Morale: Israeli Soldiers And The Internal Threat

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January 27, 2012:  Israeli armed forces are suffering from a growing morale problem, one that is the result of recruiting more Haredi (ultra-orthodox and extremely conservative and traditional) men and trying to accommodate the lifestyle needs of ultraorthodox Jews in the military. Actually, such very religious men have served in the military for decades without problems. But only a relatively small number of ultra-orthodox men served until the last decade. And, as with most religions, Judaism exempts soldiers from many of the lifestyle rules. For example, until the last few years, it was common for ultra-orthodox recruits to be trained by female instructors (who are very common in Israel, where women are subject to conscription). But in the last two decades ultra-orthodox rabbis (clerics) have increasingly insisted that the military change to accommodate ultra-orthodox recruits, and not the other way around. For example, ultra-orthodox are not supposed to have any contact with a women they are not closely related to. In the last decade, ultra-orthodox rabbis got ultra-orthodox politicians to force the government to change military regulations so that an ultra-orthodox soldier could request a male instructor, if his group was being taught by a woman. There were many rules like this that were quietly slipped into the military regulations. Ultra-orthodox troops increasingly called for these rules to be enforced. The other 99 percent of the troops began suffering a morale hit as they were increasingly harassed by assertive ultra-orthodox troops. When commanders complained to their elected bosses they were told to favor the ultra-orthodox troops whenever possible. Most troops are aware of this by now and are not happy.

To add to the torment there have been increasing instances where Haredi troops were caught collaborating with Israeli religious extremist groups, in order to foil police or army efforts to keep the peace. Thus the Haredi have become untrustworthy as well as annoying.

Although they are only 14 percent of the population (and even a smaller portion of voters, because the Haredi have so many kids), they vote as their rabbis order and formed Haredi political parties that are available for a coalition government, as long as that government favors the Haredi.

It's not just a military thing. The Haredi are becoming a serious problem outside the military. Violence by religious extremists is becoming more common. The most conservative religious Jews have increasingly used violence in the neighborhoods where they are becoming a majority. For example, they oppose the government allowing cars to park near Haredi neighborhoods on Saturday (the Sabbath). They also oppose billboard ads that feature women anywhere near where Haredi live and segregate women on busses in their neighborhoods. Now they want to segregate the military as well and that has aroused a lot of public opposition. Most Israeli soldiers are happy with the attention because for a decade they have been ordered to keep quiet about all the pro-Haredi regulations. An increasing number of commanders are refusing to be politically correct and are punishing Haredi soldiers who disobey orders and claim they are doing so for religious reasons.

The Haredi are very poor (most men spend the bulk of their time in religious studies) and believe their religious laws trump secular ones, and this increasingly brings them into violent conflict with the police and their secular neighbors. Most Haredi men do not serve in the military, and some Haredi sects believe that Israel should not even exist. The largely secular government thought encouraging Haredi men to do military service (which, as religious students, they have long been exempt from) would help make Haredi more accepting of non-religious Jews. This has backfired and now the government has a lot of unhappy soldiers to deal with.

Actually, it gets worse. Israeli Arabs make up 20 percent of the population and also suffer from less education and more unemployment. The Haredi and Arabs make up over a third of the population and they are the least productive third. Most Haredi and Arabs do not serve in the military or pay much, if any, taxes. These two groups are causing a skilled labor shortage, since so many of their kids do not study technical or business subjects but tend to concentrate on religious studies, or simply leave school as soon as they can. This labor shortage, and rising costs of benefits for poor Haredi and Arab families, is causing political problems because the educated majority of Israelis are tired of the constantly rising taxes they have to pay.

 


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