by Shmuel Rosner
With the draft law rolled back, Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox aren’t likely to serve in the military.
I first met Itay Ben Horin last December. A strategic-media consultant and public relations manager, he wanted to talk about his personal journey as a leading advocate for mandatory military service for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox youngsters.
His book on this journey was published at the end of May—just weeks after a new Israeli government was formed—by the publishing house Kinneret-Zmora-Dvir, where I am an editor. It was perfect timing, for the discussion of this issue is at a critical juncture.
As a protestor and activist, Ben Horin was fighting to end an Israeli arrangement that long ago became a travesty. Young haredi men are exempt from military service, as long as they study in a yeshiva. When Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, agreed to these exemptions, their number was small—a few hundred. Today the military exemption covers more than 50,000 haredi men. Legally questionable—so says the court. Unpopular—so say the polls. Unfair—so says common sense.
And yet the new Israeli governing coalition, which includes haredi parties, has agreed to scale back all measures that aim to end this arrangement. The haredi parties’ support was essential to forming a coalition, and their non-negotiable price was canceling a draft law agreed to by the previous government. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gladly agreed to pay the price. He was never enthusiastic in the first place about passing harsh legislation to encourage a haredi draft. But make no mistake: Labor leader Yitzhak Herzog would have agreed to pay the same price to become prime minister.
In Israel, everyday politics currently plays to the advantage of haredi parties. They are needed in almost every coalition and so can get away with a great deal. For the haredi draft exemption to end, one of three things has to happen: either Israeli voters make it a high priority (politicians understand what the voters truly care about); a crisis with the existing IDF draft makes the current arrangement no longer sustainable; or the haredi themselves gradually and voluntarily alter their ways.
The new Israeli coalition, in which the haredi play a major role, will test all three of these possible roads to change.
Obviously, the leaders of Israel’s new coalition do not believe that their surrender on the draft, or on nearly all the other haredi demands, will be politically costly for them. That is a test for Israel’s voters.
The coalition’s leaders also don’t think a crisis is coming. That is a test for society and for activists such as Ben Horin, who need to carefully ponder their strategy. Do they want to bring about a crisis as the only way to change things? Radical elements within the pro-haredi draft movement occasionally toy with such ideas: What if, for instance, 10,000 reservists were to announce that they will no longer serve?
But most of all it is a much-needed test for the theory that change in Israel’s haredi society will come from within—that Israel would be better off encouraging existing trends of haredi integration, in the military and in Israel’s economic life, not by coercion but by positive inducement.
Haredi politicians and pundits argue for this theory. They prefer a change through dialogue, they say. One is free to interpret this as either an acknowledgment of the need for change or a ploy for blocking it. Most likely, for some haredi leaders it is the former, and for others it is the latter.
Haredi leaders aren’t the only ones who promote this theory of voluntary change from within. Two years ago, the Yesh Atid party pressured the government—then in a coalition without haredi parties—to pass a draft law making it a criminal offense for young haredis not to accept the call for military service. But politicians such as Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked opposed criminalization of haredi draft-dodging at the time, so they have little problem in letting the haredi parties have it their way this time.
These leaders argued back then that haredi society is becoming more open to serving in the military and that criminalizing draft-dodging will simply stiffen the resistance to change. Haredi youth, they said and still say, want to work and stand on their own economic feet; they identify with Zionist ideals and want to be part of Israel’s larger society, and they understand that their new status as a significant and powerful minority comes with responsibilities. Why not let these internal dynamics play out uninterrupted?
Of course, these leaders may have been and may continue to be engaging in a self-serving fantasy. Or the internal dynamics may be real and yet still not lead to any significant increase in the number of haredi in the military. It is possible that the haredi world is ready for economic betterment but not for sharing the burden of military life. It is also possible that haredi leaders are shrewder than their non-haredi counterparts and are leading them by the nose.
Most likely, the leaders of the current coalition want to believe in uncoerced change because that is the only way to have a coalition and also to look in the mirror without shame at caving to haredi demands.
All these suspicions make people like me weary of Israel’s new ruling coalition. How nice it would be, though, if the new coalition proves us all wrong. How nice it would be to discover that Ben Horin was wrong to write, at the conclusion of his book, that many more years could pass before we see an end to this battle for a fair share of the burden.
Shmuel Rosner is a Tel Aviv-based columnist and researcher. He is also chief nonfiction editor for Kinneret-Zmora-Dvir, which published Itay Ben Horin’s book.