ABC Radio National‘s “Saturday Extra” (March 15) spotlighted the historic law passed by Israel’s Knesset to phase out the national service exemption for thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Host Geraldine Doogue interviewed John Lyons, the Australian newspaper’s Middle East correspondent, for his take on the issue.
Doogue’s introduction included a claim that “all Israelis, men and women alike are conscripted, compulsorily. But not the ultra-orthodox.”
Lyons – based in Jerusalem for the last five years – should have made it a point to clarify that Israeli Arabs are exempt from army service too.
Whilst Lyons correctly put the numbers of ultra-Orthodox students exempted in 1948 from military service as “about 400,” he then said that “now, fast forward to today’s situation where there’s 800,000 or so.”
Clearly, he conflated the total number of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel today with the 50,000 or so students attending Yeshivot, but early morning listeners were unlikely to have deduced that.
Three times Lyons claimed that along with the issue of the draft there is resentment amongst secular Israelis because the ultra-Orthodox “don’t pay tax,” which is a gross over-generalisation.
According to Bank of Israel figures, in 2011, 45% of ultra-Orthodox men participated in the labour force, up from 38% in 2009 and 30% in 2007, whilst ultra-Orthodox female participation remained steady at 60% over that period. In fact, these changes in workforce participation stem from a decade’s worth of government carrot and stick policies.
Furthermore, Lyons incorrectly claimed “this is the first time that they haven’t been in a part of a coalition government in Israel in memory.” In fact as noted Israeli journalist Amotz Asa-El has written, over 2003/04 Ariel Sharon “manoeuvred the ultra-Orthodox parties into the opposition for the first time in more than a quarter of a century.”
Meanwhile, Doogue might have been more selective in choosing her words to explain why the program was unable to find any Jewish voices to discuss the topic: “we really tried very hard to have some Jewish representatives join us on the program today but all of them were unavailable. Now, it’s Saturday morning. It’s not easy for Jewish people. But I was quite struck. I know how much they talk about it! [Laughs] I was quite struck by that how they were not prepared to enter the public space. I think it’s exceptionally sensitive.”
It was unclear if Doogue meant that it was difficult to find someone to talk about the issue of the draft or to appear on the radio on Shabbat!
Even among non-observant Jews there is a long-standing reluctance to act as a talking head on behalf of the Jewish community on Shabbat out of respect for the day.
Two days earlier, this time on a Thursday, ABC Radio “PM” host Mark Colvin interviewed the broadcaster’s former Middle East correspondent Tim Palmer on the topic. Apparently no Israeli or local Jewish expert could be found to discuss the issue then either.