Haredi anti-draft protest 370.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
The issue of “sharing the burden” of military service is critical for a growing
number of Israelis. And it was Yesh Atid’s strong support for adopting a more
egalitarian approach to the draft that helped propel the fledgling political
party to success in the January 2013 election.
Many Israelis are rightly
concerned about the rapidly rising numbers of able-bodied haredi young men (and
women) who are opting out of military or national service – a rite of passage
into mainstream Israeli society, a basic civic duty that the Israeli citizen is
obligated to perform.
Indeed, many factors have come to together to push
the issue of “sharing the burden” to the forefront. First, the ultra-Orthodox
community, once a small minority, has reached a critical mass. With birth rates
at around six to seven children on average per haredi mother, the ultra-Orthodox
population is the fasting growing in the country.
If in 2010, 7,500
requested and received deferrals from military service in order to pursue Torah
studies, in 2011 that number jumped to 7,840, according to the IDF manpower
division. In 2012, the number was probably around 8,000 and will continue to
grow in coming years.
As haredim make up an increasingly larger
percentage of military-age men who do not enlist, the ideal of a “people’s
army,” one of the foundational values of Israeli society, has been
How can we truly expect all 18-year-old males to commit to
three years of military service when a growing number of their haredi cohorts
are permitted to simply opt out? Particularly aggravating is the knowledge among
secular and modern Orthodox youths that if haredim did enlist, there would be
shorter military service for all, but because they don’t, the burden ends up
falling on increasingly narrower shoulders.
No less infuriating for those
who serve and go on to find gainful employment after their military stint, is
the fact that the rapidly growing haredi population is a drain on the welfare
state. Because haredim must be enrolled full-time in a yeshiva in order to
receive a deferral from mandatory military service, they are unable to prepare
themselves for the labor market. And this happens at a critical age when they
are still not burdened with a family and are capable of devoting the time and
energy to gaining occupational skills.
As a result, not only is the
poverty-stricken haredi population in need of more welfare payments funded by
taxpayer shekels, this population’s huge potential for economic productivity is
It is in this context, as we stand at a critical juncture
in Israel’s short history, that Yesh Atid leader and Finance Minister Yair Lapid
threatened to topple the government unless criminal sanctions are imposed
against haredi draft dodgers.
“Service will be equalized or the
government will come apart,” Lapid vowed. “Those who think we will surrender on
equalizing the burden don’t know us.”
The Peri Committee, headed by
Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid) made many
concessions to the haredim out of an understanding that an aggressive crackdown
would trigger an extremist reaction, which would be counterproductive to the
goal of getting more haredi men in uniform.
For instance, about 54,000
haredi men who are currently 22 or older will be given an exemption from
military service altogether. Those who are younger will be allowed to postpone
military service until age 21. The IDF will also prepare itself to accommodate
the religious requirements of the haredi men who do enlist.
the Peri Committee had acquiesced to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s request
that no criminal punishment be imposed against haredi draft dodgers – even in
another three or four years when the program is fully implemented – the entire
initiative would have lost all substance. Nor would the proposal be in line with
the principle of equality before the law.
Why can a secular Israeli who
dodges the draft be prosecuted as a criminal but not a haredi draft dodger?
While it is sagacious to avoid as much as possible a direct confrontation with
the haredi community and its leaders, the government also has an obligation to
its constituents and to the principle of equality before the law.