In its ongoing effort to draft religious Jewish young men, the Israeli army has produced a new religious version of its popular military magazine, Bamahaneh. The special issue adheres to standards of modesty, with no photos of women, and has an article on the weekly Torah portion. The magazine, which was produced by the IDF Human Resources Directorate’s religious integration branch together with ‘Bamahaneh,’ was mailed out over the Passover holiday to the homes of 5,000 religious young men, including those slated for enlistment this summer.
More special editions are expected to come out over the next year. The goal of the publication was to encourage young religious men to enlist, while providing them with information regarding the opportunities available to them in the Israeli military.
Historically, Orthodox young men have avoided serving in the Zionist army, often using their ongoing study in a religious academy known as a yeshiva as an excuse for exemption. The Orthodox are opposed to the state and its army on principle, and see the army’s activities as the ultimate violation of the Torah’s directive to Jews to live peacefully in exile.
But last year, after the Israeli supreme court struck down the law granting yeshiva students exemption, the Orthodox community was left without a legal means of avoiding service. Thousands have already received their draft notices, and the army is preparing for the formidable task of integrating young men from a culture completely different from that of secular Israelis.
The Orthodox community, however, sees the gap as unbridgeable. Joining the army and furthering the cause of Zionism is forbidden in and of itself, even one were able to maintain a completely observant lifestyle while in the army. Thus the new "religious" military magazine is viewed as sly deception, analogous to an attempt to put a kosher stamp on pork.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s plan seeks to increase significantly the number of Orthodox Jews serving, through a system of financial penalties that will be imposed on yeshivas where few students obey the draft, as well as through some penalties for individual students who avoid conscription. Its aim is for 60% of Orthodox men aged 18 to 24 in 2018 to have served or to be serving.
On the other hand, Yesh Atid, the new secularist party that forms the bulk of Netanyahu’s new coalition government, is demanding a draft for all Orthodox young men when they reach the age of 18, with the exception of 400 outstanding students. It wants to create more Orthodox-only units and to cater to their demands to make service culturally acceptable in the community.
Yesh Atid’s one leniency toward the Orthodox sector is that it advocates a grace period of five years before the Orthodox are to be drafted. Currently, the condition for receiving an exemption is that Orthodox men are enrolled in yeshiva, and if enrolled, they are legally barred from working. The Yesh Atid plan says that this rule should be cancelled for five years, opening employment opportunities to any Orthodox who wish to work but still avoid the draft.
Yesh Atid, like Netanyahu, believes that many Orthodox men would prefer to work legally and are enrolled in schools simply to receive an exemption. The five year grace period, it hopes, will disprove the community’s claim that the draft undermines a culture of near-universal yeshiva study.
Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach, at a speech at Yeshiva Maalos Hatorah in Jerusalem on February 27, 2013, called upon young men to resist the draft. “This is an anti-religious decree so severe that it is better to be killed than to comply. Each problem faced by an individual is part of the uprooting of Torah and is a problem of the entire Jewish people. These things are simple, but they must be stated clearly. It is clear and obvious that we must not speak of any compromise on the subject. If we Jews would have wanted to exist on compromise, we could have done it 2,000 years ago, and spared ourselves all the pogroms and massacres. We must not open even a crack, and if we are strong, then they will understand that there’s no chance.”
Last year, at a rally held by the Eidah Chareidis, the independent rabbinate of Jerusalem, chief Rabbi Yitzchok Tovia Weiss said, "We must give our lives rather than stray from our path. Our oppressors have many ways to destroy Torah by force… For 2000 years we have kept our ways proudly, and we are not about to give in now."