A call to the colors

A truly democratic country cannot allow wholesale exemption from military service on religious grounds.

July 12, 2012 21:50
Haredi with IDF soldiers

Haredi with IDF soldiers 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

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.

It is 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.

This 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 national norm.

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.

Thus, 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.

The other 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 armistice lines.

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.

By then, 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 employers.

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 Jewish counterparts.

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.

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