I remember that period very well. When I was 18 the draft was in full force. So was the Viet Nam War. And both stayed that way until the end of the Viet Nam War. After which President Richard M. Nixon abolished the draft in America. That is how things stand now. This – the greatest and most powerful nation on the face of the earth is protected by an army of volunteer soldiers.
But ‘back in the day’ I was indeed subject to be drafted into the army and sent to Viet Nam to flight in what many of us (including my Rebbe Rav Ahron Soloveichik) called an immoral war. All was not lost however. There were ways to get out of it legally. Although there were many young Americans who resisted the draft in an assortment of illegal ways (like surreptitiously crossing the border into Canada) there were quite a few legal ways to get out of serving in Viet Nam. One way was by joining the US Coast Guard for example. One could also get a deferment and finish his education.
We Yeshiva students had the best ‘gig’ of all. The Selective Service Act (the draft) provided complete exemptions for divinity students. That meant that as long as someone was studying in a Yeshiva or Seminary they were exempt from serving in the army. In fact all clergy (priests, ministers, and rabbis) were exempt - as were those of studying for those positions. It was called a 4-D exemption.
Yeshivos all over the country were packed with students who otherwise might not have been there. The beauty for those who were there for purposes of dodging the draft was that the Yeshivos allowed them to attend college towards their original goals of seeking a career -and still be a member in good standing at the yeshiva.
I mention all of this in light of the continuing story about drafting Charedim into the Israeli army. The rabbinic leadership is resisting this full force. One of the arguments they put forward is that the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) doesn’t really need them. That those who serve now are more than enough. That drafting Yeshiva students is simply a ploy to destroy the Torah World. From an article in YWN, here is how Agudat Israel party member Rabbi Meir Porush put it:
(W)e are dealing with (the holy of holies of the people of Israel),” the destruction of yeshivos R”L, the government permits itself to publically declare the draft of bnei yeshivos is a matter of a few months.
Porush added the state did not even bother to explain to the court that in actuality, the IDF cannot compel the avreichim to serve for in reality; they will prefer to fill the nation’s prisons before agreeing to abandon the benches of beis medrash.
Porush condemned the prime minister’s “immoral position”, for he feels that without the frum community Mr. Netanyahu would not have been elected yet now, he turns his back on this very same tzibur. Porush adds the Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will become the first prime minister in the state’s history who rejects the study of Torah as the “profession” of the avreichim and therefore, is working to compel their draft into military service.
Porush explains the actions of the administration is tantamount to a declaration of war against the chareidi tzibur and on this matter there cannot and will not be the slightest compromise towards accommodating the position of the government.
How odd. From my perspective it is Rav Porush's attitude that is wrong - and perhaps even immoral. Prisons?! It is better for Yeshiva students to sit in jail than to serve their country?! He uses hyperbole and exaggeration to make his points and concludes that the Israeli government has declared this a war against Charedim?! And he says that Prime Minister Netanyhau is immoral?!
First of all let me explode that myth. There is a sizable minority that is willing to comply wit the draft. According to an article in Ynet, 66% percent of Charedim believe Yeshiva students should be exempt from the draft. That means 34% of Charedim think that Yeshiva students should serve in the IDF. So much for declaring a war on Charedim.
What makes Rav Porush’s postion immoral for me is the gross inequity of exempting only Yeshiva students. The claim that they are not needed is nothing more than spin. What he means of course is that there are enough secular and Dati Leumi (MO) IDF members so that it is unnecessary to draft Yeshiva students.
That is ridiculous. The way the draft should work is that every single young man no matter what strata of Israeli society he comes from has an equal chance of being drafted. Sure - the way things have been structured until now required the government of Israel to fill its quota only with secular and Dati Leumi Jews.
But in an ideal and equitable world that should have never happened. Every single able bodied young man should register with a draft board. Why should only secular and Dati -Religious Zionist boys be put in harm’s way? Is Charedi blood redder? Is secular and Dati Leumi blood cheaper? The system is unfair from the get go. That Charedi Yeshiva students have all been exempt until now doesn’t mean that this unfair paradigm should continue.
This is why the government has changed the law and has made everyone subject to the draft. It is about fairness and has nothing to do with being anti Torah!
What about a divinity exemptions – like the one that existed in my day in America? Yes. I think there should be some Yeshiva students that are exempt… as there should be students of other disciplines that are vital to Israel’s existence. But it can’t be full exemptions to every single Yeshiva student as was the case in the America of my day.
There are 2 major differences between America and Israel. One is that Israel is and has been under constant siege from the very first day of its existence. It is under direct deadly conflict with its neighbors who threaten to annihilate it daily. The other is that its population is too small to allow that many exemptions. Especially to only one segment. America – even at the height of the Viet Nam War was huge! …and easily could fulfill its draft quota.
That said, I suppose that a fair and equitable draft in America should have included Yeshiva students too. Perhaps. But the Viet Nam War was not a popular war. It was not a war for survival. There were very few young people who supported that war. And no one clamored that this exemption wasn’t fair. It was widely accepted and respected.
Israel simply does not have enough manpower for the luxury of mass exemptions. Especially when there are so many young soldiers that have given up life and limb for their country. Israel is in a war for survival. Unlike America of the Viet Nam Wra era - popular opinion in Israel today is on the side of military service.
Charedi Rabbanim counter that it is the Torah study of Yeshivos that actually protects the country. I do not argue the point. The importance of the spiritual army does not however preclude the need of a physical army with a fair and equitable draft.
I think it is a gross misrepresentation for Rabbi Porush and other Charedi Rabbonim to suggest that the motive of the Israeli government is tantamount to declaring war on the Torah. Are Hesder boys also part of that war? This is not about fighting Torah. This is about fairness.
With 34% of the Charedi world agreeing that Yeshiva Bachurim should not be exempt, I’m sure that the government of Israel can devise a way for an equitable solution to this problem. There are over 60,000 students studying in Yeshivos and Kollelim. The better students can remain with their “4D” exemption. 66% of them. 34% can voluntarily subject themselves to the draft. That’s over 20,000 new Charedi recruits. That – at the very least - is the right thing to do.