I recently had the unique opportunity to attend a panel discussion between knesset members Ahmed Tibi and Aryeh Eldad. After a heated debate, the mediator turned to the audience for questions. A Jewish Bar Ilan University student stood up and asked a very pointed but controversial question: How can Arabs expect equal rights when they don’t serve the country equally?
There was a rousing round of applause followed by the chanting of “No service, no rights” as arguments erupted all across the auditorium. As the room finally began to quiet down after a round of heckling and insults, the man sitting in front of me shouted, “Well, what about the Haredim?”
While his question went unnoticed and unanswered, it left me feeling unsettled. How can we expect more from the Arabs than we expect from our own people? How can we expect the Arabs to defend the Jewish homeland when we have over 50,000 JEWS who refuse to serve their country?
This is one of the biggest underlying conflicts in Israeli society. It has incited much hatred and resentment within our country. Why do I have to serve if he doesn’t? Why is my son’s life on the line while her son fulfills his duty by sitting in yeshiva all day completely safe from harm? To the average secular Israeli, Haredim are seen as a nuisance, a burden on society, taking money and privileges from the government and giving nothing in return.
This topic has been hashed out countless time since the June 2012 expiration of the Tal Law, which regulated military deferments for Haredi yeshiva students. Israel’s first unified government in years disbanded because the parties could not agree on a solution. The Tal law was not extended. There was no resolution. The status of Haredim and national service is in limbo and the frustrations and social tensions are growing. With the impending elections for the nineteenth Knesset, the real question is: what now?
The major parties running for knesset have all included the issue of national service in their platforms. While it could end this whole conflict, most parties have rejected the idea of switching to a volunteer army. Instead, each party has delineated its own plan, some detailed, others not, to handle this issue. Yesh Atid, for example, has an extremely detailed plan that calls for allowing Haredim to work to support themselves over the next five years while they attempt to develop the necessary facilities to accommodate the Haredim in the army. The Jewish Home party has declared that they are in complete support of Torah learning in place of army service but they seek a reform within the community because those who are not strong enough to learn fulltime should be expected to serve. Hatnuah has made very general statements calling for the end of discrimination and the enlistment of Haredim without delineating a clear plan on how to handle the issues the mass enlistment will bring. The Likud plan is also very generalized: they call for mass enlistment while planning for added concessions for the Haredi community while still threatening penalties for those who do not appear before the enlistment board.
There are those who believe the Haredim must begin to serve immediately and there are those who believe more concessions and accommodations must first be made. There are those who call for slow integration and those who think this problem has gone on long enough and Haredim must begin to serve immediately. Some believe that state rights and benefits should be revoked until they begin service and others believe that coercion will only lead to more conflict. This is not a simple issue and any new legislation or policy is bound to leave someone unhappy.
The fact still remains that we cannot change the Haredi society through legislation. We will not be able to change their mindset or their religious outlook by laying down new laws and forcing them to integrate into a society they want no part in. If we are looking to create a healthy united society of solidarity, forcing the Haredim to serve will only push to further split the country and increase resentment. On top of that, the army is extremely unprepared for such an influx of new recruits. There is no way for them to financially or logistically handle the flood of thousands of new soldiers. In theory, the creation of internal national service in place of army service could work. If Haredim are encouraged to serve their own communities in a national capacity it could solve the issue of over-populating the army and the religious issues all at once. The only issue is that this does not solve the problem of the resentment on the part of non-religious Israeli’s who are still being forced to serve in the army itself.
What is interesting to note is that new reports come out almost daily stating that there are thousands of Haredim who do want to do army service voluntarily. It is clear that the big issue lies within the community. There is a vicious stigma within the Haredi community against those who choose to serve the country in an army capacity. It is deterring those who do want to serve from even considering enlistment. This is an internal issue that I don’t believe we can solve. The community needs to address that on their own.
Do I agree that Haredim should serve? Yes. My question is to what extent and under what circumstances. Are we willing to make the necessary concessions to allow them to serve comfortably or will the government use coercion and force them to serve against their will? I guess only time, and the elections, will tell.
This post also appears on the Bar Ilan University student news publication, Chadashim