A truly democratic country cannot allow wholesale exemption from military service
on religious grounds.
The estimated 60,000 Israelis who study in yeshivot
should be required to serve in the armed forces for three years just like all
other young men their age.
There is no reason or justification for
conjuring up special frameworks outside the IDF in which these citizens can
perform various types of public service the duration of which evidently would be
shorter than a normal stint in army, navy or air force uniform.
immoral and unethical for these haredim to enjoy personal security thanks to the
risks and sacrifices made by the young men and women who keep Israel’s enemies
at bay or destroy their capacity to stage attacks against Israeli territory that
would endanger innocent civilians.
The fact that this situation exists
and that the coalition government prefers to work out some kind of compromise
that will mollify the reservists who regularly return to active duty should
embarrass the rabbis who sanction it and who want Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu to perpetuate it by means of dubious alternatives.
conundrum stems from one of the chronic flaws in Israel’s democracy: the
existence of an extreme-Orthodox component within the body politic that
considers its interpretation of religious law and tradition superior to the
One of its most deplorable symptoms is the role being
played by spiritual leaders, among them Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, as heads of
political parities. In his case the party in question is Shas. Its most
prominent figure in the coalition, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, is totally
subservient to Rabbi Yosef’s dictates. The former Sephardic chief rabbi tells
Yishai how he and his Shas colleagues should vote in Netanyahu’s cabinet and the
positions he should take in the preceding political discussions – be they in the
news media or in the cabinet’s regular sessions.
What could be a more
flagrant violation of the national consensus that Israel should be a genuine
democracy upholding the principle that religious entities should not determine
government policy? How can any honest Israeli contend that there is separation
of church and state in Israel if Shas or other religiously affiliated political
parties are constantly involved in the decision-making process?
By the same
token, the Latin, Greek-Orthodox or Armenian patriarchs could also become
actively engaged in national politics, as could the Muslim clergy whose
adherents constitute nearly 20 percent of the population.
One of the most
aggravating aspects of the current showdown between the draft-dodgers who insist
that their study of the Torah, Mishna and Talmud benefits national security as
much if not even more than military service is that Netanyahu has not slammed
the book on them and let them shift for themselves, politically speaking. In
other words, he could tighten his newly formed alliance with Deputy Prime
Minister Shaul Mofaz’s Kadima party and break away from the religious parties
that do not want the yeshiva students to don IDF uniforms. Recent disclosures
about the relatively vast sums of money pouring into the coffers of some of the
leading rabbis of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak should have served as eye-openers with
regard to the consequences of this shadow theocracy.
Much of this money
comes from the government’s own coffers: These handouts have made it possible
for the yeshiva students to maintain themselves and their families (where
necessary) without engaging in any gainful employment.
At the same time,
the money is disbursed without any known follow-up by government accountants as
to how it is spent. Undoubtedly, it subsidizes the faculties of the various
yeshivot, making it possible to expand existing educational facilities of this
kind, build additional ones and provide for books and equipment.
Israel’s secular taxpayers provide the fiscal means necessary for the
ultra-Orthodox yeshivot whose students evade military service to exist. And
since the ultra-Orthodox birth rate is double the secular one, the consequences
of these practices are certain to persist for decades to come.
national controversy related to military conscription relates to the Arab
citizenry. Although Israeli Arabs constitute more than 20 percent of the
population, they are not called to the colors. This outdated policy can be
traced back to the earliest days of the state. At that time, prime minister
David Ben-Gurion, who doubled as defense minister, thought it would be morally
wrong to compel Israeli Arabs to bear arms against their brethren across the
Since then, however, there has been a dramatic change in
attitude on the local Arab side.
The Israeli Arabs now regard Israel as
their country and want to go on living in it. Striking proof of this occurred in
the aftermath of the Oslo Accords which triggered the subsequently moribund
negotiations on a two-state solution to the binational conflict. At one stage,
the idea of territorial exchanges came up and in one of them the all-Arab city
of Umm el-Fahm was proposed as part of a tradeoff. This evoked angry protests
from its city fathers and the local population. They contended that they
are Israelis and have the right to continue living in Israel.
Israel’s Beduin Arabs were allowed to volunteer for military service and the
results were very impressive. Many Beduin soldiers served with distinction and
performed acts of bravery of the highest order.
Induction into the IDF
also eases entry into the job market. It is one of the key considerations for
Many industries, especially those related to national defense,
do not hire people who did not serve. Therefore, Israeli Arabs who were
not conscripted and did not volunteer are less likely to be hired than are their
An end to this unwarranted form of discrimination
would expedite the Israeli Arabs’ integration into the national economy and into
society as a whole. That should be the goal of every political party and of the
governments they form.
The writer is a veteran foreign correspondent.