National service could mend Israels secular-religious rift

We should all be haredi Jews these days, literally. That's because while "haredi" is loosely translated as rigorously Orthodox, it actually means "trembling." And in wake of the deepening split among Jews on religious issues — from the closing of Bar-Ilan Street in Jerusalem on Shabbat to the conversion bill in the Knesset to the attack at the Western Wall on Shavuot night by dozens of haredim incensed at witnessing a Conservative egalitarian service — we should all be shuddering with fear for our inability to co-exist on the most basic level of civility.

One of the sorest points in the ongoing and escalating rift between Orthodox and other Jews in Israel is the fact that large numbers of young haredi men do not serve in the army. Not surprisingly, many Israelis are bitterly resentful of this situation, wondering why their sons face death defending the state while other healthy young men sit in yeshivas studying the Talmud.

To non-Orthodox Jews, a haredi is a fellow in a black hat who is intolerant of others and who avoids army service. Whether or not this is true is less important than the perception that exists, and it is a strong one.

The situation goes back to a decision made by David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, who opted to exempt young yeshiva students from the three-year military service. Over time, though, their numbers, and the bitterness against them, have grown tremendously.

There are about 200,000 such students today — not to be confused with those modern Orthodox young men in Hesder yeshivas (which combine Torah study and army service) who are considered to be among the army elite in terms of leadership and dedication.

For Israeli society, army service has always been the great equalizer. Young men and women from all social, economic and ethnic backgrounds are trained together in defending their country. More than any other component of Israel life, the army was the touchstone for shared experiences and values. Except for the haredim.

It should be emphasized, though, that the haredim see their role of Torah study as providing a type of divine protection for the land and people of Israel. This is in keeping with a tradition dating back to biblical times, when the priests and Levites served the people through service to the Lord. Today, it is the yeshiva students whose night-and-day study of Torah, they believe, protects their brothers and sisters physically as well as spiritually.

One problem with the current system is that some are exploiting this military exemption, which was meant for the most serious and talented of talmudic scholars. Not every haredi young man qualifies as a potential Torah sage. Even more important, the hostility engendered by the current system is too serious to ignore.

What would make sense, and is coming under discussion in some Israeli circles, is to devise a plan of national service that would apply to all Israelis at the age of 18, and might include dozens of options, such as working in nursery schools, old-age homes or troubled neighborhoods.

As Hirsh Goodman, the editor of the Jerusalem Report, noted in a recent column on this subject, "serving in one way or another should be mandatory for all, as an opportunity to give back to the country what it has given you, and a way to end the resentment that is beginning to divide the nation and erode its social foundations.'`

Why not have haredim devote three years to teaching Torah to their fellow Jews, young and old? It would provide a common ground for Jews who otherwise would never come in contact with each other to study together. Such a program would hone the pedagogic skills of haredim planning a lifetime career in teaching and study, and might heighten non-Orthodox Jews' knowledge and appreciation of their faith.

In addition, haredim and their less observant brothers and sisters might come to understand and respect each other, focusing on a common heritage rather than what divides them.

A haredi official in New York would take things one step further, suggesting that a voluntary program be devised that would allow yeshiva students to join the army, and young men and women in the army to opt to study in a yeshiva. Each young man and woman would fulfill his or her national obligation that way, and get to understand the other's mind-set and values.

It's not likely that such innovations will take place anytime soon. But it's important that the ideas be discussed and debated as a means of addressing this deeply disturbing gap between haredim, who have become increasingly influential in Jerusalem of late, and the rest of society.

Surely if no bold steps are taken to ease the resentment between haredim and their fellow Jews, the chasm between them will only grow and the battles we have seen of late will escalate, God forbid, into full-scale war.