The Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the Tal Law after ten years quickly became a coalition obstacle that almost led to early elections. The law, which exempts the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs from the IDF draft, was the main issue of the short-lived early election campaign, as Yisrael Beytenu, Kadima, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and Ehud Barak’s Independence party all started their campaigns offering alternatives to the current situation. Prime Minister Netanyahu has made finding an alternative to the Tal Law the first goal of his new coalition.
But while a solution to the issues arising from the overturning of the Tal Law is necessary, the plans proposed thus far are unlikely to be implemented because they aren’t realistic. The fairly consistent plans dictate that the ultra-Orthodox either need to serve in the military or do some sort of national or civilian service outside of their communities. Ultra-Orthodox MK Moshe Gafni recently said that members of his community would sit in jail rather than serve in the army. Another ultra-Orthodox MK, Yisrael Eichler, insisted that his community would oppose any national service with women. The proposed plans might be good negotiating positions, but they could lead Israel towards unrest or possibly even violent clashes. What we need is a solution that can keep Israel together despite our differences.
The ultra-Orthodox are quick to point out that although the percentage of young men in their community drafted to mandatory service is dropping, the overall number of draftees is increasing every year. Their argument, in a nutshell, is as follows: The army simply doesn’t have the money to draft them. Back in February the Knesset approved two bills authorizing the transfer of 1,850 mandatory draftees meant for military service to the police and another 1,300 to the Israeli Prison Service. The Knesset previously approved transferring other mandatory draftees to other defense-related positions. Last month the Human Resources Division of the IDF reported they it was forced not to draft 100 ultra-Orthodox men who would have enlisted — due to cutbacks in per-soldier finances from the Treasury.
The new reality of a seven-party, 94-MK coalition is that its members must cooperate to find a solution that works for all sides. While the Zionist parties preach equality, the ultra-Orthodox maintain the army does not have the budget to draft even the men who want to serve.
Before we can offer a possible solution to the Tal Law, we must examine the true problem.
There are two types of citizens in Israel: the Zionists and the non-Zionists. The Zionists have been serving in the army since the beginning of the state, and the non-Zionists for the most part have not. The Zionists are upset that they carry the burden of serving the country, while the non-Zionists don’t believe they should shoulder that burden, since recognized national or civilian service largely excludes work in their own communities.
The solution I offer will not have every citizen serving his country in the army, but it will have every citizen serving his community.
Ten years ago the number of ultra-Orthodox soldiers serving in the IDF or civil service was close to zero. The Zionists are happy with the increase in ultra-Orthodox participation in the military, but most people feel that the pace of integration is too slow. The numbers of ultra-Orthodox in national and civilian service are also low. Ultra-Orthodox MK Eichler routinely states that his community does a lot of “hessed” through organizations such as Zaka, Hatzala and various ultra-Orthodox soup kitchens, but these contributions are not recognized by the state.
There are non-Jews who serve in the army or the civilian service — mostly Druze and Bedouin — but the overall number of non-Jews who serve the country is low. The non-Jews, with possible exceptions, are non-Zionists — especially the Israeli Arabs. While Jews celebrate Israeli Independence Day, some Israeli Arabs commemorate their national tragedy. Any plan forcing this group to serve in the army has obvious flaws. Arab MK Ahmed Tibi recently told the Knesset that the two main issues Arabs have with civilian service is that they do not want to be part of the Defense Ministry or to help Zionist organizations rather than organizations in their own communities.
We have two very different groups of non-Zionists with very similar concerns — both want to remain in their own communities rather than serve a country with beliefs so different from their own. Solutions to date have come from Zionists who want to force these groups, some of which do not even recognize the country’s legitimacy, to integrate by serving in the army or national service.
My solution offers both sides a great compromise with a trial period of ten years that all should be able to support.
The first step involves recognizing the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli Arab institutions as eligible civilian service volunteering options. This will allow the non-Zionists to volunteer in their own communities and work at their own hospitals, clinics, soup kitchens and non-profit organizations. The non-Zionist sectors are the poorest and could use help from their own youth to build up their communities.
The second step is to create a new volunteering ministry. This move is crucial to gaining the cooperation of the non-Jewish non-Zionists by moving national service out of the Defense Ministry. The volunteering ministry will handle the responsibility and funding of the secular and national religious national service as well as the new ultra-Orthodox and non-Jewish civilian service. The money required to fund this ministry and the new civilian service would need to be worked out, but is likely cheaper than what it would cost the army to draft all of those currently not serving. Solving this problem without funding is unrealistic.
So how will this plan work? The Zionists will keep serving in the army or doing traditional national service. The non-Jews and the ultra-Orthodox who do not want to serve in the army or national service will spend a year volunteering. The benefits for army service will not be given to those who volunteer. The idea behind the volunteer year is that every citizen must give something back, but there are still many more benefits for being a soldier. The ultra-Orthodox and non-Jewish army units will remain, and those who serve in those units will still be eligible for full benefits. Anyone who spends two years volunteering as part of the police, prison service, firefighting crews or Magen David Adom will also receive benefit packages. The volunteering year will be mandatory for men only. Man who refuse to volunteer will spend their volunteering year behind bars as conscientious objectors.
Just like the Tal Law lasted ten years, I suggest my plan as a trial plan for the next ten years. This is a plan where neither side wins, but it is one all sides can live with, at least in the short term. The Zionists will agree that while this plan does not bring more groups into the army, it does accomplish one huge goal — the introduction of mandatory service for everyone, which hopefully will help the Zionists not feel like suckers. The non-Zionists also benefit; they’ll see their communities improve from the volunteer work, but they won’t be required to serve in the army or leave their communities for national service.
There will be two groups of people disappointed by this plan — Zionists who wish to fully integrate the non-Zionists immediately and non-Zionists who do not support a requirement to volunteer. But it is the best solution we can actually implement.
This great compromise will allow all Israeli citizens to live together, even if they live separately.
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Editor’s note: This post was originally published on May 8. It was updated to reflect the decision to call off early elections.