What we are arguing about now

 Jews have been arguing among themselves since before they were called Jews, or had decided what Judaism was supposed to be.


Jews make their arguments the subject of comedy. Anti-Semites take them as one more reason to hate the Jews.


Remember that Abraham left home. We can assume that he had trouble with his father. Moses quarreled with God and then with the people called Hebrews or Israelites. The folks allowed to return to Judea from Babylon couldn''t get along with those who evaded exile and stayed behind. Later there was a civil war between Jews who thought it was a good idea to behave like the Romans, and those who felt that was a reason for killing.


Currently the big issue is not the Palestinians or John Kerry. Most Israelis seem to be ignoring them as hopeless. We are wrapped up with  the ultra-Orthodox.


It is not entirely clear what we are quarreling about. Yet the noise and anger have approached, or have already passed through what can be called "intense."


The major participants in whatever are the quarrels are politicians at the head of a primarily secular party, There is a Future; a party composed mostly of Religious (i.e,, Orthodox) Zionists, Jewish Home; two competing ultra-Orthodox parties, Torah Judaism (Ashkenazim) and SHAS (Sephardim), the Prime Minister and his Defense Minister who are members of the largely secular but nationalist Likud, and the IDF, however that can be described in terms of being Jewish. Somewhere around the edges are the largely Arab political parties.


The Supreme Court started it all, and is waiting in the wings to judge the outcome. It decided in behalf of equality in the treatment of the Haredim, i.e., their exemptions from military service violates the equality of Israelis who must serve. Politicians proposing one or another solution are not certain about what the court will accept once someone brings a case charging that whatever is decided violates Israelis'' rights to equality before the law. 


By one view, the dispute concerns imposing the draft on the Haredim. That has attracted the most attention, and seems to be what politicians understand, or what they think appeals to their voters.


This note will not deal with justice, or what should happen. It''s hard enough to describe what Israelis are arguing about.


The popular slogan demands to "even the burdens." That means lessening the support provided to the ultra-Orthodox, many or most of whose men do not work (legally), pay anything close to the taxes imposed on others, do not serve in the military, and claim to study for their whole lives. Those who pass through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods on buses, car or foot can easily conclude that a lot of those students are out on the streets, talking with one another, pushing baby carriages, or perhaps doing work while absent from their studies, and not likely to be reporting their income to the tax authorities.


Men who are registered as students receive payments from the government, and cannot work legally.


Some politicians seem to be primarily concerned with forcing the Haredi young men into the IDF. For them, that is what "evening the burden" means. Others seem primarily concerned to getting them out of the academies and into legal work, which would increase tax collections and allow severe cuts in welfare payments. For the Haredim who do not want to serve, or who the IDF does not want, the option would be social service for a period of time. The expectation is that once out of the academies, most men would choose to improve their living standards by working legally.


In order to appeal to the Haredim, politicians are offering special deals in the military. On the table are drafting at the age of 21 rather than 18, a shorter period of service than the usual, assurance of food at a level of kashrut beyond the normal (i.e., glat kosher), no work on the Sabbath, no contact with female personnel, a higher salary than offered to other recruits, and the postponement of mass Haredi recruitment for some years to give the IDF and others time to get ready.


The IDF and the current Defense Minister (a former commanding general of the IDF) are prominent among those wanting to delay and minimize the drafting of the Haredim. The IDF sees them as an expensive nuisance, requiring the care of a social service agency rather than military officers, and not likely to add to the IDF''s military capacity in anything close to what they will cost in terms of administration.


Intensely opposed to recruitment, social service, or a life of work are the ultra-Orthodox parties, especially the Ashkenazim.


What seems to be behind their insistence is a fear of losing young men. It is safer to keep everyone within their ghetto like communities. Contact with secular Israelis, in the military, university, or workforce threatens their communities. The most extreme of them forbid the use of the Internet or the reading of non-Haredi newspapers, listening to non-Haredi radio, or watching television.


Prominent in the quarrels are the sanctions to be imposed on Haredim who do not follow whatever comes to be written into the law. Reduction or complete removal of government payments to individuals and their families, or reduction or complete removal of the payments made to the religious academies of those who refuse to serve? Or jail time, as served by non-Haredi Israelis who refuse recruitment?


Also to be heard is, "What about the Arabs?" Here you need a map. Druze men (i.e., Arab but not Muslim) are drafted, except for those living on the Golan. Circassian men as well, although they are not Arabs but they are Muslim. Many Bedouin (Arab and Muslim, but distinct culturally) volunteer and are accepted. Other Arabs, the most numerous, are not subject to the draft, very few volunteer, and some of those who do volunteer are rejected as security risks due to what they or a close relative have done.


Some Jewish politicians demand that whatever change is directed toward the Haredim must also include the Arabs, i.e., military or social service. Only men? Most likely. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of equality, but also is politically sensitive to what--among religious Jews and Arabs--would provoke a level of opposition that would be intolerable.


Most of the proposals for requiring a contribution from the Arabs deal with social service within their own communities, similar to proposals for social service for Haredi men within their communities. Important here is the communal nature of Israeli society, and recognizing the opposition of communal leaders to anything resembling western notions of "integration." Also, neither Haredi nor Arab communities are likely to tolerate any demand that deals with their women.


Arab politicians are generally opposed to demanding any service of their people to the Jewish state, even if the requirement would provide an option of social service within the Arab community. The intensity of such opposition appears to be less than that coming out of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox congregations. Moreover, the imposition of equal burdens on the Arab community appears to be of a lower priority among Jewish politicians than the issue of the Haredim. The Arab question may not find any resolution in this round of quarreling. 


Where are we?


Impossible to say. 


Spokespeople for various parties and sectors are making their cases, generally not responding to one another in anything like a coherent discussion. The latest flap is the threat of Yair Lapid to pull his 19 Knesset Members out of the government and cause a crisis and election, if the Defense Minister does not withdraw his demands to postpone the implementation of recruitment, and to avoid sanctions on those who reject enlistment and on their academies.


The Prime Minister has responded to that by pressuring his Defense Minister to go along without objection at this point to the prevailing sentiments in a government committee dealing with the issue. There will be opportunities to cope with whatever happens, and who wants a political crisis and another election at this time?


Once a law is drafted and assuming it passes the Knesset, implementation will be another matter. There are bound to be demonstrations, meetings between politicians out of the public eye that will feature reasoned argument and threats of unrest, perhaps delays in sending money to the IDF to finance the care and feeding of Haredim, who knows what other.tricks to delay or dilute what appear to be the requirements of the law, and appeals to the Supreme Court about imperfect equality.


We all should know about the problems of implementation, here and elsewhere. Americans anticipating improved health coverage should not expect instant miracles. Neither should Israelis wanting to even the burdens they share with the Haredim.


What will be the outcome?


God may know, but so far is not communicating with me.