Why are the Haredim demonstrating alone?

We are so used to politics making strange bedfellows that it can be shocking when it doesn’t. With hundreds of thousands of haredim in Jerusalem and New York City demonstrating the potential end of their community-wide IDF draft exemption and many thousands more viewing and commenting on dueling YouTube reactions to the demonstrations, it is lately hard to remember that the issue of Israel’s universal draft is much broader than just haredim.

Statistics compiled over the past several years have shaken the reality behind the ideal of the “People’s Army” envisioned by David Ben-Gurion and Yigael Yadin. Last year, internal IDF numbers were widely reported, demonstrating that the number of Israelis of draft age who are actually drafted continues to fall. It was 74.7% in 1990, though IDF officials expect it to continue to fall, forecasting numbers of 64.5% in 2015 and 64.1% by 2020. Once drafted, the dropout rate for men in the army has been consistently in the 16-18% range for nearly a decade. As these trends continue, the Israel Democracy Institute expects to see the rate of Israeli men successfully finishing their full term of service to drop below 50% in the coming years. Rates of Israeli men returning for reserve duty have been abysmal for many years as well.

At the same time, enlistment numbers for the IDF’s elite and combat units remain strong. MK Moshe Feiglin, leader of the ultra-nationalist Manhigut Yehudit faction of the Likud party, has concluded that the current arrangement is costly for the army, which has to deal with processing many more draftees than it actually needs, as well as for the Israeli economy, which loses thousands of students and potential workers. In this regard, his call for abolishing the draft and converting the IDF to a “professional” army finds somewhat strangely common ground with factions within the left-wing Meretz and, of course, the haredi parties.

With all this, one might have expected the expiration of the Tal Law, which guaranteed the haredi exemptions through last year, to generate a broader coalition questioning the effectiveness of retaining Israel’s universal draft policy at all. Instead the haredi response has eschewed potential allies on the right, left, and within Israel’s Arab, Druze, and Christian communities, and focused instead on its own isolation and perceived persecution at the hands of the Israeli political establishment. At the same time, the massive rallies mobilized by the haredi communities have not been addressed by a single significant speaker or dignitary offering solidarity on behalf of a different segment of the population.

The dynamic is reminiscent of working-class Americans voting for anti-union/anti-labor politicians and positions, despite what would seem to be their own best economic interest. Over and again, a broad swath of poorer, hard-working yet struggling white American voters take stands against unionization, access to health insurance, a raised minimum wage, and safety and anti-discrimination regulations. Generally speaking, two factors explain this phenomenon.

The first factor is an almost ironic resentment of the victories that unions have secured for their members over the decades. Instead of demanding the same wages, benefits, protections, and pensions that union workers still enjoy, many working-class Americans follow the leads of their employers, who criticize unions for being greedy, bloated, and corrupt. The result has been a “race to the bottom” in which virtually all of the massive productivity gains of the American economy over the past thirty years accrued to a small owner class while union and non-union workers fight for slightly larger slices of what has become a much smaller pie.

The second factor is inter-group bias. Beginning with the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and encouraged by Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, working-class white voters in Southern states have voted as a solidly Republican bloc. Without the working-class voters who were once a key component of the New Deal coalition, the Democratic party, once solidly behind then-powerful labor unions, has moved to the political right. Unions have, over time, continued to lose influence, to the detriment of working-class Americans.

Both of these factors echo powerfully in contemporary Israeli society. Rather than seriously questioning, based on empirical evidence, whether a universal draft is still in Israel’s best interest, most Israelis want to end the exemptions enjoyed by the haredi community. Part of that is resentment; as then Defense Minister Ehud Barak put it, nobody going off to fight for their country wants to be considered a “sucker” for not finding a way to avoid service while others do so easily. There is also an element of animosity directed against the haredi community for its insular, at times counter-culture, which is often at great odds with “mainstream” Israeli society. To be fair, the haredi establishment’s response has been to further withdraw behind cultural barriers and harsh, anti-Zionist rhetoric.

Still, there have been interesting recent developments. The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday on a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu signed by dozens of Israeli teenagers, announcing their intention to refuse to enlist in the IDF. Their protest, in their own words, is designed to highlight both the occupation and the intrusion of the military into civilian life. While conscientious objector movements in Israel have been fairly common, organizers of this letter also said that they stood in solidarity with Israel’s Arab and haredi communities. This is something new, and it remains to be seen whether it represents the beginnings of a broader movement to reexamine the status of the IDF in Israeli society, in the process bringing together several disparate regions of the Israeli landscape in unexpected, yet productive ways.

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.