Unless they’re physically or mentally unfit, young, able-bodied men in Israel are duty bound to serve in the Israeli armed forces for a fixed period. When they’re older, they’re obliged to discharge their military duties in the reserves. It’s a fair system, given the fact that Israel has been on a virtual war footing since its declaration of independence in 1948.
Strangely enough, mandatory conscription in Israel is not universally enforced. For nearly 70 years now, tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men have assiduously avoided the draft like the plague, claiming they’re entitled to this exemption because they can better serve the state studying in yeshivas.
This is a dubious argument, to say the least, but Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, a secular Jew, sided with the Orthodox rabbis on this issue and decreed that several hundred haredim should be exempted from military service per year. It seemed like a reasonable accommodation. But since then, not unexpectedly, the haredim have taken scandalous advantage of Ben-Gurion’s generous edict, and the number of haredi draft dodgers has swollen to unconscionable levels.
As a result, the burden of protecting Israel has fallen unfairly on mainly secular, moderately observant and modern Orthodox Jews. As they bear arms, risking injury and death, the haredim sit comfortably in state-supported yeshivas parsing Talmudic texts. Very few haredim have donned Israeli military uniforms.
It’s an unjust and outrageous situation.
These thoughts crossed my mind after I read that the Knesset recently approved the second and third readings of an amendment to the Equal Service Law, which was passed in 2014 at the urging of Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid Party. Lapid is usually a wishy-washy kind of politician, but his insistence that Israel’s onerous defence burden should be shared equally by Jews from all walks of life is undisputable.
Under the terms of the Equal Service Law, suitable ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students under the age of 24 would be subject to mandatory conscription if quotas for haredim were not filled by 2017. Those who failed to report for duty would be liable to criminal proceedings as draft dodgers.
It seemed as if Israel was on the cusp of a new era with respect to universal conscription.
But last week, amid the latest disquieting Palestinian stabbing, shooting and car ramming incidents in Israel and the West Bank, the Equal Service Law was effectively gutted by a coalition of gutless politicians.
I don’t generally agree with the views of Avigdor Liberman, the hawkish former foreign minister. But when Liberman suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had caved in to the haredi lobby by supporting the amendment to the Equal Service Law, I could not but fully concur with him.
Netanyahu has a bare majority in the Knesset and his survival depends, in part, on satisfying the haredi parties in his right-wing coalition government. If nothing else, Netanyahu is a survivor whose prime interest is staying in power. By agreeing to amend the Equal Service Law, he betrayed Israel’s egalitarian values for self-serving ends.
The amendment essentially buys time for the haredi community, further extending the transition period from 2017 to 2024 before the Equal Service Law is due to go into effect. The amendment also cancels penalties against draft dodgers.
Astonishingly enough, backers of the amendment brazenly claimed that haredi men should not be inducted into the armed forces coercively. “We don’t want enlistment by force,” said Likud parliamentarian Yoav Kisch, presumably speaking for his fellow Likudniks.
This is an absurd argument, since Israel’s existing conscription system for eligible males is inherently coercive. If you’re fit, you serve. It’s as simple as that.
Israel’s Supreme Court has handed down several verdicts on the basis of this sound philosophy. In 1998, the high court ruled that the defence minister had no authority to grant exemptions to haredim. This prompted the then prime minister, Ehud Barak, to promote the passage of the Tal Law, which granted exemptions and deferments to yeshiva students. A few years ago, the Knesset extended the Tal Law by five years, prompting the Supreme Court to deem it unconstitutional.
This, in turn, led to the Equal Service Law, whose integrity has now been egregiously compromised by the crass imperatives of political expediency.
Yair Lapid has said he will ask the Supreme Court to annul the amendment that has crippled the Equal Service Law. One can only hope that he follows through with his promise, and that the Supreme Court will strike down the amendment that has surely infuriated countless Israelis who faithfully serve their country.