Monday, January 23, 2012

Give the ultra-Orthodox some space

Gabi Avital

Tell the truth: Do you really want thousands of ultra-Orthodox men to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces tomorrow? Do you really intend to have female soldiers sing to them when they finish basic training? This is not the "docile," low-key national religious crowd. These men will leave the hall the first second a woman soldier sings. And what then? Will they be sent straight to the brig? Dear friends: Take a deep breath and give this another thought. The commotion surrounding the extension of the Tal Law (which exempts ultra-Orthodox Jews from mandatory military service but aims to encourage voluntary enlistment) is clearly another part of the recent anti–ultra-Orthodox hate campaign, disguised as enthusiastic Zionism. True, the Tal Law was rejected – it has been a decade since Defense Minister Ehud Barak put it up for a vote – and still, the second thought I am asking for relates to human nature, and to nature.

There are no phenomena, whether man-made or natural, that occur in one fell swoop and cause absolutely no lasting damage. Adaptation and assimilation are by nature gradual processes. Any attempt to accelerate the process of "saving the ultra-Orthodox from themselves" (as the average secular citizen believes) is bound to fail. So many resources and so many good intentions have been invested in gradually integrating ultra-Orthodox soldiers into the Israel Air Force, and with one stupid command (the decision not to exempt ultra-Orthodox soldiers from ceremonies in which female singers perform) all that glorious effort went down the drain.

To those of you still pondering the issue, ask their commanding officers about these national treasures, living not in some far off land but in the next neighborhood or adjacent town. They will tell you that they have nothing but admiration for the ultra-Orthodox soldiers' extraordinary output and their ability to quickly master new skills.

The opponents of extending the law, meaning those who opposed it from the get go, very well may be appalled by their own projection of the future. In their mind's eye they see battalions of soldiers, wearing black or crocheted kippahs, carrying out operations at the borders and, heaven help us, teaching the next generation of soldiers. How unbearable!

But what I find unfathomable is the fact that some military commanders, as well as leaders of the anti-ultra-Orthodox campaign, would rather have an obedient applauding audience at a singing performance than first-rate combat soldiers whose only request was not to be forced to witness a girl prancing on stage.

This is unfathomable because for many years – including during my own personal mandatory service, the service of my two sons and of the sons waiting to be drafted, those of my brothers and sisters – we all dreamed of a military that fulfills its one goal: being a well-oiled war machine, one that banishes the thought of war from our enemies' minds.

Coercing the ultra-Orthodox public to enlist will not advance the goal that I dreamed of and fought for. Let these Jews, the victims of automatic anti-Semitism reminiscent of other times in our history, process Israel's sovereignty at their own pace, and realize that it is a country they can feel allegiance to. An ultra-Orthodox youngster who hears everyone talking about tolerance toward everyone but himself, will distance himself from this hypocrisy.

And if anyone still thinks that this battle – in which the ultra-Orthodox man is given a choice of taking part in anti-religious coercion or joining the draft-dodging camp – will have a positive outcome, they are probably living in a bubble of election-year campaigns. Give the ultra-Orthodox community some space – it is undergoing welcome changes even from its own perspective. We, as Jews, will all benefit.

Dr. Gabi Avital is the chairman of Professors for a Strong Israel.

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