Since the turn of the century, the number of Ḥaredim serving in the Israeli military has steadily increased—despite the repeated failures of legislative initiatives to conscript them en masse. Yonatan Branski examines the causes and effects of the increase, suggests strategies for increasing ḥaredi enlistment, and argues military service might be not the biggest obstacle but rather the key to improving relations between Ḥaredim and Israeli society at large. Most importantly, writes Branski, the state and the IDF must continue to respect the ultra-Orthodox desire to remain a group apart:
The fundamental assumption in Israeli society, the media, and many of the state institutions is that the Ḥaredim lag behind in terms of culture and values, and that their integration into Israeli society will bring them out of their current “darkness” into the “light” of the dominant Western liberal culture. This patronizing and elitist approach, which often hides behind false civility and political correctness, endangers the crucial process of the ḥaredi sector’s inclusion in the IDF, in Israeli society, and eventually, the country’s leadership. . . .
Throughout Israel’s history, military service has functioned as a social and cultural melting pot, primarily because serving together provides a deep common denominator that connects people of different backgrounds. . . . [But the] idea that the IDF should be a “melting pot” is one of the [main] reasons that the Haredim are opposed to military service. They are completely unwilling to assimilate into Israeli society and fear the inevitable cultural impact of living together in close quarters.
While so far the solution to this problem has been to create special units for Ḥaredim, participation in these units, while by no means encouraging assimilation, has nonetheless led recruits to develop an enhanced sense of citizenship and facilitated their economic integration. An example:
In their first months of service, ḥaredi soldiers in Battalion 97 are much less willing to participate in noncommissioned-officer courses or [regular] officer courses, which require extending their service, than are soldiers in the same battalion who come from the Religious Zionist sector.
The ḥaredi soldiers are [at first] focused on their own self-interest and are unwilling to make the personal sacrifice required by such courses. . . . [But], as time goes on, many of the ḥaredi soldiers change their perspective as they acquire a better understanding of the importance of making use of their abilities to contribute their share in the most fitting manner.
As the number of ḥaredi NCOs and officers who speak this ethical language increases, they will convey it to more and more of the ḥaredi soldiers under their command. From the earliest stages of the project to get Ḥaredim to serve in the IDF, it was clear that one of the most important keys to its success would be the cultivation of a cadre of outstanding ḥaredi NCOs and junior officers. This is a lengthy process, but the trend is gaining strength from year to year.