Of Draft Dodgers and “Freyerim”

 In the past couple of days the protests by the Haredim against the draft have flared up again and they have learned from the handicapped and are blocking roads, mostly in Jerusalem but also in Bnei Brak and Bet Shemesh.

Legislation regarding the draft of Haredim has changed over the years in line with political powers of the moment but throughout there have been exemptions and postponements for Haredim youngsters that do not exist for anyone else.

This week I heard on the radio the spokesman for the protesters, a Rabbi David Zikerman, defend the protesters and declaring their behavior as part of the effort to save the Tora in Israel. He also made a comparison between the pure souls of the Yeshiva students and the youngsters that waste their time in bars. My son, who is waiting to be drafted in December, indeed enjoys himself in a manner different than a Yeshiva student would but that makes him less pure, less righteous, less important? My son (and his two sisters before him), together with his friends, will be guarding the borders, fighting Israel’s wars with all the possible unthinkable personal consequences and in any case give several years of his life to protect the citizens of Israel, which includes these “pure” Yeshiva students. Who is David Zikerman to make a value judgement on my son and his friends?  

The leaders of the protests, as well as their political representatives always use the same argument: a Jewish student of the Tora protects Israel just as much as does a soldier and probably even more. I am not a religious person but still, I cannot believe that any religious person really is serious when he says something like this and really believes that God will come to the rescue when Iran attacks Israel. They all know, just as well as I do, that in order to safeguard Israel and all it stands for, a strong army is required, and a strong army is made up of soldiers willing to serve.

There is no reason in the world that in a democratic state, which has declared and legislated a universal draft law, which a particular group is able to circumvent this and go on with their lives while others may be dying so that they can go on with their lives. So why in Israel is this possible?

There are two reasons and they have gone through different nuances but essentially stayed the same throughout. One is the famous all-encompassing truism “We are all Jews”. Using this, in my eyes, trivial argument, many ills in this country have been tolerated, justified and shoved under the carpet, mainly to appease and please religious segments of the population, but not only those. The second issue is of course politics.  The religious factions in the Knesset will use their political power to prevent any serious threat to the “Status Quo” and stop any attempts to force Haredi youngsters to be drafted.

If Israel were a democracy, one of the major pillars of such a democracy would of course  be “equality for all under the law”. However, in Israel, for politicians, self-interest and political survival is much more important than such silly democratic principles, so coalitions are always forged on promises that trample basic civil rights and in almost all cases this trampling is instigated by religious political parties.

In the current political constellation only one person in a position of power has stated more than once that things should change and that the draft should be universal (of course with exemptions for medical reasons but not for “religious reasons). And Defense minister Lieberman is pragmatic enough to understand that even if this becomes law there still will be many who will not go to the army and putting them all in jail is not a feasible option (Even though conscientious objectors to the draft are often jailed for significant periods but there are only a handful of those so it does not have an impact). But denying draft dodgers rights such as Social Security, obtaining a driver’s license and maybe even voting rights and giving them a criminal record would no doubt deter many.  Unfortunately we are still a long way off from such simple democratic solutions and I for one do not see it happening in the near future.

And, in the meantime, the “Freyerim” that do go to the army and afterwards to reserve duty, are carrying the burden for everybody and according to demographic predictions this is getting much worse in the coming years. If statistics are true and 4 out of 10 boys in primary school today are children of Haredim, that would mean that in 10-15 years, not 15% of boys would not go to the army, but 40%!

It will most likely result in lengthening of the military service and of reserve duty and the burden for those who do serve will grow even bigger.

So it is time for the draftee, the soon-to-be drafted, the simple soldier, the reservist and everybody who does do his part to stand up and say: ENOUGH.

Of course beyond saying ENOUGH there is not that much a soldier can do but the most effective action that in Israel everybody (still) can do, is put pressure on politicians. In democracies, when controversial issues are at stake, people start writing their congressman (in the US for instance), arrange for petitions and make sure that politicians feel the heat, and are made to realize that their voting behavior in such crucial issues will have consequences for their political future, and in Israel that includes voting in favor or against a government coalition that is set up in disregard of popular sentiment.

Names and addresses of current Knesset members (including phone numbers) are listed on the Knesset website for all to see (https://knesset.gov.il/mk/eng/mkindex_current_eng.asp).

I can’t say I am very optimistic that anything will change in the near or distant future, and the influence of the simple citizen on their representatives is very small and getting smaller in Israel, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the main reason that the “Status Quo” will be maintained, is simply because “We Are All Jews”.