Not against the ultra-Orthodox, against cynics

The equality of national burden effort isn’t meant to be a dispute with the ultra-Orthodox; its goal is to deal with a problem that isn’t going away.

Israeli soldiers of Caracal battalion (photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
Israeli soldiers of Caracal battalion
(photo credit: AMIR COHEN - REUTERS)
During a press conference on Tuesday evening, after the High Court decision on the equality of national burden, a young ultra-Orthodox journalist asked me: “Don’t you understand that if you keep arguing with the ultra-Orthodox on this issue they won’t agree to join your coalition [when you form a government]?”
I answered him politely because he was just doing his job, but I wondered what it was that he didn’t understand: that was exactly the reason we petitioned the High Court – not everything is political, not everything is about interests. True, values and principles comes with a price, but otherwise what is the point of values and principles?
In fact, I have more respect for the position of the ultra-Orthodox on this issue than for the position of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his ministers. The ultra-Orthodox are fighting for something they believe in. The prime minister and his ministers publicly admit that they believe in nothing.
Just under two years ago I sat in the Knesset on the night when the equality of national burden bill was canceled by the coalition. The thing that stuck out more than anything was that it was the same people who had worked with us to pass the exact same law a year and half earlier.
In July 2013 Netanyahu opened the cabinet meeting and proudly declared, “After 65 years, today we will pass the Equality of National Burden [Law]!” Ayelet Shaked stood at the head of the “Shaked Committee” that passed the law in the Knesset. Naftali Bennett talked nostalgically about his army days and the importance of a truly national military. For a moment people believed them. For a moment we believed politics wasn’t everything.
Then the government collapsed and the exact same people voted to cancel this historic law. When they were asked why, the answer was, “Because first [Yesh Atid chairman Yair] Lapid forced us and now [United Torah Judaism chairman Ya’acov] Litzman forced us.”
I can accept people who think differently to us on the issue of the IDF draft. I’m willing to dedicate all the time in the world to convince them that our framework is moderate and balanced, that it differentiates between genuine Torah study and those who shirk their duty, and that it helps a large ultra-Orthodox population go out to work and provide for their children. But what can you say to someone who says without shame: “Who cares about principles, everything is for sale.”
The Labor Party is no better. When we voted for the Equality of National Burden Bill they ran out of the Knesset plenary. They sat in a side hall in front of the cameras with Shas chairman Arye Deri while he proudly announced that they are future coalition partners. We all saw how that worked out. It’s time someone in Labor learned what happens to those who sell out their values again and again, and sells them cheaply.
When I fight this cynicism, people tell me that I don’t understand the political game. They’re wrong, I understand it fully. That’s why I’m so committed to changing it. The victory in the High Court is a reminder to the public that they have a right and a duty to exact a real price from politicians who play games with their children’s lives. As long as politicians don’t pay a price, they’ll keep behaving the same way.
The equality of national burden is complicated to implement but the principle behind it is simple: The law is for everyone. Everyone has the same rights and everyone has the same responsibilities. My son spent the past two weeks on the northern border facing Hezbollah as part of a huge IDF exercise. It can’t be that someone else’s son is exempt from that because his parents have a political party that pressures the prime minister.
In private conversations with the ultra-Orthodox community I’m constantly surprised that they understand – and express real empathy for – the depth of the hurt caused to the sectors of the public who send their children to the army to risk their lives, but then see young ultra-Orthodox boys receive exemptions. The same ultra- Orthodox people are also surprised when I explain to them the real details of the proposed framework and they discover how different it is from the propaganda in the ultra- Orthodox media.
But let’s not pretend this isn’t a struggle over values. IDF service is a national value (one which doesn’t contradict Torah study) and we are fighting for the foundations of Israeli society.
It’s time to conduct a deep and honest Israeli conversation on issues of religion and state. We need to discuss the issue of Shabbat, civil issues, the status of the Rabbinate, the role of religion in the education system. It’s not an academic discussion. It’s explosive, sensitive and touches the deepest part of our identity. That’s why many politicians do everything to avoid it. It’s easier to surrender every time. It buys them some time but it chips away at the sense that we are one nation with one fate.
There is an alternative: to act like a sovereign country, as a country is meant to act. To invite all the citizens to join in an open and brave dialogue, and to make clear that in the end no one will get 100% of what they want. Everyone will need to compromise. When the ultra-Orthodox say they can’t compromise because “those are their values,” my answer is that the secular public also has values and they are no less important. That’s why we should sit and find a way to live together.
The equality of national burden effort isn’t meant to be a dispute with the ultra-Orthodox; its goal is to deal with a problem that isn’t going away. Responsible leadership doesn’t let problems grow without taking care of them. It certainly does not deceive the public and sell out its own principles.
If we are destined to argue – let’s at least make it about values.
Yair Lapid is chairman of Yesh Atid.