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Debate on draft reform moves Israel further away from democracy

If Netanyahu’s government doesn’t come up with a solution, the army could soon start enlisting all of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox citizens. But while it is convenient to see the debate on a universal draft as a step toward equality, Israeli militarism should be challenged by decreasing the army’s size, not enlarging it.  

Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem's Old City. Does a heavily militarized society need a larger army? (photo: Erazo Fischer/ CC BY-SA 2.0)

The deadline is closing in on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to cross one of the most dangerous minefields in Israeli politics – that of national draft reform. In February, the High Court struck down the current arrangement – known as the Tal Law – exempting most of the ultra-Orthodox population from service. If the government does not come up with an alternative by the end of the month, the IDF could issue draft letters to the entire Israeli population (of draft age), including the ultra-Orthodox and Palestinian citizens, who are presently exempt from the draft.

It was Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who decided to accede to the request of Rabbi Avraham Yeshayahu Karelitz (the “Hason Ish”), and allow a quota of yeshiva students to be exempt from military service. The numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews who benefited from this arrangement were fairly small until the 1970s, when the religious parties formed a union with the Israeli right. As part of his coalition agreements, Prime Minister Menachem Begin gave the national religious a free hand in the West Bank, and the Orthodox had the quota on the number of non-serving students removed. The government also began giving a monthly stipend to every student who didn’t serve, which would be canceled if it emerged that he was also working for a living. The result was the emergence of an entire society which not only avoiding draft, but also removed from the Israeli workforce.

In the last three decades, populist politicians from the Zionist left believed that in addressing the draft issue, they had found the right’s vulnerable spot. More often than not, they were right: the secular middle class simply couldn’t bear the idea that tens of thousands were not only avoiding service, but actually getting paid to do so. The demand for a universal draft was part of the campaign that brought Ehud Barak into power in 1999, and it was in his time that the Tal Law, an unsuccessful attempt to lure the Orthodox into service, was passed.

The current demand for draft reform was driven to some extent by the J14 movement, which was, after all, a protest of the secular middle class. Not everyone backed it: the more progressive elements of the social protest prefer to focus on criticism of capitalism and a demand for better government services; but the conservatives who took part in the movement (among them the university student association) are rallying around the draft. At least three parties – Yisrael Beiteinu, Kadima and Yesh Atid (anchorman Yair Lapid‘s new party) – are also using this issue to separate themselves from the Likud and to lure independent voters.

Netanyahu is in a tough spot here: he fears that breaking away from the Orthodox will be very costly following the next election, when he tries to establish a new government. At the same time, he is aware that even his own voters are unhappy with the current arrangement. But the latest reports show that neither Kadima nor Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu are seriously considering leaving his government. This could still change: a large protest calling for an equitable draft, planned for this Saturday in Tel Aviv, could add to public pressure on the militant secular parties.

Here is Yair Lapid calling his supporters to take part in Saturday night’s rally, stating that Netanyahu “has betrayed most of the public in Israel, choosing instead the ultra Orthodox”.

It is tempting to see this issue as part of the demand for a reform in Israeli society and its political system, and the Israeli media does frame the current political crisis in this way. Yet considering the place the IDF has in Israeli society, there is no doubt that the draft reform campaign is not only using the militaristic nature of society here against the government, but actually strengthening it. The army is already the largest and strongest institution in Israel. It affects almost all aspects of life in this country, from education to the high-tech industry. While it does have some positive influence, mainly by serving as a tool for social mobility for Jews of lower socio-economics backgrounds, the army also strengthens nationalistic sentiment, anti-democratic trends and chauvinism. A thriving civil society must include more restrictions on the army, not demands to enlarge it. If those in favor of an equal draft were truly interested in the social integration of the ultra-Orthodox, they should pursue it through the workforce and the education system, not basic training.

The call for mandatory national service as an alternative to military service for Palestinian citizens – which is now an integral part of draft reform proposals – is further evidence of the dangers inherent in the current debate. The issue of rights and duties of the Palestinian population cannot be separated from institutional discrimination against Arabs, and from the Jewish nature of the state.

> Read also on +972: Palestinian citizens cannot be expected to serve Jewish state / By Fady Khoury 

The army is often referred to as Israel’s melting pot, and service is believed to turn those serving into full Israelis. Yet as the case of the few non-Jews who serve proves, Palestinians can never be full Israelis because they will not become Jews, and Israel ultimately sees itself as a country for Jews. Even so, some Palestinian leaders agree to national service, but they demand to be part of the decision on the nature of this service. So far, the government has ignored them.

As always, it’s racist Avigdor Lieberman who has led the charge against the Palestinians. A couple of weeks ago, his party quit a government-appointed committee on the draft, demanding that the state apply mandatory service to Palestinians immediately, with a  mechanism to penalize those avoiding it. Netanyahu is not far behind: when he rejected the conclusions of this very same committee, he cited the low national service quotas for the Palestinian citizens as a reason, and promised to bring before the Knesset a law that would demand more from the Arab population. As much as challenges to Netanyahu’s government are welcomed, the current crisis can only be understood as part of a general conservative trend.

It is therefore encouraging to see that the more progressive of the J14 leaders, among them Daphni Leef, decided not to take part in Saturday’s rally, and are calling the public to take part in “a civil march” they will hold instead. The solution to the draft problem should be the opposite than the one the Knesset is debating these days – a gradual move to end the mandatory draft and to limit the influence of the IDF on Israeli society.

Orthodox Jews should be allowed and encouraged to work. As for the Palestinian population, it could be made to feel at home and take part in all aspects of society only within the framework of “a state for all its citizens.” We are still far away from that.

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    1. Pedro Plowman

      I write as a gentile, though one who I think can rightly lay claim to being Noahidim, as a non-Israeli, though one who cares deeply about both Israel & Palestine.

      To my mind if the ultra-Orthodox have to undertake both the risks & responsibilities of military service then it will force a re-thinking on their part.

      I welcome any comment that might further inform me.

      Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      If you follow the Left/Progressive discussion of this matter, you will hear that that there are not enough religious Jews in the IDF, and at one and the same time, too many religious Jews in the IDF.
      In other words they want the Haredim in the IDF, where they are underrepresented today, but they are also lamenting that there are so many religous Jews in the IDF, particularly in the combat units and in the officer corps. This is the “militarism” referred to in this article.
      The bottom line is that they want the religious soldiers to be the cannon fodder and do the real fighting, while boys from good families (i.e. from the old MAPAI-Labor-MAPAM ruling elite) avoid it, while not allowing any consideration of religious lifestyle in the IDF and definitely keeping religious men out of the officer corps where they may have influence on policy, which is to still be determined by the old secular elite.
      I don’t know if they can reconcile these desires.

      Reply to Comment
    3. aristeides

      I was wondering when someone on this site would address this issue.

      The logical solution to the problem, as some figures have already concluded, is to scrap the draft altogether and move to a professional army. But doing the logical thing always seems to be impossible in Israel, which is why this problem has festered for so long.

      Reply to Comment
    4. max

      Noam – let’s say that the army does need to shrink, or at least not swell: how does this relate to the issue of balanced contribution?
      About Arab civil service – how can service that will focus on Arab needs be rejected by you?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Philos

      The solution is professionalization. On another note it’s funny how students are a conservative element in Israeli society in contrast to other developed societies. Or maybe it’s sad

      Reply to Comment
    6. PAUL

      Brilliant analysis, exposing the hot-air illiberal-ism of Yair Lapid and fellow north Tel Avivian travellers.

      The myth of the Army as the great leveller of Israeli society may at last be becoming unstuck (not however in the manner many had expected)
      The issue is not that 35% of Israeli society (Palestinian and Haridim) do not join the army, but rather that the vast majority of the other 65% do not see Palestinians and Haridim as REALLY true Israelis…The solution as Noam says is not to make the army bigger (born out of some spiteful attack of both Haridim and Palestinians) but expanding the definition of what it means to be Israeli..The solution is a professional army and the removal of unfair State sponsored subsidies and unfair State sponsored discrimination…

      Reply to Comment
    7. max

      There’re several debate sites with interesting views about draft vs professional armies – worth reading. In Israel’s current context it’s most probably not a good option… Who’d like to see a settlers-based army?

      Reply to Comment
    8. PAUL

      Max the issue is that the army (and its policy) should, in any democracy be subservient to the politicians, it called democracy. If that scares you, then its the politics that’s the problem not the army.
      The fact that the army may be made up of a particular group is irrelevant. It is relevant only if the army acts autonomously from the Knesset. There is a hint here that the army somehow is currently “noble” or at least more noble that it might be in the future because it is still dominated by a secular (Askenazi) elite, perhaps an acknowledgement that it does in some way act autonomously….now that is scary .

      Reply to Comment
    9. max

      Paul – as I wrote, many ideas have been debated in the public sphere. In one of them you’ll find the ‘warning’ that “Armed forces can attract — consciously or unconsciously — people who prefer authoritarian systems” – it’s about risk, not what I or you prefer to see. Another topic that comes up is that only conscription provides an all-time guarantee of power, which is needed when you’re in constant danger…
      How would you envisage the shift from conscription to professional in Israel without creating a risk of unplanned gap? I don’t see this as a practical alternative.
      What about the size? I didn’t hear that the current size is too large, so how would the Israeli society look like with such a number of army professionals? What about Israeli Arabs?
      I haven’t analyzed all this but have the impression that it’s irrelevant in Israel’s current context

      Reply to Comment
    10. max

      Paul – I only mentioned some arguments against professional army; you’ll find much also in favor of conscription.
      And you’ll find as many arguments the other side 🙂
      So it’s really about the specific context

      Reply to Comment
    11. Kolumn9

      The whole proposal to replace the Israeli conscript army with a professional one is purely a rhetorical red herring. The reason for the conscript army is that it allows Israel to maintain a large reserve army which is capable of dealing with security threats from countries with larger populations. There is simply no way that a professional army can be structured to deal with this challenge and all proposals for switching to a professional army are meant to square one or another ideological circle that the author is facing.

      The purpose of drafting the Haredim and Arabs isn’t to punish them but to create a more fair society where these groups are not getting a free ride while Israelis that serve are taxed 2+ years of their lives. What precisely is democratic in assigning these groups special privileges exempting them from such a burden? This situation is unsustainable, indefensible, and it is coming to an end.

      I should also point out that the position taken on the left in opposition to universal draft laws is fundamentally contradictory to the premises used by the same group in arguing in EVERY SINGLE OTHER SITUATION.

      Reply to Comment
    12. max

      K9, I don’t think that there’s a consensus on the left for a professional army, certainly not outside of Israel
      You’ll only find such consensus amongst people who are against any national boundaries and therefore see no right of a state to draft into its army

      Reply to Comment
    13. PAUL

      Max – I appreciate your concern of the “risk”.
      But again perhaps the issue is the inherent mistrust (common to most Israelis) of democratically elected politicians and inherent trust (of most Israelis) of the army. I find that a greater “risk” that at some point may prove gravely dangerous to Israeli “democracy” (much easier to justify a coup)

      As for army size – the superiority and effectiveness of the IDF is not because of its size, surely its related to its managerial and technological prowess/expertise etc (its constant need for readiness is not related to the presence of 18yr old school kids) – at least I hope not!!

      As for Israeli Arabs, societal integration is the issue, if there is a professional army…their joining or not joining isn’t really the point…they thus wouldn’t be obligated to do alternative community service…

      Reply to Comment
    14. aristeides

      The IDF is already a settler army.

      The US had this debate a few decades ago and went with the professional army over the draft. The result was to make waging aggressive wars more possible by eliminating the threat of draftee mutiny and the mass resistance of American Moms against the slaughter of the innocents.

      As it is, the greatest enemy of the IDF is the Israeli parent, who won’t tolerate any risk to the precious drafted offspring.

      Reply to Comment
    15. PAUL

      As for the transition… pay them well, offer high tech training etc (army is a job/career – one can always leave)make it attractive for the brightest and best…with different skills on offer.. just like a competitive university or corporation.. in effect use the “market”…

      Reply to Comment
    16. Kolumn9

      Max, you are correct. I should have been clear that I was specifically referring to the position taken by those on the left in Israel against the universal draft that would include Haredim and Arabs.

      In practice the idea of a universal draft and universal service is perfectly at home among many streams of left-wing consensus outside the pacifists.

      Paul, size matters and a large part of the Israeli military superiority is its ability to rely in larger and prolonged conflicts on a large reserve army, made completely impossible by the ideas of a professional army.

      Aresteides for once, has a potentially interesting perspective though somewhat tainted by relying on an American example. America really is ‘special’ when it comes to its perception of war and conflict. It is always somewhere over there beyond the seas.

      Reply to Comment
    17. aristeides

      The US and Israel are very much alike in both their exceptionalism and their willingness to wage war on someone else’s home ground, where their own population has relative immunity.

      Reply to Comment
    18. XYZ

      The US is a continental power surrounded by two big oceans and two friendly, non-militaristic countries. Israel is a tiny country surrounded mostly by land and hostile, big countries. Don’t see the comparison.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Noam

      On the other hand, one of the first things that actually started moved forward American civil rights for blacks was their service in the U S Army , especially in WWII. The Army was fully integrated (in 1948) before the schools and certainly before residential neighbourhoods.

      So maybe it could a start in Israel too.


      Reply to Comment
    20. Piotr Berman

      Clearly, IDF faces the crisis of insufficient manpower. No other country has military with such bewildering variety of tasks. Israel faces hundreds of threats that are dealt with, and each requires a lot of manpower and specific training. Inevitably, there are occasions when troops face a threat without an adequate preparation.

      The threats may have the form of sheds, trees, vegetables, small children, teens, local girls, “international” girls, small livestock (lambs, calfs, chicken) and large lifestock (sheep, cows), clowns, and that just scratches the surface. Hostile clowns were initially intercepted while attempting entry to Israel, but there is a fresh report of a group of 5 hostile clowns in Hebron.

      So Israel must have universal draft,

      Reply to Comment
    21. The issue is one of equal protection for Jewish draftees. A move towards equality of risk requires that the draft be extended to all. One could cushion the effect by allowing a national service lottery, where the winners can decide to perform such service rather than the draft. But saying that Israeli Palestinians (or Arabs) should not be drafted until social equality advances across race seems a way of preventing such advance. A fortiori, there can be no blanket excemption for the Ultra Orthodox, although one might create a national service religious exemption if it applies more broadly to, say, pacifists.
      One cannot simply pick stands on equal protection as they fit one’s political ends. Advocate a draft lottery if you want the IDF reduced overall.
      Sydney, above, points out that American blacks experienced intergration in the Army before intergration in society, the former propelling the latter forward to some degree. I suspect that drafting all Israelis would lead to innumerable conflicts over prior policy, micro and macro, and that is to the good. To remove the barriors you have to confront them, in real life situations.
      The left must understand that legal principle is distinct from preferred policy. You have to be willing to lose based on principle, not just advocate implementation when you expect a political win.

      Reply to Comment
    22. Piotr Berman

      My view is that there is a tension between two principles: (a) some Jews are better than others (b) all Jews are created equal. Among the non-Jewish citizens some bear an honorable distinction of being “almost as good as Jews”.

      And of course, there is an issue what IDF will do with all the drafted Haredi boys and girls. Already National Zionists require a lot of special treatment.

      Reply to Comment
    23. Piotr Berman

      Greg: he issue is one of equal protection for Jewish draftees.

      Elkin (a Knesset Grand Poobah): if no solution is found by August 1, Israel’s military draft law will be applied equally across all sectors.

      Clearly, Knesset is working on how to AVOID treating all Jewish draftees equally. It really reminds Comrade Stalin: equality for draftees has to be understood dialectically, through fine differentiation. Dialectic reasoning is applied by theologians, Hegelian and Marxists, so I guess a coalition of neo-Platonic theologians and neo-Stalinist secular politicians will find some solution.

      Reply to Comment
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