Military service and the just society

By 2020 only four out of every 10 young Israelis will be drafted into the army.

Stars of David don't reuse 390 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Stars of David don't reuse 390
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
When David Ben-Gurion first agreed to exempt yeshiva students from military service in 1949 about 400 were excused to study Torah full time.
Today, the number is around 60,000.
If current trends are allowed to continue, by 2020 only four out of every 10 young Israelis will be drafted in a country where conscription is mandatory. This is patently unjust, intolerable in the long run for national manpower needs and has far-reaching economic ramifications.
The now defunct “Tal Law,” which enshrined this situation, was fundamentally flawed from the moment it was passed 10 years ago. It failed not so much in that it did not reduce the number of shirkers from military service. So far the IDF has been able to cope with the numbers. Its chief failing was moral not technical, because it discriminated against the vast majority of citizens who serve in the military, stay on in the reserves, pay taxes and are involved in all aspects of Israeli life.
In late February, I submitted a bill in the Knesset to redress the balance. Although it was voted down, the substance was not very different from things both the defense minister and the IDF chief of staff have been saying. The fundamental principle is that at 18, every young Israeli will have to report at a recruitment center, where the IDF, and only the IDF, decides who serves in the army, who gets to do national or civilian service, and who, in very rare cases, gets deferred or exempted.
Young Israeli Arabs, most of whom do not serve at all, will be directed to civilian service, which for them too will be mandatory. As for Jewish Israelis, including Haredim, the army will decide where they serve according to national needs and the IDF’s capacity to incorporate conscripts in significant roles.
After last summer’s “social justice” protests, it is obvious that Israel is undergoing a process of profound social change.
Although the Trajtenberg Committee recommendations that followed did not go far enough, they created a new climate of opinion which led directly to the abrogation of the Tal Law on social justice grounds.
Indeed, the struggle over the law encapsulates the essence of the seminal debate over the nature of Israeli society. Military service is an inextricable part of Israeli life. To put it bluntly, to serve in the army is to be Israeli.
Now, through a more universal military and national/civilian service, Israel needs to reinvent itself as a more just and harmonious society.
Over the next few months Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, together with his coalition partners, will have to come up with a creative solution that balances more universal military service and survival of the governing coalition. Despite the fact that there is undoubtedly a large majority in the country for more universal conscription, the prime minister will have to take the wishes of his Haredi coalition partners into account. This could pose a first serious challenge to his coalition’s survival.
Clearly Netanyahu is not to blame for the current state of affairs. But the conscription problem – with all its socioeconomic ramifications – is squarely on his desk on his watch. He may have to choose between the will of the majority and the Haredi parties he calls his “natural partners.” The parliamentary opposition and extra-parliamentary groups will pressure him towards the more universal approach; the Haredi parties will use all their clout to push the other way.
For once, Netanyahu will have to make up his mind. And we can only hope that at a watershed time like this, he will be able to rise above narrow political interests for the sake of the big picture.
Kadima Knesset member Dr. Nachman Shai, ex-senior vice president and director general of the United Jewish Communities' Israel office, is a former IDF spokesman.