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The anatomy of the Conscription Law debate

The Conscription Law was the trigger for new elections, but the recent campaign was personal; nobody's talking seriously about the real issue
Illustrative: Soldiers of the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion sit in a field at the Peles Military Base, in the Northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)
Illustrative: Soldiers of the IDF's ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda Battalion sit in a field at the Peles Military Base, in the Northern Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

The Conscription Law and the repeated crises it has generated, are a classic example of the Israeli political system’s inability to deal with the country’s fundamental problems. The history of the “professional Torah scholars” arrangement and the current dispute about it are — more than anything else — a primary example of the failures of our political system.

The arrangement began as an ad hoc agreement at the establishment of the state. Later it became permanent, was corrupted, and turned into a serious social issue as a result of social, and demographic changes, and a change in values. The handful of yeshiva students who received exemptions before 1977 mushroomed into thousands; today they account for more than 15 percent of each draft cohort, and their failure to serve has become the main factor in the overall decline of the percentage who do serve. This phenomenon of a temporary arrangement that becomes set in stone is a major problem whose repercussions we must cope with today.

The political system has a tendency to avoid making decisions on complex issues. The usual practice of merely putting out fires rather than solving a problem once and for all has reached a new peak with the Conscription Law.

The political system’s inability to come up with a fair solution that satisfies basic standards of equality has produced a series of laws, amendments, ad hoc provisions, and repeals, leaving us in chaos. What is certain is that we can see a consistent trend over the years: towards the dismantling of the model of a “people’s army” without its replacement by some alternative that can meet the needs of Israeli society and security.

The appropriate solution would be based on two clear principles: a significant increase in the financial compensation to all those who serve, including the ultra-Orthodox; and encouragement and incentives for the ultra-Orthodox to perform meaningful military service while still young (up to age 22), so that after that they can then enroll in vocational training programs and find jobs. This is in sharp contrast to the situation today, one in which ultra-Orthodox men who do not serve in the IDF must remain in yeshiva until age 25.

Research by the Israel Democracy Institute has shown that economic and employment incentives have a positive effect on the number of yeshiva students who serve in the IDF. We should not make light of this. The number of those enlisting each year continues to increase. In 2013, 1,972 young ultra-Orthodox men enlisted in the IDF; in 2017, the figure was 3,070, an increase of 45%. This is a sharp rise within a short time. Quite naturally there was also a significant increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox men attending institutions of higher education.

In this period of ad hominem political debate, rather than seeing a useful discussion of possible alternatives, we are witness mainly to personal attacks and spins threatening to sink the political ship. Interestingly enough, the Conscription Law has been one of the most frequent factors in generating coalition crises in Israel, and, even though it was the trigger for the calling of early elections, the recent campaign, which was appallingly personal, did not include a serious discussion of the issue.

How much has the situation changed since 2012, when I served as chair of the Knesset Committee on Equalizing the Burden? Not very much, but the sense of urgency is mounting. Who could ever have imagined that a party that won only five Knesset seats could force a move that will have such a major impact on the economy and society? The evils of our system of political extortion are liable to take us to the brink, and drag the entire country into another round of elections — and very probably — once again, without solving the problem.

About the Author
Yohanan Plesner is the President of the Israel Democracy Institute. He served as a Member of Knesset for the Kadima party from 2007–2013. He lives in Hod HaSharon with his wife and four daughters.
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