. The article began as follows:

A court order to stop Israel’s longtime practice of exempting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men from military service has become a central issue in upcoming elections and could reshape the face of the society. If they are forced to serve, their rabbis fear, they could also enter the work force and come under the influence of the secular world.

This journalist seems to have mixed up the cause and effect. The traditionally Orthodox are not against entering the workforce; in fact, the vast majority of them wish they could do so. Their unemployment is a tragic consequence of their steadfast refusal to serve in the Israeli army – since the only way to avoid conscription is to remain full-time students.

Traditionally Orthodox Jews consider army service absolutely forbidden, because the army is the wing of the state that actually carries out the conquering and maintaining of Jewish control over the Holy Land, which the Torah forbids. Torah Jews wish to live in peace with all peoples of the world, and G-d's decree of exile forbids them from taking any military action. We are waiting for G-d's redemption. We are conscientious objectors to the Israeli army, but the Israeli government has never granted us the dignity of freedom to practice the original Judaism, and be exempt from the army on principle. Rather, they have, until now, forced us to use yeshiva studies as a pretext to exempt ourselves, causing untold impoverishment and suffering to our communities. Men whose families desperately need their income are not allowed to work. They are forced to remain jobless for most of their adult life. The self-sacrifice of the Orthodox community in their dedication to the anti-Zionist ideal is hard to imagine. Most of the Orthodox in the Holy Land live in abject poverty, subsisting on charity funds collected from Jews in other countries.

Now they are preparing to take away even this yeshiva exemption, so that Torah Jews may have to choose between going to prison or sacrificing their principles. But there is no reason why the Israeli government should not completely exempt Orthodox anti-Zionist Jews from the army, just as they exempt Arabs and Bedouins. Like the Arabs, anti-Zionist Jews are a community that predates the Zionist state by hundreds of years, and has no desire to live under the Zionist state or "benefit" from its army. (In fact, Torah Jews see the army as no benefit at all. Its actions only serve to inflame world opinion against Jews and prolong the state of war in the Middle East.)

If they were permanently exempted from the army, the men from this community would be able to enter the workforce and support their families honorably, as Jews from similar Torah communities do in all other parts of the world.

The AP article also states:

The draft privileges date back six decades, when Israel's founders granted exemptions to 400 exemplary seminary students to help rebuild great schools of Jewish learning destroyed in the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were killed by German Nazis and their collaborators, and entire Jewish communities were obliterated. The numbers of exemptions have steadily ballooned over the years, now reaching tens of thousands.

This paragraph makes it sound as if Ben-Gurion and other founders of the state were interested in rebuilding Torah schools. Nothing could be further from the truth. The exemption for yeshiva students was part of a deal struck between the Zionist leaders and the representatives of the Orthodox organization Agudath Israel in 1947. Ben-Gurion knew that a large percentage of Orthodox Jews were against the establishment of a state, and that Agudah activists planned to appear before the UN committee separately from the Zionists to advocate the continuation of the British Mandate. Ben-Gurion urged them to reconsider this decision. “For the sake of Jewish interests,” he said, “the Zionist Agency should be recognized as representing the entire nation.”

On June 9, 1947, Agudath Israel activists again met with Ben-Gurion, informing him that they were prepared to support the cause of a Jewish state, or at least keep quiet, if their religious demands were guaranteed in the state constitution. (We view this as a momentous mistake on the part of the Agudah activists. Torah Jews can never agree to the founding of a state, which Judaism prohibits, no matter what rights that state may grant us.) However, at that point Ben-Gurion did not agree to their demands, and so they appeared separately before the UN committee.

Talks later that year brought results: Ben-Gurion promised not to draft yeshiva students, and that marriage and divorce in the state would be under the jurisdiction of rabbis. In exchange, the Agudah kept mum while the Zionists carried out their final campaign in the UN to achieve a two-thirds vote for partition.

This mistake of the Agudah notwithstanding, they were correct in their assessment that their Orthodox members and other traditionally Orthodox Jews would steadfastly refuse to serve in the Zionist army. The idea of rebuilding the yeshivas of Europe was no more than a pretext they used to convince the Zionists to exempt their boys.

The disadvantage of working with the wicked is that one is often tempted to hide one’s true opposition to them and use excuses instead in order to obtain favors from them. The result of 64 years of spreading this propaganda lie about yeshiva studies is that some in the Orthodox community have grown up believing it as well. It is time to set the record straight and declare openly and proudly: We are opposed to the State of Israel and refuse to have any part in its wars.