On Sunday, Israeli coalition leaders met to discuss the crisis of the new “Recruitment Law.” The current recruitment law is the subject of an ongoing dispute related to ultra-Orthodox exemption from conscription into the Israel Defense Forces, which remains one of the central and fundamental challenges to the stability of the compulsory service model in Israel due to the notion that the exemption seemingly undermines the “people’s army” ethos fostered in Israel since David Ben-Gurion’s days. The draft remains a matter of fierce disagreement between the majority of the population who serve, and the Haredi community. The new version of the law attempts to regulate the situation by demanding all citizens shoulder an “equal burden.” However, can it really save “the people’s army” or will it only deepen existing divides?
It all began at the time of the establishment of the state when the ultra-Orthodox minority reached an arrangement with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion according to which a small group of yeshiva students’ military service was postponed. Ben-Gurion accepted the agreement because he wanted to preserve the unity of the people, something especially imperative considering the ultra-Orthodox sects’ anti-Zionist views and their strong opposition to the creation of a Jewish state in Israel. The fear of an internal crisis led to this compromise, like many others, which, in turn, spurred the current status quo agreements on issues of religion and state.
When Ben-Gurion made his compromise, 400 Yeshiva students were exempted.Today, that number has grown to 50,000. In 2002, the Knesset enacted a law based on the recommendations of the Tal Committee. The aim was intended to open an avenue for recruiting ultra-Orthodox Jews, but in 2012 the High Court of Justice overturned it after the state admitted that the law had not met its goals while the justices determined that the legislation was unconstitutional. By doing so the court forced decisionmakers to come to a solution and draft a new law that would regulate the situation. Six years later, a new version of the law has yet to be passed leaving a legislative void that serves as a driving force for deep social disagreement and a new type of culture war. Not the unity Ben-Gurion hoped to achieve.
The popular view on the issue of “equal burden” is one we have heard from many leaders across the political spectrum, from Yair Lapid to Avigdor Liberman. This perspective asserts that the burden of service should be distributed equally, ultra-Orthodox communities should not be exempted from the army simply because they believe that their time spent worshiping God is critical for the survival of the Jewish people, and thus a service of its own kind. Furthermore, as a result of the demographic growth in the ultra-Orthodox community, the rate of exemption is growing rapidly, bringing us closer to the day where the majority of Israel’s citizens (keeping in mind that Arab Israelis also aren’t drafted) won’t enlist for military service.
These points make a valid case for forcing the Haredi sector to enlist. The problem is they don’t want to, and maybe we shouldn’t want them to either. As an Israeli who served in the army I strongly believe that there should be equal burden, and it does seem unfair that one group gets different privileges then others. Nonetheless, I believe that enlisting the ultra-Orthodox community into the army by force won’t save “the People’s army,” and will only widen the rift between the sectors.
“The People’s Army” idea is based on equality and universality, an army for the people by the people, but the ultra-Orthodox group is different in a way that they are simultaneously part of the country but not truly part of the people. The idea of enlisting Arab citizens has never been widely spoken of because it’s clear on both sides that it would never gain traction due to far-reaching political issues. The idea of enlisting the ultra-Orthodox sector might be just as inconvenient.
The Haredi community has opposed Zionism since the establishment of the state for reasons that have to do with their faith. The state for them is more of a vessel. Ultra-Orthodox members of Knesset perform the bare minimum level of service so as to least legitimize state organs. This can be seen in their unwillingness to accept full ministerial portfolios, instead taking on the title of “deputy minister,” all just to avoid swearing allegiance to the state. Enlisting young men who have no real patriotic calling or sense of civil duty because of their faith is a recipe for disaster. Even though we call it “equal burden,” the majority of citizens who enlist do so with pride and a strong belief that they are in this way contributing to their country. The recruitment of the ultra-Orthodox would fill the ranks of the army with tens of thousands of soldiers who would disagree with the IDF and everything it symbolizes. These soldiers will obey the orders of the rabbis and not their commanders when the rabbis tell them to do so. A situation like this is a burden on other soldiers whose lives can depend on observing orders and keeping high morale, but it is also a burden for the ultra-Orthodox soldier who may fear coming home and being scolded or shunned for his participation.
Moreover, if “The People’s Army” is one of equality and universality, the recruitment of the ultra-Orthodox will surely change this character. The IDF will have to go to extreme lengths and changes, setting up multiple special units and camps, enlisting more rabbis and building Yeshivas. The military will need to ensure that the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle can be sustained, their identity not stolen from them, and that ultra-Orthodox soldiers won’t be “spoiled” by their encounter with the secular world. This doesn’t seem universal or equal and no one seems to be capable of promising that under these new changes female soldiers will still be treated equally. Female commanders won’t be able to take part in special ultra-Orthodox units, and the army has already witnessed cases of exclusion of women from ceremonies and performances just so it won’t offend the religious soldiers. How can the IDF be expected to sustain its equal treatment when female soldiers become the minority who have to adjust around those who don’t welcome or respect them?
As the IDF moves towards the day when battles no longer need huge masses of manpower but rather a more sophisticated body that uses special equipment which requires extensive professionalism and experience, how much does it really need to recruit tens of thousands of more people? A different solution can be found, perhaps by helping promote civil and national service which has been shown to be a good stepping stone both for the Israeli Arab and the ultra-Orthodox communities into the workforce. Equal burden is a real issue that needs to be solved, but doing so by forcefully enlisting the Haredi community may actually undermine the core values that are at the base of the idea of the people’s army while only intensifying the already inflamed ongoing culture war.