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Haredi anti-draft protest 370.(Photo by: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Draft and equality
We stand at a critical juncture, that Yair Lapid threatened to topple the gov't unless criminal sanctions are imposed against haredi draft dodgers.
The issue of “sharing the burden” of military service is critical for a growing number of Israelis. And it was Yesh Atid’s strong support for adopting a more egalitarian approach to the draft that helped propel the fledgling political party to success in the January 2013 election.

Many Israelis are rightly concerned about the rapidly rising numbers of able-bodied haredi young men (and women) who are opting out of military or national service – a rite of passage into mainstream Israeli society, a basic civic duty that the Israeli citizen is obligated to perform.

Indeed, many factors have come to together to push the issue of “sharing the burden” to the forefront. First, the ultra-Orthodox community, once a small minority, has reached a critical mass. With birth rates at around six to seven children on average per haredi mother, the ultra-Orthodox population is the fasting growing in the country.

If in 2010, 7,500 requested and received deferrals from military service in order to pursue Torah studies, in 2011 that number jumped to 7,840, according to the IDF manpower division. In 2012, the number was probably around 8,000 and will continue to grow in coming years.

As haredim make up an increasingly larger percentage of military-age men who do not enlist, the ideal of a “people’s army,” one of the foundational values of Israeli society, has been weakened.

How can we truly expect all 18-year-old males to commit to three years of military service when a growing number of their haredi cohorts are permitted to simply opt out? Particularly aggravating is the knowledge among secular and modern Orthodox youths that if haredim did enlist, there would be shorter military service for all, but because they don’t, the burden ends up falling on increasingly narrower shoulders.

No less infuriating for those who serve and go on to find gainful employment after their military stint, is the fact that the rapidly growing haredi population is a drain on the welfare state. Because haredim must be enrolled full-time in a yeshiva in order to receive a deferral from mandatory military service, they are unable to prepare themselves for the labor market. And this happens at a critical age when they are still not burdened with a family and are capable of devoting the time and energy to gaining occupational skills.

As a result, not only is the poverty-stricken haredi population in need of more welfare payments funded by taxpayer shekels, this population’s huge potential for economic productivity is never realized.

It is in this context, as we stand at a critical juncture in Israel’s short history, that Yesh Atid leader and Finance Minister Yair Lapid threatened to topple the government unless criminal sanctions are imposed against haredi draft dodgers.

“Service will be equalized or the government will come apart,” Lapid vowed. “Those who think we will surrender on equalizing the burden don’t know us.”

The Peri Committee, headed by Science, Technology and Space Minister Yaakov Peri (Yesh Atid) made many concessions to the haredim out of an understanding that an aggressive crackdown would trigger an extremist reaction, which would be counterproductive to the goal of getting more haredi men in uniform.

For instance, about 54,000 haredi men who are currently 22 or older will be given an exemption from military service altogether. Those who are younger will be allowed to postpone military service until age 21. The IDF will also prepare itself to accommodate the religious requirements of the haredi men who do enlist.

However, if the Peri Committee had acquiesced to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s request that no criminal punishment be imposed against haredi draft dodgers – even in another three or four years when the program is fully implemented – the entire initiative would have lost all substance. Nor would the proposal be in line with the principle of equality before the law.

Why can a secular Israeli who dodges the draft be prosecuted as a criminal but not a haredi draft dodger? While it is sagacious to avoid as much as possible a direct confrontation with the haredi community and its leaders, the government also has an obligation to its constituents and to the principle of equality before the law.
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