Nahal ultra-Orthodox soldiers; Chabad soon to join
Leaders of the Chabad-Lubavitch ultra-Orthodox movement have brokered an agreement with the Israel Defense Forces to draft male members for full military service. The agreement is to be signed soon, both sides report. The move marks the first time an entire Orthodox Hasidic movement will commit itself to sending its members to the Israeli military.
The deal is unique and significant as most Israeli ultra-Orthodox men do not perform military service, preferring instead to focus on their religious studies. The issue is a serious cause of tension between the religious and secular sectors of Israeli society.
The agreement between Chabad and the IDF, which comes after several months of negotiations, allows Chabad yeshiva students to leave the country for one year at the completion of their religious studies. After their year abroad, the students will be required to return to Israel for regular military service of three years.
The agreement stipulates that the men will be drafted and will have to serve a full three-year term even if they were married before beginning their service.
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement was founded in Russia in the late 18th century and established its headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the 1940s. Under its seventh rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, it became a powerful force within modern Judaism. Schneerson died in 1994 and no successor has since been named.
Israeli Chabad students traditionally traveled to New York to spend up to a year with the community upon the completion of their yeshiva studies, when secular high-school graduates usually begin their compulsory military service. The IDF allows certain exemptions for those who study Torah as their main occupation, but after Schneerson died, the IDF notified Chabad that its students were not covered by the exemption and no longer had permission to leave the country.
Chabad leaders believe the year in New York is an important aspect of a yeshiva student's education, and did not accept the IDF's change. Many Chabad students continued to travel to New York and were labeled deserters. The new agreement with the IDF will allow Chabad students to continue their traditional year abroad if they agree to return at the end for full military service.
Chabad leaders have downplayed the importance of the new pact. “The agreement does not stipulate that if you are religious, you don't have to do IDF service,” one Chabad leader said. “The exemption is only while you are in yeshiva. Most members of Chabad do not attend kolels [religious study institutions for married men] through their 30s and 40s -- they only study in their 20s, and they generally have jobs and join the IDF.”
Chabad is concerned about fallout from other ultra-Orthodox groups because of the agreement, said a source with knowledge of the agreement. The IDF, on the other hand, is satisfied, considering the agreement a significant achievement after years of trying to integrate ultra-Orthodox communities into greater Israeli society, and is looking forward to the official support of some of Israel's most highly respected rabbis and Haredi community leaders. “This sets a precedent in the Haredi world,” the source said of the agreement. “For the first time, rabbis will support an agreement that will significantly increase the numbers in the IDF's ranks.”
An official statement from the IDF Spokesperson's Unit also downplayed the agreement's significance. “IDF representatives constantly meet with relevant people in efforts to increase the numbers of those who are drafted. There is nothing new in the report,” the statement said.