The vision of Shloime from Bnei Brak with his streimel, and Muhammad from Tira
with his keffiyeh, standing in line at the IDF recruitment base (Bakum), to
volunteer for the Golani Brigade, is as far away from reality as possible. The
demand today that the burden be more evenly carried within our society is a very
legitimate one, yet needs to be analyzed in the broader framework of equality
within Israel’s social reality.
Equality is a fundamental value and
condition for any real democracy. Equality is the cornerstone of Israel’s
declaration of independence, which says that “the State of Israel will ensure
complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants
irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
Equality must be based on the
principle that all citizens must enjoy equal rights and opportunities, and also
have equal duties toward society, while respecting the legitimate differences
between people and groups.
Sadly, Israel has developed with the years
into a society with gross inequalities among its citizens. That is the crux of
the problem before us, which threatens our democratic system. The lack of
equality is reflected in many facets of our lives – there never was equal
opportunity in Israel, and equality is not a sacred value in our national or
historical ethos. Israel, it can be argued, has developed with a sense of
elitism on one side and condescension on the other. This has always been
reflected in our view of non-Jews – as we are supposedly a light upon the
Take the way Sephardi immigrants were treated by the mostly East
European elite of the Yishuv – distanced into slums (ma’abarot) for their
cultural expression, not recognized for decades by mainstream or for that matter
Ashkenazi Israel; or the treatment of the Arab minorities who have become
second-class citizens, with basic infrastructure and services lacking in Arab
towns and villages, high unemployment, an impoverished educational system, and
Israeli Arabs subject to racist expressions and lately even legislation by
Yisrael Beytenu and company.
The absorption of new immigrants by veterans
was always problematic, alongside major achievements in the field. Ask many
Russian immigrants, who feel underprivileged, not to speak of the Ethiopian
immigration, ghettoized and discriminated, even in the school system.
one does not have to be of distinct ethnicity or nationality to suffer from
inequality in Israel. According to OECD studies, Israel is almost at the top of
the inequality measurement in the OECD club – fifth highest among 27 countries
with the inequality growing since 1980 by 14 percent, as opposed to 4% in all
So we need to ask ourselves, where is the equality that
is so often on the lips of our leaders today. It does not stop at the entrance
to Bakum. It simply does not exist.
As for the army, indeed there is also
an unequal share of the burden; and it is very much about the haredim and
Israeli Arabs, but not only. Fifty percent of young Israelis do not serve in the
IDF – among Jews, 25% of young men don’t serve (half are haredim) and 40% of
young women (mostly for religious reasons).
The “Tal Law” that continued
the exemption of haredim from army service in place since the creation of the
state needs to be altered, as it was ruled unconstitutional by the High Court of
Justice. Yet this needs to be done within a broader view of equal rights
and duties, as well as mutual respect.
First, as a secular Jew, I believe
that we have to respect the view of haredim regarding the cardinal importance of
prayer and religious study, for the good of society. What should not be
respected or accepted is their view of the state, often anti-Zionist, believing
in the supremacy of religious law over civil law. We also need to oppose the
haredim’s avoidance of the labor market, and their rather parasitic use of
governmental budgets, tax money, in their yeshivot.
That is a dangerous
scenario leading to the estrangement of the haredim, with Bnei Brak and Mea
She’arim as virtually theocratic states within a state, and of shameful,
The replacement of the Tal legislation by August
1 is an opportunity to be seized, in order to begin to redress the balance of
duties. Haredim who do not serve in the IDF should serve, for a given period, in
civil society and social organizations that serve the good of haredi society in
the fields of health, social welfare, education, etc.
To a large degree
that is true also for the Arab citizens, who naturally as Arabs cannot serve in
the army, but should be involved in civilian service, in the network of Arab
NGOs, serving the good of Arab- Israeli society, and also, like with the
haredim, as a way to enter the labor market.
This needs to be pursued in
both these sectors as a gradual process, as legislation alone is not sufficient.
It must be based on mutual understanding with political, civil and municipal
leaders, and it should be coupled with greater governmental efforts to tackle
the socioeconomic crises of the haredim on one side and the Israeli Arabs on the
other. Yet this alone is not sufficient, it must be part of a national effort to
develop our society on the basis of real and universal equality.
today’s political leaders are the worst-suited to deal with creating a new and
delicate balance of greater equality and burden-sharing in our
society. Binyamin Netanyahu and his partners act crudely and only on the
basis of self-serving political considerations. The prime minister swings
between his adherence to an unholy alliance with the Right and the haredim,
pouring money into yeshivot and settlements on the one side, and his fear to
lose part of his own constituency on the other. In the middle he will probably
find a mediocre compromise, tackling a small part of the problem, echoed with
populist rhetoric, with or without the confused Kadima chairman Shaul
The haredi and the Israeli-Arab political leadership are not much
better. The Shas and United Torah Judaism leaders look only at institutional
narrow interests and at political considerations. Ta’al MK Ahmed Tibi and his
colleagues are mostly more interested in a rather nationalistic Palestinian
bravado than in a policy to facilitate a better integration of the Arab
Therefore, the remedy for the inequality of rights and duties
cannot come from the political leaders, and cannot happen overnight, via a
parliamentary or governmental committee, or a speech by Yesh Atid chairman Yair
Lapid. It can and must come from the people of Israel, the majority of people
who cry out against basic inequalities – if it is those many thousands who
demonstrated in Tel Aviv on Saturday night for an equal share of the national
burden; or those tens of thousands who demonstrated as part of the 2011 protest
movement for social equality; or the thousands from Israeli peace movements, who
make their voices heard for equality between us and our neighbors.
is an encouraging awakening in the country, to a large degree reflecting a basic
disdain for the political leadership and system. It is also reflected in a
vibrant and value-based Israeli civil society, working on the assumption that
the respect of the fundamental value of equality will only strengthen our
democracy, economy and even security.
Maybe it is time to think of a new
coalition – not of outdated and useless political parties, but of civil society
actors with similar agendas, who really have the good of the country in mind,
and who actually care about equality.
The writer is president of the
Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo