Repeating History: Compulsory Draft for Arabs and Haredim is a Mistake

Empires throughout history can attest to how difficult drafts can be when one population tries to draft another. Israel risks the same mistake the Ottoman Empire made in its decline to force the draft of various minority groups throughout its empire. The analogy is particularly relevant because those drafts happened in the Arab World. I’m not bringing up something from Chinese or European history. This happened here. One hundred or even 150 years isn’t too long a separation between efforts.

Ottomanism developed slowly, starting in 1839. The first of the “Tanzimat” reforms came across the desk of the Sultan. Trying to emulate European reforms, the Sultan eliminated distinctions between Muslims and other Ottomans;he erased Sharia-influenced “dhimmi” laws and applied equal responsibilities to the state to both Islam and minorities. Whereas once only Muslims could be armed, now Christians and Jews would be recruited. Other minorities would also enjoy the ideological revolution; all sorts of minorities you might have never even heard of were also supposed to join: the Yazidis and the Alevis.

There were also the Alawites (more on them in a moment). But as this new draft initiative reached the ears of Christians and Jews, their reaction was rarely celebratory. Whether Church leadership that wanted to keep Muslims and Christians respective from each other or laymen that dreaded the idea of joining the army, opposition was loud. Those taxes the Empire repealed for second class citizens – reinstated as an exemption tax from military service.

As for the Alawites, their rebellions against the draft are compulsory learning for students of the late Ottoman Empire. Dozens of skirmishes took place over the course of 50 years. The Ottoman governor of Syria needed a 100-man escort to maneuver through Alawite-populated towns. There was no guarantee of safety. Agreements were made and broken. Rebellions were quelled and broke out again. These weren’t the only fighters: Druze and Ismailis took their swings at the Ottomans themselves.

Perhaps in a democratic society, much further along than the Ottoman Syria of the 1850s, a violent scenario is less likely. Then again, the history of Arab violence against the Israeli government is strong. Whether Israeli Arabs would take it to that level or not is difficult to say, but it doesn’t speak well to the possibility that Arabs would willfully except a draft.

The IDF Can’t Handle This
Secular and Dati Leumi Israelis want universal service. They want equality among what citizens live here, in rights and responsibilities. Not all groups want equal treatment. Religious minorities want a different lifestyle, and believe it or not might pay to keep it. Other groups with less investment in the state might fight. Arab institutions are few in the Jewish State; adding gripes about enlistment will light sparks.

I’m not writing this because I want to tell Benjamin Netanyahu universal enlistment is a bad idea. I think he knows. I doubt he doesn’t. I doubt he’ll follow through with anything substantial to make a universal draft happen. The IDF is terrible with human resources. I cannot imagine how the IDF would deal with managing such social conflict in its ranks. As the IDF continues to reduce the demand it has for good soldiers (I’ve wanted to reverse my exemption for months), it won’t push to bring in more troops that are difficult to manage. For the police, it’s a waste of resources to imprison draft dodgers, and such a social change will have plenty of them.

If the country deems this a necessary change then it should move slowly: reduce the amount of money Yeshiva stipends receive and increase those given to soldiers. Do not impose a draft; implement a recruitment drive. Give those people who are reluctant to go in a place to land by recruiting more members of their respective communities in advance. It’s working in the Haredi community. The numbers have increased significantly in just the last few years. It’s not worth a confrontation when there is a more efficient way to do it.

About the Author
Gedalyah Reback is an experienced writer on technology, startups, the Middle East and Islam. He also focuses on issues of personal status in Judaism, namely conversion.