Equal service for all

Netanyahu must join with Kadima and approve a new law for more equitable conscription.

Haredi Jew salute cartoon 521 (photo credit: AVI KATZ)
Haredi Jew salute cartoon 521
(photo credit: AVI KATZ)
By joining the coalition, Kadima has created a historic opportunity to end the anomaly of universal conscription from which ultra-Orthodox Haredim are virtually exempt.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now has a solid majority for legislation that could see around two thirds of yeshiva students of draftable age in the army or national civic service by 2015, and almost all of them serving by 2020. The Tal Law, which enabled wholesale Haredi draft evasion to reach new heights, expires on August 1, and cannot be renewed after having been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
Netanyahu therefore has around two and half months to approve a new law for a more equitable distribution of the military load. In blunt political terms, he will have to choose between Kadima and his alliance with the Haredi parties. If he chooses Kadima, a historic process leading to equal conscription for all will be launched. If he chooses the Haredim, Kadima will have no choice but to leave the coalition it has just joined and reopen the process leading to new elections. There is no moral or political justification for anything less.
The new law we are drafting has four guiding principles:
• Measurable and legally binding goals: We will set clear numerical goals for a graded increase every year in the number of Haredim serving in the IDF and, in the alternative, national civic service. At present less than one in 10 serve; our aim is to reach a figure of over 60 percent by 2015.
• Suitable tracks tailored for Haredi needs: We need to open a wide range of suitable frameworks for significant Haredi service. By “significant” I don’t mean the so-called “stage two” where Haredim over the age of 24 serve a month or two in the IDF and don’t do any reserve duty. Nor do I count civilian service in a yeshiva. In conjunction with the army and the National Civic Service Administration, we need to build serious two- and three-year tracks, which cater to different age groups and different physical capabilities, and which offer vocational training, relevant community service and service in combat units.
• Criteria for exempting a fixed quota of gifted scholars: We will set out clear procedures for the yeshivas to follow in exempting a relatively small quota of top students. The number should be no more than 20 percent of the annual intake.
• Incentives and rewards for all soldiers in combat units: Even when all the Haredim are drafted, service will not be absolutely equal.
For example, going in for two years of civilian service at 23 is not the same thing as three years in a combat unit at 18. Therefore, we intend to propose a dramatic increase in the incentives and rewards for combat service, including free university education.
It is unlikely that we will be able to reach a formal compromise with the Haredim. The Lithuanians in Torah Judaism rarely compromise over anything, and when the chips are down the more amenable Sephardi Shas tends to follow the Lithuanian lead. But there is no reason for radical protest on the Haredi street. We are talking about gradual implementation and tracks specially suited to Haredi needs.
It’s not as if military police will be going into the yeshivas and dragging students off to enlist in combat units. On the contrary, there is an element of win-win in our proposal. There are huge problems of poverty and welfare in the Haredi community. We are offering vocational training and a stepping stone to the labor force for tens of thousands of young Haredim without forcing them to give up their beliefs or way of life.
It is imperative that we succeed in instituting these changes.
Otherwise, we will continue the slide towards inevitable implosion of our unique people’s army model, as growing numbers of young secular Israelis balk at the system’s intrinsic inequality.