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The Pros and Cons of Drafting Israel's Ultra-Orthodox

This post is part of our International Relations & Security coverage.

Ultra-Orthodox soldiers in Israel

Israel Defense Forces share a photo on flickr of Ultra-Orthodox soldiers finishing a course in 2010 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Israeli public largely objects to the current policy of allowing ultra-orthodox Jewish youth to avoid army service, but the rule has long been upheld thanks to political power play. Now, for the first time in 18 years, an Israeli prime minister has formed a government without the ultra-orthodox parties and loyal coalition partners Shas and United Torah Judaism, and the policy is up for consideration.

The reason for the surprising exclusion of the ultra-orthodox parties is the meteoric rise of the secular Yesh Atid party, headed by former TV personality and columnist, Yair Lapid.

One of the main focuses of Lapid’s campaign was the demand for an “equal share of the burden” of military service. Meaning, an end to the policy of allowing ultra-orthodox men to avoid army service if they continue their religious studies past the age of 18 with a government stipend, while other Jewish youths are forced to serve in the army at a monthly wage that amounts to pocket money.

Lapid’s success in the polls and his tactical alliance with the Jewish Home party – a party associated with the religious Zionist sector (whose members do serve in the army) – forced Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beytenu party to form a government that will promote the drafting of ultra-orthodox Jews into the army. The ultra-orthodox parties have reacted with horror and even threatened to leave the country en masse if they are drafted.

The anonymous blogger behind Israeli Politics 101 reflects a widespread view in Israel, namely, that integrating ultra-orthodox into national service will also pave their way to integration into the labor force. He writes:

It is important to remember – 29% of children under the age of 6 are Arabs. 30% of the children under the age of 6 in Israel today are ultra-orthodox. Anyone who looks ahead into Israel’s future understands that there is no realistic possibility to continue building the system based solely on the secular Jewish sector and on the religious Zionist sector. In 12 years, they will be a minority whose share in the population will probably continue to decrease. The only way for Israel’s future is re-planning the systems to allow real integration of the Arab and ultra-orthodox sectors.

Leading leftist blogger Yossi Gurvitz, on the other hand, thinks that the neo-liberal parties are raising the issue of “equal sharing of the burden” to distract the public that took to the streets in large numbers to demand social justice in 2011:

Instead of talking about economic equality, we will now talk about “equal sharing of the burden”. The scarecrow of drafting the ultra-orthodox into the IDF will replace, in this new government, the Iranian scarecrow… The drafting of ultra-orthodox will harm everybody. It will cost a great deal of money, it will draft into the army people that the army has no need for – it is suffering from too much manpower even now – and will reverse the standing of women [ultra-orthodox men will only serve in units where genders are segregated – E.T.].. In the end, the IDF will be less combat ready, the military budget will increase by billions [to cover the salaries of the ultra-orthodox and other expenses– E.T.], society will be more militaristic – and it will have much less equality. Under this façade, most of society will continue to become poorer, and the class warfare that Netanyahu is waging will continue to transfer the national wealth from the lower classes to the top 1%.

Ultra-Orthodox social justice activist, Yaacov Lebi [he], thinks staying in the opposition, for once, may benefit the ultra-orthodox community:

As opposed to the handful of politicians and those who have a vested interest in this, the larger ultra-orthodox public will benefit from sitting in the opposition… The ultra-orthodox public will undergo a process of internal and necessary correction and reflection about internal ultra-orthodox problems and the relations between the ultra-orthodox and the State and the rest of its citizens.

Previous attempts by centrist-secular parties, including the party Shinui, headed by Yair Lapid’s father, were unsuccessful and Prime Minister Netanyahu has no interest in changing the status quo and alienating his trusted allies. However, he may be pressured to do just that.

ISN logoThis post and its translations to Spanish, Arabic and French were commissioned by the International Security Network (ISN) as part of a partnership to seek out citizen voices on international relations and security issues worldwide. This post was first published on the ISN blog, see similar stories here.

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