The emotionally charged expression “Sharing the Burden” has been bandied about of late, but has a variety of meanings depending on the setting in which it is used. In the context of the Jewish Day School tuition crisis conversation, sharing the burden means helping families find relief from the debilitating levels of tuition. During the last presidential election season, sharing the burden was code for raising taxes. Coming back from my recent visit to Israel I can confidently tell you that there is no place on earth and perhaps no time in history in which the attitudes towards “sharing the burden” have created such a massive divide and monumental challenge as in Israel today.
An exemption from serving in Israel’s army, intended for a modest number of full-time Yeshiva students, is today being utilized by over 60,000 men who are eligible but not serving. As the number of exemptions grows, the broader Israeli society has reached their limit and is vociferously calling on their Chareidi brothers to start sharing the burden.
During my short stay in Israel, I saw first-hand the seemingly insoluble divide and vast chasm between the secular and national religious on the one hand, and the Chareidim who don’t serve on the other. The secular and national religious simply cannot fathom how a population could feel entitled to benefit from the protection of those who risk their lives for them and not participate in providing that protection for others in any tangible manner. The Chareidim, however, cannot fathom how they can be asked to abandon the Beis Midrash and neglect the Torah that needs to be studied. Moreover, they cannot comprehend how they can be forced to serve in an army that they believe is designed to purge them of their religious identity, convictions, observances, and lifestyle.
My personal feeling is that the default must be participation in Israel’s army. Appropriate concessions should be made to honor opportunities for full-time Torah study before serving, but service should be a given. Additionally, units should be developed that will meet the sensitivities and requirements of the Charedi population. However,, I believe the burden is on the Charedi community to provide a long-term, sustainable proposal that will include Yeshiva students participating in at least some form of national service.
While in Israel, as I read the newspaper, listened to the radio, and had conversations with people on both sides of this issue, it dawned on me that there is another population that is not fairly sharing the burden, yet they are not being addressed. A fundamental principle of religious Zionism is that Israel is not simply a secular state for Jews, but it is a Jewish state. We believe that the return of Jewish sovereignty to Israel represents a seismic step in the process of redemption and major progress towards the Messianic era.
Israel is not the Israeli homeland; it is the Jewish homeland. The law of return states that all Jews have the right to return to, to live in, and to be a citizen of Israel. Most remarkably, Israel feels a responsibility not only to its citizens and residents, but has exhibited extraordinary steps to help protect and rescue Jews everywhere including Ethiopia, the former Soviet Union, and Argentina. Do we doubt for a moment that if, God forbid, a Jewish community were in danger or at risk anywhere in the world, Israel would step up and do whatever necessary to protect them or us?
Israel belongs to all Jews, not only all Israelis, and all Jews, not only all Israelis, must share the burden of protecting her. The question, then, is what are diaspora Jews doing to share the burden? I am not naïve or foolish. I understand that there are different rights and different obligations for those who live in the land and are legal citizens of it than for those who live outside. Our share in the rights is not as great: we cannot vote, for example. And our share in the burden is obviously not as great, as we in the diaspora are not conscripted into the IDF. However, what is not debatable or deniable, it seems to me, is that we have at least some share of the burden.
The obligation of Jews outside of Israel to share the burden of protecting her is not only a philosophical or ideological statement, it is a halachic one. The Talmud tells us that in the circumstances of milchemes mitzvah, a mandated war, all must participate, even a bride and groom who were standing under their chupa. The Rambam defines a milchemes mitzvah as “war against the Seven Nations, war against Amalek, and assisting Israel in defending herself from the enemy who descends upon them.” (Hilchos Melachim 5:1) His last definition certainly seems like an apt description of Israel’s condition today. The halacha doesn’t differentiate between those that live in Israel or outside her boundaries. Rather, in the circumstance of defending Israel from her enemies, halacha demands that all Jews, wherever they may live, must share the burden and participate in protecting the people. Technically, we should all be drafted into service, no matter where we may live.
And so, while in Israel they debate the question of Yeshiva students exemptions from army service, I propose that we in the diaspora ask ourselves how can we do more towards fulfilling our share of the burden?
The first and foremost suggestion is to consider aliyah. There are legitimate and valid reasons not to make aliyah right now. But, there are no excuses not to consider, struggle with, and plan for a time that we can move to Israel, the Jewish homeland and be part of the Jewish destiny.
Secondly, though we lack a legal obligation to serve in the IDF, we don’t lack a moral obligation to support the members of the IDF in every possible way that we can. I am regularly contacted by young people serving in the IDF whose units have needs that cannot be met by the Army itself. Partaking in a small share of the burden means generously supporting organizations like Friends of the IDF (www.fidf.org) and Sgt. Benjamin Anthony’s Our Soldiers Speak (www.oursoldiersspeak.org). Additionally, while we don’t protect soldiers in the field, we can seek to protect them with our heartfelt prayers by always thinking of them, each and every time we pray.
Thirdly, sharing the burden means advocating for Israel and seeking to influence America’s policy towards Israel on a regular basis and in meaningful ways. Minimally, being a member of AIPAC, (www.aipac.org) and hopefully being active and involved, positions AIPAC to successfully lobby on behalf of Israel’s interests and to be the strongest voice influencing the policies of the US-Israel relationship in the world.
There are countless other ways we can share the burden even from the diaspora, such as by investing in Israel through Israel Bonds (www.Israelbonds.org), supporting organizations that care for IDF veterans (www.zdvo.org), and much more.
Israel has some very difficult and undoubtedly painful work to do to heal the divide and find a solution that will bring the country together on the issue of mandatory army service. While they struggle to figure it out, let us neither forget nor neglect our obligation to share the burden and let us pledge to do more for Israel this year than ever before.