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 nations.

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.

Yet 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 OECD countries.

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, self-inflicted poverty.

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.

Yet 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 Mofaz.

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 minority.

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.

There 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 Accords.

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