A few weeks ago, my eldest daughter was drafted into the IDF. With feelings of pride, anxiety and motherly concern, I accompanied her to the draft office. Other parents were there with their children, as well. Some, like me, shed a tear. There was one certainty that united us all: The knowledge that our child had to report for the military draft.
The Israeli draft station forms an important stage on the journey of Israelis. It forms a key stop in our common lives as a people and society, and shapes our identity. The knowledge that our children will serve in the military has been with me, as a mother, since the time I was pregnant.
For my generation, being drafted into the IDF and being Israeli are one and the same – an unchallenged equation. That same equation, so obvious to my generation, is eroding now. It is sufficient to glance at the draft figures to see a consistently downward trend.
In Israel’s history, one primal sin established the norm according to which not all sons and daughters of the land are subject to the mandatory draft. It was Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion who led the concept of a people’s army, viewing it as a necessary melting pot – a military that provides a protective shield and security, and leads societal and educational processes. The IDF wields together all of Israeli society’s unique sectors.
On the other hand, Ben-Gurion also agreed to exempt a few hundred ultra-Orthodox Jews, based on their religious beliefs to pursue religious studies over military service, all Arab youths and a growing number of young women, due to their religious beliefs. Those few hundred exemptions turned into many thousands as the years passed.
The need for a new draft law is an issue that has surfaced repeatedly in recent years, provoking numerous coalition crises. The national draft law built Israeli identity over the years, but something that should have been a given has turned into a political bargaining chip. Those who call for a mandatory draft are expressing opposition to the idea that one sector of society or another can be exempt from bearing its share of the national burden.
Should a call for equality in bearing that burden become a bone of contention against specific groups? Perhaps, it is possible to turn it into a unifying call? In 2012, Yisrael Beytenu proposed a universal draft law. The bill failed to pass its initial reading, with 74 Knesset members voting against it.
“What the law will not do, reality will,” Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman said at the time. A decade later, here we are, with reality knocking on the nation’s door. In 2005, 77% of Jewish men served in the IDF, a figure that dropped to 69% in 2019. The percentage of women serving in 2005 was 59%, dropping to 56% in 2019.
If this trend is not stopped, in a few years we will find ourselves in a reality in which the number of conscripts will not be sufficient to meet the country’s security needs. As well, the resilience and unity of Israeli society will sustain significant damage. The people’s army will turn into half the people’s army.
In January, the Knesset held a vote on a new draft bill, which calls for cutting the exemption age for yeshiva students from age 23 to age 21. The bill, which passed its first reading, is the first step of a process that will lead to a comprehensive reform of the draft.
Israel cannot afford for the slogan “equality of burden” to be empty of content. It must be part of a broad process, based on the assumption that everyone is in favor of Israeli security, the military, and equality of rights and duties. The Yisrael Beytenu party led a clear policy over the years, which states that not only the ultra-Orthodox, but also Israel’s Arab population must contribute to the state in which they live.
There is simply no reason for an ultra-Orthodox or Arab-Israeli youth to avoid such responsibilities – if not in the context of military service, than in other ways, such as serving in the IDF Home Front Command or a civilian national service program. If lone soldiers that arrive in Israel seek to do this for the country, there is no good reason that mandatory drafts should not apply to all citizens of the state.
The writer is an MK and a publishing expert at The MirYam Institute. She was elected to the 24th Knesset on behalf of the Yisrael Beytenu party. She has served as a deputy local council head, and worked as a journalist and senior lecturer in academic institutions for 24 years.