David Lehrer

Drafting the Ultra-Orthodox, being fair or being smart?

As the 15th of October draws near and pressure on Netanyahu’s government to table a bill that will perpetuate the ultra-Orthodox exemption from military service, Gantz has countered with a campaign for a bill which would exempt ultra-orthodox men from military service but would require an alternative public service (in education, emergency medicine, community service) not only for those ultra-Orthodox who do not serve in the IDF but for all Israeli citizens who for religious, nationalist, or ideological reasons, do not serve. The proposal would then lower the exemption age so that more ultra-Orthodox men will be able to join the work force. Gantz also proposes differential benefits so that those who continue to serve in high-risk military positions will not feel that the critical nature of their service is unrecognized. Gantz’s proposal is a valiant attempt to bring some fairness to Israeli society and which may also have a chance of passing Supreme Court scrutiny, assuming the Supreme Court continues to play an active role in the Israeli judicial process.

It is a fact that the ultra-Orthodox community, which now consists of about 13% of the Israeli population is growing faster than the rest of the population.  According to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) the fertility rate of ultra-Orthodox women is higher by about 4.0 births per woman compared to the rate of all non-Orthodox Jewish women in Israel.  CBS also projects that by 2065, the total percentage of ultra-Orthodox in the population will reach 32%. In 42 years, almost one in 3 Israelis will be ultra-Orthodox.  These are statistical projections over a long-period of time. A lot could happen over that time, however population growth is like an oil tanker, once set in motion, it is difficult to stop.

There are now 18 members of the Knesset representing the ultra-Orthodox community, 11 from Shas and 7 from United Torah Judaism (UTJ): 15% of the members of the Knesset.  While not all ultra-Orthodox Israeli citizens who vote, vote for one of the two ultra-Orthodox parties, there tends to be a high correlation between self-identification with that community and voting for Shas or UTJ. Shas has an additional advantage of attracting non-ultra-Orthodox voters who like its championship of the Mizrachi community.

It seems that over the next 40 years or so, the political power of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel will increase not wain.  Therefore, it is critical to the preservation of democracy in the State of Israel that the ultra-Orthodox community be persuaded that the Israeli center left is not their enemy. The future of the State of Israel as a democracy depends on the ability of our society to learn to live with each other and respect each other as equal citizens. Gantz’s proposal to create an alternative draft law which the ultra-Orthodox community can live with is an important attempt in that direction but lacks one key element, respect. The overwhelming majority of Israelis believe that risking one’s life in defense of our country is the highest form of service and is what protects the State of Israel from annihilation by her enemies.  A very small percentage of the population, the ultra-Orthodox, believe that what protects the State of Israel from her enemies is Torah Study. While I am not inclined to believe that the study of Jewish texts protects the State of Israel from armed attacks, the last 9 months have proved that national security is not just about planes, tanks, and weapons. The center left must reach out to the ultra-Orthodox community with a proposal that it not only can live with but can embrace.  Equating the value of Torah Study to that of teaching, emergency response and community work would show the ultra-Orthodox community that the center left is listening and wants to engage.

I am all for fairness in our society, but I recognize that my definition of fairness is not universal. When faced with the challenges of establishing the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion recognized the importance of national unity, even at the price of fairness. He made several historic compromises with the ultra-Orthodox community which, whether out of expedience or out of respect, served the nation well in its nascent years.  For many years, the ultra-Orthodox were a reliable partner in the Labor led coalition governments.  We will never go back to those days, even if we wanted to. It would, however, be beneficial to our democracy if the ultra-Orthodox, who over the next 40 years, will have more of a say in our politics, felt that the center left was a legitimate partner and not the enemy.

About the Author
Dr. Lehrer holds a PhD from the Geography and Environmental Development Department of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a joint Masters Degree in Management Science from Boston University and Ben-Gurion University. Dr. Lehrer was the Executive Director of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies from 2001 until August 2021 and has now become Director of the Center for Applied Environmental Diplomacy. Dr. Lehrer has been a member of Kibbutz Ketura since 1981.