As Israelis gear up for elections in January 2013, we’ll be hearing politicians calling for an “equal draft.” The demand that Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, men be conscripted into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) just like everyone else is very popular these days. Although this sounds like a bid for equality and social justice, it is really just the opposite—an attempt to stir up a disaffected public through a cynical appeal to the politics of resentment.
Not that we, the non-Haredi majority, don’t have good reasons to be resentful. Long-standing political agreements have allowed nearly two-thirds of all Haredi men between the ages of 35 and 54 to be “employed” in full-time religious study, living—albeit in poverty—on government subsidies paid for by taxes from the rest of us. And the Tal Law, passed for reasons of political expediency a decade ago, allows Haredi yeshiva students to postpone their military service for six years, after which they are supposed to choose among full-time yeshiva study, a job and partial military duty, or 18 months of national service. In fact, during these 10 years, only some 1,200 Haredi men have actually enlisted, while 55,000 of them have avoided the draft. (Haredi women are automatically exempted.)
The Tal Law expired on August 1, 2012, and nothing has replaced it. The exemptions continue. But while it’s true that the Haredim don’t serve in the army, the real problem is that they pose a soon-to-be intolerable socioeconomic burden on the Israeli economy.
Haredim argue that this is as it should be: They should serve the State of Israel and the Jewish people through Torah study, and the rest of us should serve them with our lives and our taxes. Of course, that’s not fair, moral or just.
But will mass enlistment of the Haredim help us create a fair, moral and just society? On the contrary: If the IDF chooses to conscript large numbers of Haredi men who do not accept the rules of the democratic game, who oppose equality for women and insist on increasingly strict gender segregation, it will be trying to solve one problem by creating other, more serious ones.
Over the past decade, the IDF has been moving in two contradictory directions. On the one hand, women are being integrated into combat and higher-ranking positions, thanks to pressure from women’s groups and a growing commitment to greater equality. On the other hand, the IDF overall is experiencing increased religious extremism, especially on gender, from the small number of Haredim already enlisted.
According to an official IDF statement, “The contribution of the ultra-Orthodox soldiers is significant…and the army will continue to integrate them into its units while preserving their lifestyle.” It’s that “lifestyle” that has women worried. Haredi men enlisted in the IDF under the Tal Law have been granted special conditions of service, including designated times for prayer and Torah study, stringently kosher meals and a “sterile” (yes, that is the word they use) environment in which no women are present. But there is pressure for more. According to a recent report by the Israel Religious Action Center, entitled “Excluded, for God’s Sake,” combat soldiers in several units have refused to accept instruction from female shooting instructors. Male cadets at the Intelligence School have asked that female instructors remain behind the desk when teaching, and the IDF has tentatively discussed proposals to reconsider deployment of female trainers in the Armored and Artillery Corps.
The situation has women’s rights activists so concerned that the Israeli Women in Security and Policy Forum—an ad hoc group that includes several former high-ranking women officers—published an open letter arguing that “the people’s army must not turn into the men’s army.” The forum also presented a series of recommendations, including the establishment of an external, civilian committee to monitor women’s rights and a cancellation of the automatic exemption of all religious women. This, they wrote, “will achieve true equality—in privilege and in responsibility.” This is unlikely to persuade the Haredim, who generally aren’t interested in equality, don’t hold democratic principles particularly dear and do want to maintain their lifestyle.
Somehow, we all have to live together in this society. Back in the 12th century, Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah warned us not to issue decrees that the public cannot accept or uphold. And feminists know only too well that making things the same doesn’t necessarily make them fair. A healthy, egalitarian, multicultural society doesn’t allow the majority to ignore the minority’s needs, and it doesn’t apply the same rules blindly to everyone.
The IDF is a potential source of social mobility and social capital in Israeli society. Serving in it is a duty we perform as citizens, and I am proud that I and my children have fulfilled that duty. But it should not be held up as the sine qua non of citizenship. “Equal draft” is a jingoistic slogan based on an outmoded ethos of Israel, where the highest “opportunity” is to sacrifice ourselves for the good of the country. Political leaders should instead be laying the groundwork for cultural concessions that both sides might actually make. They should be helping us to find a way to deal with the red lines that neither side is willing to cross, while guiding us all to be more tolerant and less prejudiced toward each other. Let’s hear them providing solutions to the inequality in Haredi schools, which don’t teach even the basics of a modern education; maybe then their children can gain the skills to become economically productive members of Israeli society—whether they serve in the army or not.