The Tal Law gridlock has dominated Israeli politics for months, ever since late February when the High Court of Justice ruled the law unconstitutional. On August 1, the law, which grants exemptions from military service to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox, will be void. Before then, the Knesset must devise a way to assuage the haredi community while ensuring that Israeli society shares in the burden of military service fairly and equally.
The Keshev Committee, charged with crafting that compromise, seems intent on a new method of exemptions and exclusions from service for haredim. But there is another, more elegant option to consider that is potentially advantageous and less legally dubious: End compulsory military service in Israel and make the IDF an all-volunteer force.
The idea seems radical for a country that prides itself on the widely shared burden of military service. It might seem impossible to implement with the increased budget a volunteer force would necessitate. But these drawbacks should not preclude a reasoned consideration of the potential advantages of an all-volunteer force.
Consider the lessons of US history (see, for example, this report). The US shifted from a conscripted force to an all-volunteer force in the early 1970s. Despite well-founded concerns, the all-volunteer force has proved a tremendous success. While not perfect, the racial and socioeconomic makeup of the US military is roughly proportionate to that of the population at large. Moreover, the burden of service is more equally shared than it ever was during periods of conscription. The quality of the force is greatly improved. Combat effectiveness is up, and disciplinary problems are down.
Converting to an all-volunteer force also improved the US economy. Compulsory service allows a military to hire at below-market wages. As a result, the US military purchased labor and capital at non-optimal levels. The economic impact of a draft is not confined to military balance sheets. Low wages for service members are a regressive implicit tax on those service members. In the US, one study calculated that tax as the largest in the country’s history. The consequences of the low wages and constraints on labor mobility under conscription reverberated throughout the national labor market. The introduction of the all-volunteer force brought greater economic efficiency in the military and across society, and led the US to more equally share the financial burden of national defense.
In Israel, converting to an all-volunteer force would make the questions raised by the High Court moot. And it would do so without exacerbating the religious-secular divide. Haredi, secular, and Arab Israelis would have an equal opportunity to serve, or not serve.
This is not to say that an all-volunteer force is the best road for Israel to take. But the Keshev Committee should seriously consider the option. The potential benefits are too great to ignore.