Jerusalem — The same sense of national responsibility and anger that sent Israelis to tent cities last summer to protest social inequality, and to Beit Shemesh last winter to renounce religious coercion has spurred a grass-roots campaign for universal military service.
Thousands gathered in Tel Aviv Saturday night to demand an end to Israel Defense Forces exemptions.
While the majority of activists at the rally focused their attention on haredi yeshiva students, who are exempt from mandatory military service and receive free tuition and tax breaks, others demanded that Arab citizens do a year or two of National Service, or even non-combat service in the IDF.
In another sign that Israelis who perform military service are fed up with those who don’t, on Sunday the Knesset’s Ministerial Committee on Legislation debated a bill sponsored by MKs Orit Zuaretz (Kadima) and Miri Regev (Likud) that would cancel the right of religious women not to serve in the military.
Ending the women’s religious exemption, which some non-religious women masquerading as Orthodox try to utilize, “would end the inexplicable inequality between women and men regarding their enlistment to the IDF,” the MKs said.
If ever there were a time to change the system, it is now, activists say. A poll generated by Hiddush, an organization that advocates for religious freedom, found that 68 percent of Israeli Jews want to deny subsidies to those who don’t serve in the army, while 82 percent want a law requiring most yeshiva students to enlist.
“There is a level of fairness that every society needs,” one Israeli man wrote in an online forum, “and as the haredim become an ever-increasing percentage of the country it is unacceptable that my children should serve and theirs should not.”
But just because the public supports universal service doesn’t mean it’s financially or logistically feasible, analysts say.
“I have serious doubts whether anything will come of it,” said Stuart Cohen, a Bar-Ilan University professor who specializes in IDF manpower issues, referring to universal conscription. “I don’t think the military has the capacity to absorb a significant number of persons with special requirements, and if we’re talking about haredim, we’re talking about special requirements.”
Those requirements include glatt/mehadrin kosher food (the IDF uses Rabbinate certification, something most haredim don’t accept), totally separate quarters (separate bases, if possible) and no interaction with women, including instructors.
Further, Cohen said, the IDF isn’t looking for more soldiers, even though the public is convinced a larger pool would reduce the time soldiers must serve in the army and the reserves.
“I have serious doubts whether the military actually needs more soldiers, especially women, since a very large percentage of those drafted are discharged after one year because what they’re doing is superfluous,” Cohen said.
While a large standing army is important to Israel’s security, Cohen continued, “once you’ve drafted someone you need to feed them, provide them with clothes and with lodging. You can order them to paint the grass green, blue or red, but there comes a time when they’re more trouble than they’re worth.”
What the IDF does need are specialists, Cohen said, and the vast majority of haredim “lack the educational qualifications to operate and maintain high-tech machinery, especially when glitches occur. That requires technological literacy.”
Specialists, Cohen said, are often required to serve longer than the mandatory three years once the IDF invests so much time and money for training.
“It wants a return on its investment — the reason pilots must sign on for several years.” It’s also why the IDF isn’t particularly interested in shortening the three-year mandatory service for men and two years for women.
For the IDF to absorb many more haredi soldiers, it would do well to follow the Shahar program model initiated by the Air Force in 2007 and adopted by several other units, including intelligence.
That program has trained 1,700 haredim aged 22 to 26 for a technical profession, and they are permitted to serve close to home, to be near their wives and children. About 1,600 haredi soldiers have also served in the special Nahal Haredi combat unit since 2007.
One of the most contentious issues related to a large-scale draft of haredi men is the potential effect it could have on female soldiers, who have fought for — and to continue to fight for — equality with their male counterparts.
Some, like the feminist Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, believe haredim should do National Service in their own communities, or the workplace, not the IDF, first and foremost to provide for their families, but also to prevent the further marginalization of female soldiers.
Rina Bartel, former chairperson of the Israel Women’s Network said this marginalization isn’t new.
“The fact is that for the past 10 years, Dati Leumi [Orthodox Zionist] soldiers have refused to serve with women in tank regiments, and, on the orders of their rabbis, may walk away if their instructor is a woman.”
Another contentious issue is how Arab Israelis can serve their country. Whereas some Arabs already perform National Service — and Druze and Bedouin serve in the IDF — many Arabs say full equality must be a precondition for participation in mandatory National Service.
Ami Nahshon, international president of the Abraham Fund Initiatives, which promotes the well being of Israel’s Arab community, said his organization is “deeply concerned” about the potential consequences of a decision to impose mandatory service for all Arab youth.
“There is little doubt that such a decision would deepen the crisis of faith” between the government and the Arab minority and “hurt the chances of realizing the goal of community service for young Arab Israelis, which is an important impetus to advancing coexistence and equality among Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel,” Nahshon said by e-mail.
Despite the many challenges the IDF and National Service would face if and when universal service is legislated, some, like Ha’aretz blogger Arie Hasit, believe it will be worth the trouble.
“Between my basic training and my mandatory service, I can count as friends immigrants from around the world: Jews who had never celebrated Passover, settlers from the Judean hills and wealthy ‘children of’ Tel Aviv.
“I can only imagine how much more my circles would have expanded if Arabs and haredim had been a part of my service,” Hasit wrote.