For Israelis, bringing teenage sons and daughters barely out of high school to the army induction center to begin their compulsory military service is one of the most fraught and difficult realities of life. Underlying the cheerful, almost celebratory sendoff is the terrifying possibility of one day being forced to join the crowds at Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery, part of the growing “family” who have paid the ultimate price for living in the world’s only Jewish country.
Ever since the nascent State of Israel agreed in 1948 in return for Orthodox support not to draft 400 yeshiva students—a number that by 2012 had risen to an astounding 58,000—the unequal sharing of the burden of military service has become an ever more toxic and explosive element in Israeli public life. In the 1980s, religious Zionists (in American terms, Modern Orthodox) voluntarily chose to obligate their yeshiva sons to join the army. Not so the haredim, who zealously guard their exemption and are deaf to all entreaties to compromise. Today, that intransigence threatens to bring down the government, exploiting a political system in which haredi parties hold a stranglehold on that issue.
It’s not the first time a compromise has failed. In 1999, political impotence resulting from that system led the High Court of Justice to rule that army exemptions for yeshiva students were illegal and to demand a solution. The resulting Tal Law—requiring yeshiva students who dropped out of their studies by age 22 to serve a scant four months in the army or do a year of national service—infuriated everyone. It also had little effect, ignored by both yeshiva students and the IDF, which was accused of not wanting the students anyway. By 2012, complainants who wanted haredim to serve were back at the High Court, which ruled that the Tal Law (by then expired) had indeed failed and again demanded legislative action.
A historic turning point came in 2014 when the Yesh Atid party, led by journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid, ran on the platform of “sharing the burden” and gained enough votes to form a Likud-led government without haredi coalition partners. The Equal Service bill that year would have severely curtailed yeshiva student deferments and created criminal penalties for those caught draft dodging. The bill passed, but the victory was short-lived. When Lapid left the government for unrelated reasons and new elections were held, haredi parties regained their place in the governing coalition and—inevitably—demanded that all the deferments be reinstated.
The High Court stepped in, ruling yet again that exemptions granted to haredim were discriminatory and giving the government a year to pass new legislation. After many delays, and having been refused a further extension, the government of Benjamin Netanyahu has finally come up with the following: minimum yearly targets for ultra-Orthodox conscription that, if not met, would result in financial sanctions on the yeshivas. With the target for 2018 a mere 3,100 men, rising by 5 to 8 percent every year and reaching only 6,844 by 2027, no one is happy, and the bill itself seems to predict failure: If rates do not reach 85 percent of the yearly target in any three successive years after 2019, it stipulates, the agreement will be canceled. The bill does not detail what the penalties for such cancellation would be.
Lapid, now in the opposition, nevertheless voted in favor of this watered-down bill in a first vote, saving the government from downfall when its haredi coalition partners refused to cooperate. But haredi leaders have refused to back the bill publicly (despite privately expressing satisfaction with it). Their reluctance can be traced to the fears of an entrenched and aging leadership, under siege by the internet and social media, making a doomed last stand against inevitable change. Ironically, it is the aged Hasidic rebbe of Gur, whose United Torah Judaism party holds six Knesset seats, who will decide whether the modern State of Israel’s government stands or falls.
But not everyone is convinced the gap is unbridgeable. When I sat down to discuss this great divide with my former yeshiva student son Akiva, who voluntarily did full army service, he surprised me with the view that “the people who want to see a law passed in which yeshiva students are handcuffed and led to jail, and the people who want to permanently exempt yeshiva students from any access to the army’s secular environment for fear they won’t come home are in the minority.” The trend among haredim, he insists, is to voluntarily enlist: the Nachal Haredi, an army unit made up entirely of former yeshiva students, is growing and is a highly trained and successful combat unit.
A 2017 “Statistical Report on Ultra-Orthodox Society in Israel” from the Israel Democracy Institute offers hard evidence of this trend. In 2016, despite the repeal of the “Equal Burden” Law, 34 percent of graduates of the ultra-Orthodox education system—some 3,500 men—enlisted in the IDF or joined a civilian national service framework.
But what of the other 66 percent? As Israel struggles with how best to bring thousands of its haredi citizens into the fold as equal participants in the life of the country, both in the army and in the workforce, it remains to be seen which strategy—draconian laws fraught with criminal penalties or the present mild and accommodating slap-on–the-wrist approach—will do the trick. What is clear, though, is that mainstream political opinion, even on the right, no longer supports the inequality of the status quo. Sooner or later, haredim will no longer be standing on the sidelines, removed from the realities of citizenship—including that day at the induction center.
Naomi Ragen is a playwright and novelist living in Jerusalem.