By Adam Ross
When the Israeli Supreme Court recently announced that the government should not renew the “Tal” Law, which exempts Ultra-Orthodox young men from serving in the Army, I heard a lot of support among many of my friends, both soldiers and civilians, for the decision and rightfully so. Why should part of the country’s youth give up their personal freedoms and luxuries at age 18 and put their own lives on the line for the country if there are thousands of youth from a different part of the country who don’t have to serve in the army or give up any of their own personal comforts? I strongly identify with this sentiment, but I express that opinion very cautiously. Integrating Haredi soldiers into the army has the potential to lead to greater integration and create more opportunities for partnership and understanding between the Ultra-Orthodox sector and the rest of Israeli society, but after living with a group of Haredi Israelis who are already in the army, I think that those in charge need to be very careful when trying to find the right way to bring the Haredi population into the army when the time comes.
My close encounter with Haredi soldiers comes from the four months I spent as a trainee in the Infantry Corps’ Commanders Course. Last summer, I left my original unit after completing basic and advanced training to go to commanders school and to become a “Squad Commander” Mefaked Kitah or Mak (similar to an NCO in the American army). The Infantry Corps has a school where each unit sends soldiers to become certified as commanders. I was very excited to start this course for the unique leadership opportunity, but also because this course brings together some of the most motivated and driven, but also diverse, group of soldiers.
However, I didn’t experience the variety from all corners of Israel’s multicultural population that I was expecting. Instead I was put in a company (machlaka) comprised of, with the exception of myself and a few others, soldiers from the Netzach Yehuda Battalion. What is unique about “Netzach” (as it’s called for short)? It is the one Haredi combat unit in the Israeli Army. In this unit, soldiers receive extra time to pray and study Torah during the day, are guaranteed absolute separation from women in the army, and are provided with Glatt Kosher food at all meals. To this day, I’m not really sure how I ended up in their machlaka for this course, and I wasn’t very happy that I was placed there, but the experience left me with plenty of stories to share with my family and friends, as well as a more seasoned insight into the question as to where the right place is for the Haredi population in the Israeli army, as well as in Israeli society in general.
Initially, I was really upset that I was put in the machlaka with Netzach. I felt cut off from the rest of my friends in the course and was not looking to experience what a homogeneous army unit looked like. Between the kippah on my head, the beard covering my face, and my daily practice of prayer and celebrating a traditional Shabbat, I wasn’t so different from them on the surface. But I had trouble imagining my new friends from this Ultra Orthodox unit understanding that, not only is my father a Rabbi, but my mother is also a Rabbi, and I didn’t think there is anything wrong about that.
Beyond the thick religious boundaries, there are several significant factors that differentiate Netzach from the rest of the infantry units in the army. While the unit is officially a Haredi unit, most of the soldiers actually come from very right-wing Religious Zionist families and grew up on settlements like Kiryat Arba, Beit El, Itamar, and Mitzpe Yericho. There were a few soldiers who came from the better-known Haredi enclaves in Bnei Brak or Meah Shearim, but most of them came from Haredi-Religious Zionist communities.
Only a few of my new army friends from Netzach wore only black and white. In fact, I am sure that we shop in the same clothing stores, but I am more certain that we choose to spend our free time very differently. Upon many occasions I saw just how far apart we were from each other. One of my friends from Netzach once asked me when I last saw my parents. I told him that they had come for my swearing-in ceremony in January to which he responded, “When is January?” I then realized that he didn’t know the months of the Gregorian calendar so I quickly corrected myself, “Oh, it was in Sh’vat.”
That wasn’t the only time when we got into a mix-up with calendars. I celebrated my 23rd birthday in the middle of the course and spent most of the day guarding on my base. In the middle of a 3 hour guarding shift, my machlaka surprised me with a small party. When I mentioned that my Hebrew birthday was actually 10 days later, many of the guys came up to me after and politely mentioned that they would have felt much more comfortable about throwing me a party if it had taken place on the 9th of Elul instead of on August 22nd.
However great the cultural and religious distance was between us, though it may be shocking, I look back on my experience in Netzach Yehuda very positively. I had a lot of “discussions” about religion which was usually a roundabout and polite way of this group of right-wing and Haredi Orthodox yeshiva graduates telling me how uncomfortable they were with the fact that my family is Reform, but that I still live a happy, meaningful life. But I feel like we all mutually learned a lot from each other during our time together. In general, my sharing these stories doesn’t come as means to show how backwards and wrong this specific unit is, but more as a wakeup call. The Israeli army is one of the most successful vehicles to bring together diverse populations for a common purpose and now is the time to add the Haredi population into the equation. I don’t think it is a good idea to designate certain units as “Haredi only” and others as completely secular, because Judaism should have a place in every army unit, in an educational, but respectful and non- coercive manner. Though it was a very difficult challenge for me to live in such close quarters with soldiers so different from me, it was an incredibly enriching experience. I think that when the day comes when more Israelis, civilians and soldiers, find themselves having similar encounters, they will have something positive to learn from the experience.
Adam Ross, son of Rabbis Dennis Ross and Deborah Zecher, currently lives on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu, Israel. After completing a Bachelors degree in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University, Adam made Aliyah and enlisted into the army shortly after. He currently serves as a commander in the Nachal Infantry Brigade.