Sharing the burden

If party leaders are unwilling to rise to the occasion, a more egalitarian approach to sharing in civic duties should be worked out and implemented without them.

Haredi IDF 521 (photo credit: NOAM MOSKOWITZ)
Haredi IDF 521
(photo credit: NOAM MOSKOWITZ)
Coalition talks have entered into high gear at the Kfar Maccabiah hotel in Ramat Gan and crucial decisions will soon be made regarding government policies for the coming years.
Because domestic issues so completely dominated the elections and because the leaders of the political parties – particularly Bayit Yehudi’s Naftali Bennett and Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid – are keen to prove themselves to the voters who brought them to power as men of their word, the deals cut as part of the formation of the 33rd government are likely to be ones that impact our day-to-day lives.
Perhaps the most important policy issue set to be decided is the question of ending military exemption for tens of thousands of able-bodied haredi men, euphemistically known as “sharing the burden.”
Will Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu succeed in watering down demands to end haredi exceptionalism made by Yesh Atid’s Lapid in order to better facilitate the incorporation of the 18-MK Shas-United Torah Judaism bloc in the government? Or will Netanyahu take advantage of a historical opportunity and move toward gradually integrating the rapidly growing haredi population into mainstream Israeli society? From the point of view of political expediency, Netanyahu has an interest in forming as broad a coalition as possible so as to ensure stability and reduce to a minimum the ability of any single political party to extract demands benefiting one narrow sector in Israeli society.
Ideally, if Netanyahu could form a coalition of 80 or more MKs, no single partner – including Yesh Atid with 19 MKs – could threaten to topple the government. But forming such a broad coalition would necessitate including Shas and UTJ and accommodating their demand that no significant change take place in policy vis-à-vis recruitment of haredim.
However, there is a price to be paid for political expediency. The arrangement as enshrined in the Tal Law in which haredi men who choose to may devote their lives to learning Torah while their secular peers are obligated by the state to serve three years of military service was deemed by the Supreme Court in February 2012 to be discriminatory.
Forming a coalition with Shas and UTJ would mean flouting a Supreme Court ruling on the one-year anniversary of that decision.
Failing to adopt a policy that would gradually compel haredim to “share the burden” would also be a betrayal of voters. A full 80 percent of the Jewish Israeli voting public favors “freedom of religion and equality in shouldering the civic burden,” according to a survey commissioned by Hiddush, an NGO that promotes religious freedom, and conducted by Rafi Smith Research Institute a few days after the election.
Nearly all the political parties – both on the Left and on the Right – are in favor of ending the sweeping exemptions from military service given to haredi men. Even in Shas there is a large percentage that supports in principle military service for all – 39% according to the Hiddush survey.
If reports are true that Yesh Atid and Bayit Yehudi are working in tandem and will stay out of the coalition unless Netanyahu takes significant steps on the issue of the haredi draft, there is a good chance Netanyahu will be forced into doing the right thing and a historical opportunity will not be missed.
A halt to haredi exemption from national service should not be motivated by hatred, prejudice or a desire to take revenge. Shas and UTJ should be made partners in the decision-making process.
But if their leaders are unwilling to rise to the occasion, a more egalitarian approach to sharing in civic duties should be worked out and implemented without them.