Tel Aviv — In his first election after immigrating to Israel from Los Angeles, Avi Cohen, 26, voted for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But now, amid a swirling national debate over integrating the fervently Orthodox into the army, Cohen says he’s reconsidering.
That’s because Netanyahu on Monday dissolved the Plesner Committee, a panel formed with the centrist Kadima party to formulate new legislation aimed at ending a universal draft exemption for fervently Orthodox yeshiva students.
“The committee was one big charade, just like all of his other committees, and it was doomed to fail from the beginning,” said Cohen, an infantry reservist, at the “suckers encampment,” a tent in Tel Aviv set up to pressure the government to legislate a universal draft. “Netanyahu needs to get up the guts to stand up to the ultra-Orthodox.
“Now he has the political clout to do it,” Cohen continued, referring to the supermajority of 94 out of 120 Knesset seats the prime minister now enjoys in his ruling coalition. “He talks nicely but we don’t see anything materializing. And if this continues I won’t vote for him again. I’m not the only one.”
Six weeks after forming a national unity government with Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz with the express purpose of avoiding early elections and coming up with a more equitable way to share the “national burden,” Netanyahu faces a coalition crisis. He is struggling to chart a course between his fervently Orthodox partners, and parties like the centrist Kadima vying for the votes of the Israeli mainstream.
The dilemma over draft exemption could play a role in elections because it touches on an institution long considered at the heart of Israeli identity: its “army of the people” and the universal draft. Israel’s Supreme Court recently struck down the Tal Law that preserved exemptions for thousands of yeshiva students, creating pressure for a compromise before the law’s expiration Aug 1.
The military exemption is rooted in a deal between Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and haredi or fervently Orthodox parties to give several hundred yeshiva students a pass because they were considered a marginal community.
But now, as the haredi communities grow to become a major part of Israel’s population, many are pointing to the exemption — as well as government subsidies for their families that allow the fervently Orthodox to stay out of the work force — as untenable and unjust.
Many in the haredi community contend that by devoting themselves to scholarship and keeping religious tradition, they are protecting the Jewish people.
But Avi Bar, another protestor at the “suckers tent,” vowed that he and his reservist buddies would ignore their next call-up notices in protest if the government does not end the exemptions.
“My friends and I are willing to do whatever it takes — even if it means going to jail or protesting in front of the prime minister’s house,” said the combat medic. “We’ve all served in the reserves for over 13 years and no one can accuse us of not contributing.”
The Plesner Committee, named for its chairman, Kadima parliament member Yohanan Plesner, reportedly planned to recommend fines of 90,000 shekels ($22,500) for soldiers who evade service — a proposal vehemently opposed by the haredi parties.
However, the committee also reportedly planned to allow haredi youths to defer their draft until age 23 — a provision that advocates of a universal draft consider a potential escape hatch for yeshiva students who get married.
In addition, the committee is said to have been planning to call for the gradual recruitment of young Israeli Arabs into some form of national service but to recommend that no action be taken against Arab draft dodgers. That didn’t sit well with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who told a press conference last week: “Every Israeli citizen who reaches the age of 18 must perform either military or civilian national service. No one should be exempt.”
Netanyahu was later quoted as agreeing with Lieberman, saying he believed in the idea of “enlistment for all. … The world has changed, the country has changed and the situation is not what it was in the past. Everyone should share the burden.”
Reports that the Plesner Committee would not recommend penalties against Arabs who refused to enlist prompted two Israeli parties, Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu faction and Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), to withdraw from the Plesner Committee. That prompted Netanyahu to say he would not “submit a bill that does not call for ultra-Orthodox and Arab citizens to share the burden of national service.” He then dissolved the committee, and coalition members began meeting to wrestle with the problem.
A parliament member from Netanyahu’s Likud party said the coalition couldn’t reach an agreement on new legislation and that the prime minister was preparing to offer a plan.
“There is no justification for this huge coalition and for calling off the [early] elections if no historic or dramatic decisions are made,” said the Knesset member, Carmel Shama Hacohen.
“Without the integration of the haredim in Israeli society, starting from the army and including in the economy — and the Arab population — Israel’s economy does not have a rosy future in the foreseeable future,” Hacohen said.
But for Israel’s fervently Orthodox leadership, the proposed military draft is a symbol of the state’s intrusion on communities that pride themselves on following Jewish law to the letter and that have been given wide authority to look after their own affairs.
“We know that the only way to keep our spiritual existence as a nation and to stay alive is by staying attached to Torah,” said Yishayahu Horwitz, an editor at the haredi daily paper Hamevaser. “It’s a way of living; we see it as a mission. And we believe that a boy who learns Torah is at a higher level than one who goes into the army to be a pilot.”
Many observers believe that if the government tried to forcibly draft haredim it could lead to mass civil disobedience and clashes.
“It’s not realistic to say, ‘Tomorrow we’re going to go into the study halls to clear them out — there will be a civil war,” said Rabbi Dov Lipman, an Orthodox resident of Beit Shemesh who believes that the fervently Orthodox should be gradually integrated into the mainstream. “They would all go to jail.”
The issue of universal service was a major issue in last year’s social unrest movement that swept the country. It stressed social solidarity by highlighting economic burdens borne by middle-class Israelis.
The social protestors have now returned to the streets to renew their calls for reform, and thousands protested on Saturday in Tel Aviv. A “million person protest” has been called for July 14, the first anniversary of this movement. But leaders are divided. The city has banished their symbolic encampment from the city center, and there’s a perception that they achieved few tangible results despite the buzz last year.
Whatever happens this year, demonstrators for reform say their efforts would have been ignored had it not been for last year’s demonstrations for “social justice.”
“The issue unites the majority of the people,” said Yoav Kish, a member of the Plesner Committee who represents the “suckers tent.” “It’s an awakening of the public. What you see here is much stronger today because of last year [social protests]. People are thinking and trying to understand so they can make a difference.”
Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this report.