The 2013 elections may have been determined by one single slogan: “equality of burden” (or, in its less accurate English rendition, “sharing the burden”). Both Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett spearheaded this rallying cry (subsequently echoed with vigor by the Likud, Labor, Kadima and the Movement), which calls for the full realization of the principle of universal military or civilian service for all groups in society. The implementation of this promise is now a key consideration in the construction of the next government and may very well determine its composition and direction. This popular cry, however, is populist rather than substantive: it is misguided, misdirected and fundamentally mistaken.
The concept of a people’s army for Israeli Jews (universal conscription has never been applied to Arabs) is as old as the state. For many years, in line with a decision by David Ben-Gurion, some 400 ultra-orthodox were exempt from military service. In 1977, however, with the ascendance of the Likud to power, Menachem Begin opened the door for further Haredi exceptions. Today, about 80,000 ultra-orthodox in the relevant age grades have never been drafted (each year approximately 8,000 are released on religious grounds).
The unequal application of the principle of universal conscription has been festering for years, driving a wedge between the ultra-religious and the secular. It came to a head a year ago with the High Court ruling which declared the unconstitutionality of the Tal law, which entrenched these exemptions while allowing for some Haredi men to enter the army and subsequently the workforce. By linking employment to army service, in effect this arrangement perpetuated both the lack of participation of Haredi men in the labor market and their dependence on state handouts.
The popular call for sharing the burden erupted a few months after the social justice protests of the summer of 2011, which focused not only on growing income discrepancies, but also on the unequal distribution of state funds – primarily to the ultra-orthodox and to settlers. The channeling of heightened popular energies to the cause of military service served a dual purpose: first, it diverted attention away from economic inequities by rallying average Israelis around a seemingly consensual issue; and second, by targeting Arabs and Haredim, it inserted a nationalist component into what had heretofore been a broadly inclusive cross-sector movement. More protests ensued. A government commission headed by former MK Yohanan Plesner presented a new conscription plan which was rejected by Prime Minister Netanyahu, who opted to call new elections rather than alienate his natural allies in Shas and Yahadut Hatorah. The question of burden-sharing was thus thrust to the forefront of the campaign.
The impetus behind the demand for equity in sharing the burden is the uniquely Israeli aversion to being dubbed a sucker (a “freier”). The thought that some parts of the population are fulfilling their military duty while others are successfully ducking their obligation infuriates many Israelis. This is especially true when those avoiding service are ultra-orthodox – the beneficiaries of preferential allocations who contribute virtually nothing to the economy – or, alternatively, Arab citizens whose loyalty to the state has been increasingly called into question by self- styled patriots. Thus, in an intriguing and fundamentally misguided dynamic, the spokespeople of mainstream Israel have inverted the fundamental democratic norm of equal rights by demanding equal duties, thus revealing their basic misunderstanding of the democratic ethos.
In doing so, the purveyors of this facile slogan also seriously confuse the issues at hand. The convenient call for burden-sharing conflates three separate, albeit interrelated, problems: the preferential treatment accorded to the ultra-orthodox, their lack of contribution to the economy and their control over matters of religion and state. Each of these questions demands attention, each must be addressed if some semblance of social equality is to prevail. Indeed, educational support to religious schools should be tied to the instruction of core subjects (Hebrew, math and English). State allotments to yeshivot should be reexamined and, in an increasingly tight economy, seriously reduced or even eliminated. Incentives must be provided for those religious citizens who enter the workforce. And serious consideration must be given to separating religion from state. But the relationship of all of these measures to universal conscription is haphazard at best. The latter is a symptom rather than a cause; dealing with it alone will only sow discord without beginning to grapple with the real issues at hand. This purposeful misdirection obfuscates more than it reveals, thereby giving preference to superficial prescriptions rather than dealing directly with critical structural problems.
Indeed, the focus on universal conscription is mistaken. It assumes that the principle of a people’s army is as apt today as it was sixty-five years ago. But that is hardly the case. While it is easier to maintain the myth of universal conscription, its applicability is increasingly in doubt. The IDF today is a highly sophisticated institution relying heavily on a small number of superior combat units and technologically sophisticated backup forces. Its needs in the immediate future lie in these areas. The realization of a universal draft will only exacerbate the growing issue of latent unemployment that has been plaguing the military for the last decade and more. In addition, the incorporation of ultra-orthodox soldiers adversely affects the status of women in the service, whose contribution has become central to the performance of highly skilled tasks (particularly in intelligence, the air force and the operation of sophisticated weaponry). And, needless to say, the development of a parallel civilian service not only involves astronomical costs, it also threatens to seriously distort the labor market by introducing cheap labor at a time of rising distress among workers in lower income brackets.
A people’s army is not the answer to Israel’s defense needs at this time. Within the IDF there is general agreement on the necessity of abandoning this model in favor of either differential service or a professional military. Insisting on a compulsory model of service may sound good; it simply doesn’t work in today’s complex world.
Indeed, the military, with its specialized requirements, is hardly the place to insure that equality which is so critical to the preservation of any democratic society. Instead of wasting any more time trying to revive the myth of a people’s army (and glorify militarism in the process), it is high time to redirect the quest for a truly equitable society to civilian matters. And this involves, first and foremost, dealing with the real sources of inequality in Israel: preferential treatment of certain sectors and the purposeful and systemic exclusion of others, unequal allocations to certain groups (mostly at the expense of the working middle class) and the undue influence of a handful of families over the economy. This requires, first and foremost, recognition of the diversity of contemporary Israel and a willingness to work towards an equality that will encompass all the various components of its society.