Thursday, December 02, 2010

Religion is No Excuse to Shirk Army Duty

Jewish faith, used by some to justify cultural and social isolation, can also be a force for cohesion and patriotism, for both men and women. Hannukah is as good a time as any to examine this notion. According to an opinion piece in the Jerusalem Post:

Under pressure from Shas and United Torah Judaism, the government has backtracked on its support for a bill that would have helped fight the worrying trend of draft-dodging among young women.

Currently, a young woman can avoid two years of IDF service by simply making a declaration before a representative of the Chief Rabbinate that her religious convictions forbid her to perform military service. Unfortunately, many secular young women take advantage of this. If it had been ratified, the bill would have forced young women seeking exemption to give proof they led a religious lifestyle. But haredi MKs claimed the bill breached the religious status quo protected in the government coalition agreement. MK Miri Regev (Likud), one of the drafters of the bill, abstained in deference to the coalition, though Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna’i broke ranks and voted in favor.

Sadly, the government’s myopic readiness to cater to the whims of narrow religious extremism has led it to ignore the broader national interest of encouraging universal conscription. Just last week, the head of the IDF’s personnel division, Maj.-Gen. Avi Zamir, said that by 2020 some 60 percent of eligible 18-year-olds would try to dodge military service. Half already do. Zamir voiced concern that Israel’s “people’s army” ethos was in danger.

Haredi men are to blame for the bulk of the decline.

But deception on the part of young women has a part to play as well. Thirty-five percent of young women eligible for the draft seek exemption for religious reasons, but thousands lie, according to the IDF human resources department. Via Facebook, the IDF recently managed to catch about 1,000 young women who updated profiles on Shabbat, or posted photos of themselves eating in non-kosher restaurants or wearing immodest clothing.

In the past, the IDF has even hired private investigators.

These efforts underline the IDF’s need for man- and woman-power, even if it means forcibly recruiting liars.

Paradoxically, while religion has been touted as an excuse for exemption from military service, it has also served as a major motivational force, especially among religious Zionist youths. Impressive, though unsurprising, figures were published in the August edition of the IDF magazine Ma’arachot showing a sharp rise in the number of religious combat officers and members of elite units in the IDF in the past decade.

Less known, though, is a growing trend among religious women to enlist in the army.

The vast majority of religious Zionist rabbis oppose military service for women, fearing that intimate contact with the opposite sex in a sexually permissive environment will lead to a breakdown of taboos.

But attitudes are changing. Religious Zionists, who have a greater tendency not to demonstrate blind loyalty to their rabbinic leadership, are responding to the IDF’s more accommodating approach to religious sensitivities – related, undoubtedly, to the sharp rise in kippa wearing officers and commanders and a general atmosphere of multiculturalism.

One thousand religious women interested in military service attended a conference last week in Tel Aviv, compared to just 400 last year. In parallel, an organization called Aluma was established in recent years to prepare religious young women for military service and interface with the IDF during service. Numerous educational frameworks exist for women, including Midreshet Lindenbaum and Tzahali, a women-only religious pre-military academy.

And many young women actually see constructive military service as a boon to faith. A survey of 98 religious women, published in January and conducted by researchers from Sha’anan Teachers College in Haifa, found that IDF service actually strengthened their religiosity.

A third of women who served as IDF teachers felt they had become more religious thanks to their military service, compared to just a quarter of women who served as teachers within the framework of national service.

And 95% said they studied Torah during their IDF stint, compared to just 72% in national service.

Jewish faith, used by some to justify cultural and social isolation, can also be a force for cohesion and patriotism, for both men and women. This is a decidedly positive development which should be encouraged. At the same time, the right of the sincere religious female to opt for national service instead of IDF service should also be respected.

But dodging service to the country altogether is simply unacceptable. Religion is no excuse.

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