Israel’s modern history is defined by its ability to overcome existential challenges. Today Israel’s very identity faces precisely one such defining moment of tremendous historical import. The battle over drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the IDF is approaching a crescendo (along with the less publicized efforts to also induct Israeli Arabs). We are confronted by unprecedented levels of social unrest and anger which must be resolved in one way or the other. The decades of sweeping this political hot potato under the carpet are over.
This debate has already brought tens of thousands of people – on both sides of the argument — to protests in the streets. It has the potential to significantly impact on how Israel will look in the coming years, with melodramatic terms like “civil war” being increasingly bandied about — even by some mainstream politicians. It is incumbent upon Israel’s national leaders to think out of the box to discover answers that will mend the deepening sores — while also protecting national defense interests.
One solution that responds to both these needs is to effectively end the draft and advocate the transformation of the IDF into a professional army. Such a force would be staffed only by those who truly believe in their nation’s ideals and are motivated by adequate compensation. As unconventional as such a proposal might sound in an Israel, where IDF enlistment is viewed as a rite of passage and the nation and its military are seemingly joined at the hip, ironically this might just be the move necessary to save our country from social meltdown.
Should haredim continue to defer this national responsibility while benefiting from continuing public financial support for their yeshiva study, the nation runs the risk of a true economic crisis. The haredim are currently a minority, but are by far the fastest-growing demographic group in Israel, ensuring that the cost of sometimes-lifelong financing of their Torah studies will cut further and further into the national budget in the coming years.
Israel’s leadership has recently conceded that maintaining the status quo flies in the face of both logic and the best interests of our country. Beyond the financial toll, for a Western-style democracy like Israel to be defined by such bitter inequality, where one group escapes the burden of military service while continuing to cash their government-supported checks each month, is simply a recipe for long-term chaos. Earlier this year, Israel’s Supreme Court ruled that the status quo was illegal and that a solution must be found that doesn’t exempt any one group from the obligation of national service.
Despite widespread consensus that the situation must be changed, our politicians are continuously reaching brick walls in the quest for a solution. The haredi political bloc, which holds considerable sway in our government, has not wavered in its demands that haredi youth not be called into the IDF or national service, realms they view as unresponsive to their commitment to a spiritually pure and strictly Torah-observant lifestyle.
Some more extreme ultra-Orthodox leaders actually said that army service constitutes a case where one should agree to be put to death rather than serve – a condition in Jewish law traditionally served for the most serious of transgressions. While such pronouncements are a minority opinion even within the haredi world, they do keenly reflect the passions generated from this issue.
The creation of a professional fighting force is therefore an alternative that merits serious consideration. While it would certainly help alleviate some degree of these bitter social tensions, a professional army also makes economic sense in a country like Israel. Those familiar with the IDF’s personnel structure concede that effective management could reduce manpower and costs.
The Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, in a study published in 2010, estimated that an IDF force where enlistment is by choice would cost the national treasury approximately 90 million shekel in wages annually. Compensation would be quantified based on a soldier’s level of experience in relation to comparable wages earned in the civil sector. Combined with overall manpower reductions and increased productivity stemming from the fact that volunteer soldiers would be significantly more motivated than draftees, the IDF would usher in a new chapter in its illustrious history of defending our state.
Arguably this concept requires a complete re-evaluation of the role that our military plays in our society, and will be questioned by those who are unable to envision an IDF without a compulsory draft. But those who were committed to serving and defending the nation will continue to do so, inspired both by ideology and the lure of the almighty shekel. The IDF might have a lesser role to play as an educator and social worker, but perhaps Israel has today evolved to the point where such a change makes sense.
Most importantly, this new format will allow Israel to address social ills that threaten to starkly divide us, enabling us to once again focus redoubled efforts on becoming a proud nation that is able to respond to the wider needs of all its people.