Is the Ultra-Orthodox Draft a Good Idea?
In the rush to “share the burden” more equally, those pushing the Israeli government to draft the ultra-Orthodox aren’t thinking long-term, argues Brent E. Sasley.
Efforts in Israel to find a way to “share the burden” more equally are proceeding apace. The establishment of a new military draft that includes the haredim (ultra-Orthodox) is one of the thorniest issues in contemporary Israeli politics, and as the other day’s intra-coalition dispute on the Peri Committee (I wouldn’t call it a crisis, at least not yet) over penalties for “draft dodgers” indicates, there are no easy solutions. The problem, though, is that in the haste to draft the haredim, there hasn’t been enough discussion about whether they should be drafted or not, and whether this will be good for the Israel Defense Forces and the country or not. I’m not so sure a draft is necessary, viable, or even desirable.
Steven Cook has argued that such a draft will never be instituted, simply because the Orthodox are, despite their non- or even anti-Zionist politics, the sine qua non for the Jewish-Zionist state. Without their “Jewishness,” defined as “studying Torah in the Land of Israel,” the Zionist movement—and therefore Israel—lose their reason for being.
I’m not so sure the situation is so immutable, for two reasons—both of which speak to the underlying issues of the draft and the need to consider them far more carefully. First, there’s been a convergence of factors and developments that make this the most propitious time for a change from the status quo. This includes the relative popularity of Yesh Atid and Yair Lapid. On the former, Israelis have clearly been looking for a centrist alternative different from the two “big” parties (Labor and Likud) and the host of smaller, narrowly-based parties. I’ve argued before that Yesh Atid’s success in the January election isn’t necessarily an indication of its long-term health. But at this moment it’s a strong vehicle for change.
On the latter, Lapid campaigned extensively on the issue of the draft, making it a priority for the government. He is supported in this by his close coalition partner, Naftali Bennett. The depth of their commitment to each other forced Benjamin Netanyahu to design a coalition with them, rather than with the haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism. And that includes giving priority to their policy goals.
At the same time, Israelis themselves have reached the point at which they are demanding concrete changes to the status quo. This is evident at both the general level and the specific issue of the draft. A poll just out, for example, found that 67 percent of Israelis backed jail sentences for haredim who avoided their military service.
Moreover, there are more and more signs that the growing haredi population will have a profound effect on the nature of Israeli society, particularly in the areas of education. It’s true that the Orthodox are increasingly entering the workforce, but it’s not clear that is a counter-trend to the increasing religiosity and conservative nature of their politics. In the face of this, more Israelis are trying to change the secular-religious (im)balance.
Second, the nature of Zionism itself, while certainly dependent on an understanding of Jewishness, Judaism, and Jewish history, is flexible—even elastic—enough to incorporate changed understandings of these core concerns. Zionism was never a rigid construction, and there have always been multiple and competing definitions of it. It’s true that Jewish-Israeli society has become increasingly conscious of its religious dimension, but the popularity of the draft indicates that the two are not incompatible. That some haredim, particularly in Shas, have indicated a willingness to discuss the issue suggests recognition of this on both sides.
It’s not clear that most Jewish Israelis ascribe a specific meaning to their Zionism except in the vaguest manner. It’s broad and ambiguous enough to include different conceptualizations, but with a core recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Beyond that, there’s little evidence that the study of Torah is considered such a value as to preclude other commitments to Israel. In addition, for most Israelis the state is the main representation of and primary vehicle for Zionism. This is in direct contrast to the haredi who tend to be either non- or anti-Zionist and therefore at best suspicious of, at worst hostile to, the state.
The social protests of 2011 and their renewal in 2013 are further indication that Israelis can conceive of different understandings of Zionism and the role of the state in it. Widespread acceptance of the idea of peace with the Palestinians—a new poll shows a majority of support for the revised Arab Peace Initiative—cannot be separated from these attitudes about domestic issues.
Quite simply, Israelis are interested in change. (That they don’t necessarily work to promote it, especially in foreign affairs, is a separate issue.) At the same time, the current balance in secular-religious relations is not sustainable. Change is coming, and it will have to account for the nature of national service, however that is defined. But discontent at the national level is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
The issue of whether the haredi draft is a good idea is a separate one. I’m not sure it is: most haredim will fight against being drafted, and tearing thousands away from their communities and families so quickly and without adequate emotional, financial, and physical infrastructure will be devastating. There will also be considerable effects on the nature of the Israel Defense Forces itself—including the formation of units, the role of women, the contours of military doctrine, and cost—and that might not be a good thing.
Finally, forcibly drafting the haredi will inevitably bring more attention to Palestinian citizens of Israel and their role in national service, and here there has been even less preparation and discussion. Palestinians are increasingly assertive of their own national-communal identity, which is even more opposed to the current understanding of the Jewish state than haredi identity.
What’s clear is that at a minimum the deliberations of the Peri Committee should serve as the beginning of a serious, sustained exchange of ideas on how to account for all these changes in Israeli society along with a better understanding of Israel’s needs. I worry that in the rush to “share the burden,” those pushing the draft aren’t thinking long-term. This seems to be the real problem at hand.