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Having plunged Israel into internal crisis with its bid to neuter the judiciary and eliminate checks on its own power, the government is now moving to deepen another potentially existential divide — with crude proposals to enshrine a blanket exemption of the ultra-Orthodox community from military and any other national service.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held talks on Sunday with some of his colleagues on legislation under which all young ultra-Orthodox males would be permitted to study Torah full-time instead of performing military service; there would no requirement for the young members of the community to perform any alternative national civil service; and they would be free to join the workforce only slightly later than their IDF-serving contemporaries.
It might be argued that the still-tentative legislation is less than revolutionary. As things stand, after all, only some 10% of the approximately 11,000 ultra-Orthodox males who turn 18 each year are conscripted; most of the rest declare that they are engaged in full-time Torah story, whereupon they receive an annual “deferral” of service until they turn 26 — at which point they are formally exempted from the draft and are free to quit yeshiva study, if they wish, and go to work.
In fact, however, the change would be seismic. It would formalize the division between those who shoulder the rights and responsibilities of defending this country from its enemies, and those who do not. It would exempt from any kind of national service the fastest-growing sector of the Israeli population (the ultra-Orthodox are currently 13.5% of Israel’s 9.45 million people, and are projected to be 16% by the end of the decade). And it would constitute the final, shattering blow to the eroded but still vital designation of the Israel Defense Forces as a “people’s army” — a national defense force conscripted from across the entire populace, for the essential protection of the entire populace.
Underlining the wrongheadedness of the entire proposal, the focus of some of Sunday’s discussion was on providing additional financial incentives to young Israelis who serve in combat and other essential IDF roles — a tacit acknowledgment of the inequality of the burden they shoulder (and at a time when the coalition is already committed to boosting funds for ultra-Orthodox schools and for yeshivas and their students).
While combat soldiers, like anybody else, would doubtless appreciate a little more money, they risk their lives in Israel’s defense not for a pay packet but because they have been brought up to recognize that the country would be lost without them, and feel an obligation and a privilege to fulfill that role. (“It’s not right that my son should serve and others shouldn’t,” said one mother in an internet exchange organized by Channel 12 on Wednesday. She said his father had died when he was eight, “but I send him to the army anyway, to contribute to the state. He was raised with those values… It’s not right that they’re buying our children with [promises of] extra money. What, are they mercenaries?”)
And while not all young Israelis are equipped for the most challenging of IDF positions, the principle that all young Israelis are expected to do something to benefit the country for two or three of their formative years is a central element of the unwritten conscription covenant. Undermined over decades of semi-legitimized ultra-Orthodox draft evasion, that unwritten pact would be formally torn up under the mooted law, with consequences that the IDF itself, while trying to stay out of the political debate, has swiftly signaled.
“The IDF is the people’s army,” a very senior IDF officer said later Sunday, in response to the bill under discussion. And the balance by which the draft is applied “to all sectors of the population, including the Haredim,” must not be broken, he added. On Tuesday, the IDF issued a new outline for military service, and stated that it would continue to send enlistment letters to ultra-Orthodox males who turn 18.
As with the temporarily suspended judicial overhaul legislation — where a way out of the morass is clearly available, in the shape of patient dialogue on constructive reform and ideally, a constitution — the looming tragedy of a Haredi exemption law is made still worse by the fact that a clear-cut, win-win solution is staring our legislators in the face, if only they would open their eyes and adopt it.
The IDF wants and needs eligible recruits from all sectors of the populace — including the ultra-Orthodox and the Arab communities — but it does not need them all. And Israeli civil society has endless needs that young men and women from all sectors of the populace could help meet during a period of mandatory non-IDF service.
In an Army Radio interview on Monday morning, the former education minister Rabbi Shai Piron rattled through a list of such avenues of service — assistance in hospitals, schools, the fire department; help with the elderly and those with special needs; and much, much more. This is service, in many cases, that could be performed by ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis within their own communities, with none of the challenges to their lifestyles that the military structure can present, yet ultimately all benefitting the national good.
Orthodox Jewish tradition holds that the best and the brightest should indeed be encouraged to study and ensure the abiding relevance and application of our foundational texts and their ethics, and be financially supported by the working masses. Instead, in modern Israel, that tradition has been distorted and abused, undermining the national ethos, with generations of ultra-Orthodox Jews widely undereducated, denied the opportunity to seek and find fulfilling work, and consigned to poverty through the manipulations of their political leadership.
The mooted legislation would institutionalize and magnify all these distortions, when a framework mandating national service of one kind or another for all would mark a major step toward alleviating them.
It beggars belief that the prime minister would schedule discussions on such a law in the run-up to next week’s Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen soldiers and our 75th Independence Day, when the nation is already boiling with dissent and anger over his plans to shackle and politicize the courts. In any case, it cannot be legislated so long as the High Court — which has tolerated widespread ultra-Orthodox draft evasion, but thwarted previous legislation to enshrine the inequality of a blanket exemption — retains its independence and powers.
Surely, one would have thought, Netanyahu would recognize that the mere talk of such legislation can only exacerbate the rift over the threat to Israel’s foundational values that his fired-unfired Defense Minister Yoav Gallant so resonantly highlighted; the rift that has seen IDF reservists and veterans at the forefront of anti-overhaul protests and that, warned Gallant, has come to constitute a tangible danger to Israel’s national security.
But as with the overhaul, it’s not too late.
And as with the overhaul, a truly beneficial alternative, a nationally beneficial alternative, is clearly available.
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