Australia/Israel Review

Israel’s Draft Re-draft

Jul 30, 2012 | Amotz Asa-El

Israel's Draft Re-draft

Amotz Asa-El


A quarter-of-a-million black-clad Israelis crowded the streets of Jerusalem on a sweltering mid-July night, to pay their last respects to a sage who may have been the last undisputed leader of Israeli ultra-Orthodoxy.

Lithuanian-born Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv spent most of his 102 years away from the public eye, buried in thick Talmudic volumes. Even so, he was part of a rabbinical generation that inspired ultra-Orthodoxy’s social isolation, and his passing symbolises the passing of an era.

The break-up in July of Israel’s broad coalition in a dispute over how to reshape the place of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society will not change the fact that ultimately, this troubled relationship’s future will be markedly different from its past.

Jewish ultra-Orthodoxy may be easy to characterise, but it is difficult to define. Its most obvious traits, men’s black outfits and women’s long sleeves and skirts and large head-kerchiefs, may help identify ultra-Orthodox Jews in a crowd, but it does not explain what they believe, appreciate and expect.

In fact, it is a mistake to lump together ultra-Orthodoxy’s many sects and sub-sects – from Hassidim, who mystify their rabbis, to anti-Hassidim, who oppose that theology but share its coolness to Zionism, and from Sephardim, who are more tolerant toward secularists, to assorted groups who decry Zionism as heresy.

The common denominator among all these is a deep suspicion of modernity in general and enlightenment in particular, and misgivings about Zionism, a secular ideology that defied age-old rabbinical promises that God will redeem the Jews miraculously.

Rejection of secularism as a way of life led ultra-Orthodox rabbis to raise social walls between their communities and mainstream Israel, in four ways:

  • Residentially, they encouraged living in separate neighbourhoods.
  • Educationally, they established a separate school system with a predominantly religious curriculum and minimal secular content, even in religiously neutral subjects like maths and English.
  • Occupationally, the rabbis kept their flock away from the secular workplace, manoeuvring the men into lengthy years in religious academies and the women into teaching within the ultra-Orthodox system.
  • And lastly, they kept their population from serving in the military, where they claimed proper religious observance was impossible.

In Israel’s first years, ultra-Orthodox rabbis reached an arrangement with David Ben-Gurion whereby conscription of an annual 400 students would be deferred as long as they did nothing other than study in religious academies. The rationale was that this was a way to restore the East European network of religious academies that was destroyed during the Holocaust.

The consequent deal lasted until 1977, when Labor lost power and the new PM, Menachem Bagin, chose to make ultra-Orthodox parties into strategic political partners. The price the rabbis demanded, a full and immediate abandonment of draft-exemption quotas, was agreeable to Begin, and the result was a dramatic expansion of the exemptions. At one point, they extended to nearly a tenth of 18-year-olds, as opposed to 2.4% before Begin’s rise to power.

Public resentment toward the draft exemptions grew steadily, until the Israeli High Court of Justice ruled that the Knesset must legislate the arrangement – previously administered through executive decrees issued by the Minister of Defence. The result was a new law, passed in 1999, that allowed ultra-Orthodox men to choose at age 22 whether to continue studying or serve a shortened military service and join the workforce. Those who wanted to could also opt for civilian national service as an alternative to joining the IDF.

Last February, however, the High Court of Justice ruled this law unconstitutional, citing a violation of the principle of the equality before the law. The court ordered the politicians to revise the law by July 31. Responding to this new constraint, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Opposition Leader Shaul Mofaz stunned the political system in May when they announced the establishment of a broad coalition that would pass new legislation for universal service.

Two months on, Mofaz and his Kadima party announced they were returning to the opposition, after Netanyahu rejected their bill for universal conscription.

The bill that Netanyahu rejected set a goal of 80% ultra-Orthodox conscription by 2016, with the new ultra-Orthodox draftees to serve either two years in the military, or give 18-months of unpaid civilian national service. An annual quota of 1,500 “gifted” religious students would be allowed to continue studying. Draft dodgers, in addition to facing legal action, would lose assorted tax breaks and allowances that students at religious seminaries currently enjoy.

These parts could have been agreeable to Netanyahu, but what he chose to reject was Kadima’s demand that all ultra-Orthodox men would have to serve by age 22 at the latest. Surrendering to pressure from his party’s longtime political partners in the various ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu said ultra-Orthodox young men should be allowed to defer their draft until age 26.

The difference between these two alternatives is profound, since a 26-year-old conscript, particularly if married and a father, as most ultra-Orthodox men are by then, is much less useful to the army, and is likely to end up with a much easier military service than a 22-year-old.

With Kadima gone, Netanyahu introduced a bill that will shift the deadline for ultra-Orthodox men’s conscription from age 28 to age 26, and set a goal of 6,000 annual conscripts by 2016. In addition, conscripts will have a choice of alternative service in assorted civilian venues.

The bill, explained its author, Minister for Strategic Affairs and former IDF Chief of Staff Gen. (res.) Moshe Ya’alon, is based on the assumption that the goal of maximum ultra-Orthodox conscription can only be achieved gradually and with the ultra-Orthodox community’s consent.

What, then, were the political rationales on both ends of this saga, and where does the political system proceed from here?

Kadima’s logic was simple: eager to retain the centrist electorate that has made of it the Knesset’s largest faction, the party wanted to pander to patriotic Israelis, both secular and modern-Orthodox. Ultra-Orthodox isolationism is in that regard a perfect target.

The only problem with this strategy is that polls indicate the public has not been impressed with Kadima’s two-month sortie into the coalition, a move whose aftermath seems as erratic as its origins seemed opportunistic. Indeed, just as pundits suggested back in May that Mofaz was joining the government simply to avoid an early election trouncing, they now suggest he is driven by fear of a potential return to the scene of former prime minister and party head Ehud Olmert, following his acquittal in court on two out of four corruption allegations (the other two charges are still pending).

Moreover, the conscription cause is championed with equal zeal by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and by journalist Yair Lapid whose entry into politics focuses on recapturing the strongly secularist electorate that in 2003 gave his late father, Tommy Lapid, 15 out of the Knesset’s 120 seats. Competition for that electorate will therefore be fierce.

Then again, Mofaz’s political stock has plummeted since he unseated previous Kadima leader Tzipi Livni in March. His move, therefore, was not much of a gamble, as there was little to lose.
The defection of four Kadima MKs to Likud a few days after the faction bolted Netanyahu’s coalition enhanced the impression that Mofaz is failing to keep his party glued together. A widely expected parallel secession of several Kadima lawmakers to Labor might well render the entire party a political relic.

Netanyahu, at the same time, emerged from this encounter perceived as a staunch ally of ultra-Orthodoxy, an image that might hamper his quest to win centrist voters.

At the same time, Netanyahu must pass a new law as ordered by the court, and once passed that new law might prove more agreeable to the mainstream public than Mofaz has foreseen. In fact, some speculate Netanyahu may have pushed Mofaz overboard in a calculated attempt to split Kadima, while also taking personal credit for a new conscription bill.

Strengthening Netanyahu’s hand is the reality that the ultra-Orthodox public and its politicians generally realise they need to forge a new deal with mainstream Israel, not only politically, but also, and chiefly, economically. Yesteryear’s formula, whereby thousands of men did not work and lived largely off of the taxes paid by the rest of society, has produced abject poverty as well as public anger, and therefore demands new solutions.

The emergence in recent years of vocational colleges where ultra-Orthodox men study professions, from computer programming and accounting to law and business, was opposed by the late Rabbi Elyashiv. So was the IDF’s creation of special units and service tracks specifically tailored for ultra-Orthodox men. Yet the rabbi’s opposition was in vain. Times have changed and the number of ultra-Orthodox men joining the IDF has been rising steadily in recent years, and every newly opened vocational college intended for them quickly becomes full to capacity.

That is why, one way or another, at the end of all the current political brouhaha a new law will further lower the walls between mainstream and ultra-Orthodox Israel – walls that were built and cultivated by rabbis like Yosef Elyashiv, and which, like that sage, are now passing from this world.




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