I’m frequently asked: “I understand why you [i.e., chareidim] can’t serve in the army, but why can’t you do national service?”
Truthfully, I’m not sure I understand the question. If the questioner means to denigrate yeshivah students by implying that they are somehow incapable of military service, I cannot agree. Yeshivah students would not be any less-good soldiers than the average new recruit today. They are not any less physically fit. And in any army in which the most important elite units are increasingly ones in which brains are more important that brawn, many chareidi young men would be prize recruits.
Nor do I understand the implication that national service would somehow be more acceptable than military service. The lack of physical danger in national service cannot be the distinguishing factor. Chareidim have never claimed that their blood is redder, or that they have some special exemption from risking their lives in defense of the Jews of Israel.
The question shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the reasons behind the rejection of the draft of 18-year-olds, for those reasons would not be one iota less applicable to national service than to military service. The destruction of Torah learning that would result from removing young men from learning between the ages of 18 and 21 would be exactly the same if they were doing national service instead of serving in the military.
Indeed, at some level, most of the likely forms of national service — former prime minister Ehud Barak once suggested painting garbage cans — would be a far greater bizayon haTorah. Everyone can understand the necessity of an army, and even conceive of a hypothetical situation in which every able-bodied yeshivah student would pick up arms. But there is no threat that could ever induce anyone in learning to pick up a paintbrush.
FOR ALL THE CURRENT TALK about some form of national service for chareidim today, there is little evidence that anyone has yet given a moment’s thought to the plans being tossed around or their costs. Forcing yeshivah bochurim to do “something,” under coercion by the state might briefly satisfy the secular public’s demands for “fairness” or “equality.” But not for long. Very soon the critics of the chareidi world would be disparaging the national service as not enough or second-class service.
The very principle of “equality,” according to which secular politicians are now demanding that chareidim and Arabs do some form of national service, also means the government cannot treat Israeli Arabs and chareidim differently from one another. And one thing is for sure: The IDF has absolutely no interest in drafting Israeli Arabs, who would constitute a huge internal security threat within the IDF. So while the IDF might create frameworks for more chareidi soldiers, none will be coerced into military service. In any event, integrating tens of thousands of chareidim into the IDF is only a slightly smaller nightmare for the IDF than integrating Israeli Arabs.
So far, the public discussion of forcing chareidim and Arabs to serve has focused entirely on the so-called “fairness” issue. Little has been said about what benefits and what costs the new manpower might bring. With respect to national service, the attitude seems to be that if the manpower is free, what could be wrong with impressing thousands of new recruits into service a year?
Free labor, however, does not translate into a cheap program. There are still such matters to consider as training, supervising, and feeding the new recruits.
And for what? What are the crying national needs that will be solved by thousands of new recruits? If they were to be used for menial jobs in hospitals and the like, they might only end up taking away jobs from low-wage earners supporting families, which would cause more harm than good. The more trivial the work, the more it would appear to the chareidi world that the entire purpose of the exercise was simply to remove boys from yeshivah. Three years performing nonessential and mindless tasks would only result in producing very depressed and embittered youth.
My own guess would be that the government has nothing to do with thousands of additional 18-year-olds whom it must somehow occupy. Perhaps it is actually hoping for massive resistance from both the Arab and chareidi communities. At that point, it would be able to treat the Arabs and chareidim differently simply because the chareidi community is more vulnerable to economic sanctions. If the government, for instance, were to cut off financial assistance to Arab university students who did not do national service, relatively few would be affected (and, who knows, the EU might step in and pick up the slack). But if they cut off funding to chareidi yeshivos, in which a certain percentage of talmidim had not done national service, the impact would be catastrophic.
Could that be the point of the entire exercise?
Does Romney Have a Plan?
I am assiduously avoiding looking at American election polls, which, given the amount of time until the election, are largely irrelevant. But one headline caught my eye recently: WaPo/AP – Obama, Romney in Dead Heat on Economy.
How could that be? Obama has been president for over three years and unemployment has been above 8 percent for the entire time, despite highly stimulatory fiscal and monetary policies — five trillion dollars in new national debt and near-zero interest rates. The 34 months since the official end of the recession have been marked by the lowest or near lowest records of job production and GDP growth during recovery from any recession over the last 60 years.
Yuval Levin ran a smart column at the Weekly Standard last week that partially answers the question.
Americans are deeply pessimistic about the country’s economic future, and no longer assume that their children will enjoy a better life than theirs. They do not just think that the country is going through a rough patch, but that the growth of the last half of the previous century will never return. From 1960–1999, economic growth averaged 3.5 percent annually. From 2000–2009, it was less than half that — 1.7 percent per annum; since 2009, it has been 0.6 percent a year.
Voters know that President Obama has no clue as to what’s wrong or how to prepare the United States for the future. “His express objectives are to protect our existing entitlement system from structural reform, to increase the tax burden on investment and employment, to further empower and liberate regulators — and to bring more of the economy into the public sector,” writes Levin. That backward-looking vision of the liberal welfare state has led to economic stagnation and unsustainable debts all across Western Europe, and in the bluest of American states — California, Illinois, and Rhode Island.
But Romney has yet to present to voters his own vision of what ails us and, more importantly, how to position the United States for renewed growth. His approach so far has been to stress how lousy President Obama’s economic performance has been and to suggest that if he were just sent packing, growth would return to the rates of the last 40 years of the 20th century. But voters are not convinced that it is as simple as throwing the bums out, opines Levin.
Renewed growth, if it is to come, will have to come from increased efficiencies. (With the retirement of the baby-boomers, little growth will be generated by labor force expansion.) Here Romney should be ideally suited to the task. After all, he made hundreds of millions of dollars identifying potential added value in underperforming or failing companies. And he has a wonkish managerial side, either by training or disposition, which President Obama does not.
If Romney is to prevail, he will have bring home the message that the country will soon drown in the accumulated debt from Medicare and Medicaid, and that a way must be found to bring down healthcare costs by moving away from the fee-for-care system and through increased competition rather than governmental price setting. And he must tout America's huge oil shale, natural gas, and untapped oil as a potential source of jobs and energy independence.
Romney must demonstrate to younger voters that the current entitlement system is ransoming their future and represents a massive transfer from the young (and poor) to the elderly (and richer). The current rates of unemployment for recent college graduates may help convince them that happy days will not soon return without serious changes in American economic governance.
In short, he must offer his plan, not just point out that the president lacks one.
The following din Torah recently took place in my neighborhood. Reuven made a bar mitzvah and ordered 300 portions from the caterer Shimon. (The names are fictitious.) Shimon’s worker arrived at the hall early to unload the supplies and begin preparations. When Shimon got there, a little girl was crying outside the kitchen. He asked her why she was crying, and she told him that there was no food in her house. Her mother had sent her over to ask the caterer for some food, but the assistant had sent her away empty-handed. The caterer beckoned her to follow him into the kitchen, where he prepared ten portions for the little girl and sent her home.
After the bar mitzvah party was over, Reuven and Shimon sat down to settle accounts. Shimon told Reuven that the bill was only for 290 portions. Reuven asked why, since they had agreed on 300. When he heard Shimon’s explanation, Reuven protested that the mitzvah should be his; he had ordered the food and it was delivered to premises that he had rented. He insisted on paying for 300 portions.
Shimon was equally insistent that until the food was placed on the tables it belonged to him, and the mitzvah was his. Unable to agree, they went to the local beis din to settle their dispute.
I do not offer this case as an exam question in Choshen Mishpat, but rather in the hope that all our dinei Torah should be of this nature.