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October 4, 2015 | 21st Tishrei 5776

The Armies of the Lord

Galilee Diary #569, March 28, 2012
Marc Rosenstein

When you take the field against your enemies...The officials shall address the troops and say, "Is there anyone here afraid or disheartened?  Let him go back to his home, lest the courage of his comrades flag like his."
-Deuteronomy 20:1, 8

Once again, boarding an intercity bus yesterday, I found myself ambivalently giving in to the urge to push my way on, as was everyone else in the crowd around the bus door.  As usual, most of them were soldiers.  The stakes were high, as it was clear that the bus would be quite full, and there was a chance that the last people to board would have to stand up for two hours or sit on the floor.  Why ambivalently?  Well, on the one hand I am a senior citizen and they are young and strong, and it seems like I should have some priority; but on the other hand, I just spent the day sitting at a desk, whereas they may have been awake for days, slogging through mud, risking their lives, dying to sleep for two hours on the bus (of course, they also may have been sitting at a desk like me...).  Who should have priority for a seat? 

While Israel has changed over the decades, the original Zionist excitement over "a Jewish army" has not completely faded away.  There is still a strong current in Israeli popular culture that idealizes, idyllizes, and idolizes Tzahal.  Of Jewish self reliance and self defense we had dreamed for centuries – and these pushy kids are the realization of that dream.  Especially after the Holocaust, they represent in some way the pinnacle of the Zionist vision.  So we give them rides and wash their laundry and stand on the bus so they can sit and collect money to send them warm socks in border outposts – and after they rise through the ranks, we give them the reins of leadership in business, education, and government.  And of course we take pride in our tradition of universal conscription – for both girls and boys.  Tzahal is practically and symbolically a central component of Israeli national identity.

Which is why those who are exempt from service are the object of a great deal of anger and resentment, seen as parasites and traitors to the nation, avoiding a sacred obligation – that involves significant sacrifice – while others carry the burden and take the risks.  And who is exempted (other than individuals with medical/psychological/economic issues, and married women)?

a.  Moslem and Christian Arabs
b.  Druze Arab women (the men are drafted)
c.  "Modern Orthodox" women who do alternative service
d.  Ultra-Orthodox women
e.  Ultra-orthodox  men who are full-time yeshivah students

The controversy over exemption of yeshivah students has gotten a lot of press lately, as the supreme court recently ruled against it, and the issue is back in the spotlight.  In the end, perhaps there are historical, political, and cultural reasons why these exemptions may be unavoidable.  And it's not clear that the army or society could cope with the sudden enforcement of true universal conscription.  However, there is something deeply disturbing about this bizarre entanglement of religion and military service, which feeds the fire of intergroup antagonism and identity politics.  One suggestion that has been floated is universal service – but not necessarily military: a variety of service options for all 18-year-olds, expanding the current alternative service frameworks (hospitals, education, youth work, etc.).  Such a plan might not only contribute to society, but even help to defuse antagonisms and bring the outsiders inside.  The question is how much we really want to attain those goals, and how much the status quo actually suits our psychological and political needs.

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