Tensions Simmer in Israel over Conscription Bill

By Yoni Komorov ‘14

TEL AVIV – It’s turning out to be a very hot summer in Israel, but not for obvious reasons. Last weekend I attended a protest here in which approximately 40,000 people showed up. A senior member of Israel’s security establishment spoke at the protest and gave a dire warning: “We are nearing a situation where a majority of the Israeli public doesn’t enlist. Equal conscription is a concern that is shared by right and left and is part of the ethos on which the state was founded.”

The next day’s leading article in the Times of Israel read: “Tens of thousands of people marched alongside reserve soldiers Saturday evening in Tel Aviv to demand legislation mandating universal conscription. The rally was organized by reservists insisting that all sectors of society share equally in the burden of defending the state.”

The reference to “all sectors of society” refers primarily to the ultra-Orthodox community, also known as Haredim (“God-fearing” in Hebrew). Since Israel’s establishment 64 years ago, the ultra-Orthodox have been exempt from mandatory military service. What started out in 1948 as an exemption for 400 men a year has now turned into 60,000.

Today, the ultra-Orthodox make up 10-percent of Israel’s population. With their exceptionally high birthrate, that number is expected to surpass 30-percent in the not-too-distant future. Many realize the status-quo arrangement is no longer sustainable, mainly because this sector lives off government subsidies, isn’t integrated into the work force, and doesn’t serve in the military. Israel’s shrinking (mostly secular) middle class is fed up with carrying the burden and subsidizing a growing ultra-Orthodox community that evades the obligations of citizenship yet receives a sizeable portion of the state budget to fund their Torah (Bible) studies and observant lifestyle.

Israel’s High Court of Justice has now forced the issue on the government’s agenda. In February, Israel’s High Court ruled that the exemption law was unconstitutional because it violates the principle of equality. The court said the law would expire on August 1. If Israel’s Knesset (parliament) doesn’t pass a new law that will require a gradual enlistment of most but not all the ultra-Orthodox, the mandatory service law will apply to everyone of draft age. That would be an untenable situation partly because the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) isn’t logistically prepared to absorb tens of thousands of Haredim at once.

The Haredim are adamantly opposed to any arrangement that will force them to serve in the IDF. A leading Haredi rabbi recently said that “the only reason the Jewish people merit existence is the merit of the holy Torah students who have nothing in their lives but the four cubits of halakha (Jewish law).”  A Haredi member of Knesset said last week that “nobody will take a Torah scholar away from his studies. It doesn’t matter at all what law there is. Court rulings make no difference.”

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got himself caught up in a crisis he did not seek nor want. He would much rather focus the country’s attention on the Iranian nuclear threat, the disintegration of Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise in Egypt, and the lurking dangers in Sinai and Gaza. Instead he now finds himself caught between the Haredi parties, whose political support he needs, and the Kadima party (the largest party in Netanyahu’s coalition) who is demanding a new law be presented to the cabinet by next week or they will leave his coalition and possibly force early elections.

The majority of the Israeli public is in favor of drafting the Haredim and will most likely punish Netanyahu in the ballot box for capitulating on this issue. A recent Tel Aviv University poll showed that 58-percent of Jewish Israelis would prefer a solution that will allow a limited number of outstanding young Torah scholars to remain studying in a yeshiva (an Orthodox Jewish college), while all the rest should be drafted into the army at age 18.

Netanyahu is now searching for the magic formula that will please the High Court of Justice, his constituents, and the ultra-Orthodox. By next week we’ll know if he can pull off the impossible and bring a respite from the hot Israeli summer.

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