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Israel's draft expansion reveals deep rifts

Israel’s government is deciding whether to require ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs to serve in the military. takes a closer look at a debate that has deepened rifts and opened wounds.


A political crisis concerning who must serve in Israel’s military is turning into a fierce debate about Israeli identity, exposing deep rifts over religion, gender, money, and patriotism within the Mideast country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has until August 1 to determine whether draft exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs - deemed unconstitutional by a high court earlier this year - should be discarded or modified.

Most men and women in Israel begin their compulsory two- or three-year military service at age 18, but the most strict Orthodox Jews, as well as Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, are not required to enlist.

Few expect the draft exemption for Israeli Arabs to be reversed, though far-right Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a champion of universal military enlistment, has pushed hard in that direction. Rather, the most widely supported proposal would see Israeli Arabs, roughly 20% of Israel’s population, required to participate in some sort of national community service.

But the ultra-Orthodox minority has presented Netanyahu with a tricky quandary: several factions in his coalition – including the centrist Kadima party - have demanded that the bulk of exemptions be thrown out, while Netanyahu’s longstanding ultra-Orthodox allies are pressing him to uphold them.

Ultra-Orthodox ‘freeloaders’?

The prime minister has also faced the ire of the Israeli people, most of whom are furious at what they see as the ultra-Orthodox community’s refusal to share the burden of national defence; last weekend, 20,000 Israelis marched in Tel Aviv to call for immediate action.

“Military service in Israel is not a passive service. Israeli soldiers die all the time,” said Natan Sachs, a specialist in Israeli domestic politics at Washington-based think tank the Brookings Institution. “There is a sense among the majority that this segment of the population does not share in the sacrifice of service or the bereavement of soldiers’ families, both of which are central to the Israeli experience.”

Sachs, a Jerusalem native, specified that the call for at least ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to join the military is the “rare consensus issue among Israel’s secular and modern Orthodox Jews [those who pursue a compromise between Jewish law and secular, modern values]”.

The military service exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews was implemented in the late 1940s, soon after the state of Israel was created. Then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion struck a deal with a small assembly of rabbis allowing them and their congregation to forgo enlistment to pursue an uninterrupted, lifelong study of traditional Jewish texts – a practice nearly wiped out by the Holocaust.

But what was once a small group swelled over time to form a 700,000-strong, poverty-stricken underclass - roughly 10% of the Israeli population - dependent on state subsidies that permit them to continue their studies without having to work. Because they don’t join the military and the work force, instead remaining in school and on welfare for their entire lives, the rest of Israeli society resents the ultra-Orthodox as “freeloaders”, said Idan Gazit, a 33-year-old Web developer in Tel Aviv.

Moreover, the ultra-Orthodox (also called “Haredim”, which means “those who tremble before God” in Hebrew) are highly dogmatic, known for lashing out at secular Israelis who do not adhere to their strict doctrines - including the separation of sexes in public buses and mandatory modest attire for women.

“The ultra-Orthodox are a practically disjoint society,” Gazit said. “They have zero culture overlap with other Israelis, and even their speech and mannerisms are often incomprehensible to the average Israeli.”

Ultra-Orthodox politicians have argued that religious studies are as important a contribution to Israeli defence as the army. But according to Natan Sachs, the real concern among the community’s leaders is that the military - meant to be a melting pot of Israeli society in which Jews of different backgrounds form lasting friendships – would corrupt ultra-Orthodox soldiers. “Ultra-Orthodox worry that if their young men join the military, they will be exposed to secular values that could destroy their sheltered world,” Sachs explained.

That process could indeed represent a shift toward a more unified, integrated Israeli society, an objective many legislators consider crucial to Israel’s future. “If ultra-Orthodox join the army, and later the work force, barriers would be broken down and lines blurred between the different Jewish communities in Israel: secular, those who practice a little, traditional, modern Orthodox, and ultra-Orthodox,” Sachs said.

The push for ultra-Orthodox men to enlist is also a pragmatically motivated effort to cut expenses. “If they were allowed to join the army and then the work force like everyone else, it would alleviate a lot of their poverty and the cost that poses to the state,” Sachs said.

Tiptoeing around the Israeli Arab question

After initially appearing to cave to pressure from ultra-Orthodox leaders, Netanyahu has now expressed support for a law requiring all Israeli citizens to do either military or community service.

The community service proposal is thought to be aimed mainly at Israeli Arabs, for whom the notion of Israeli military service is a non-starter. One Arab lawmaker in Israeli parliament, Ahmad Tibi, said on an Israeli radio station last weekend that Israel’s Arab citizens – who largely identify as Palestinian, despite having Israeli nationality – would not consider sharing the military burden until there was equality in Israel.

“Most Israelis understand why Israeli Arabs would not want to serve,” Sachs said. “They feel they don’t get their fair share of state resources and should therefore not be asked to participate in the same duties. And it would be very difficult, identity-wise, for them to serve in an army where most of the conflict is with other Arabs.”

For Abdel Fattah Talab Iskafi, a 28-year-old Israeli Arab salesman in East Jerusalem, enlisting in the Israeli army would be “the worst possible thing” Israel could demand of his community. “We can’t even imagine doing that, and almost every Israeli Arab will tell you the same thing,” Iskafi confided.

Iskafi said he would be open, however, to civilian service in an Israeli hospital, police station, or office in his community. “If it’s just dealing with humans, and there’s nothing military, maybe it’s not a bad idea,” said Iskafi, who noted that he knows and talks to many Israeli Jews in everyday life, but “cannot call them friends”.

A 2011 poll showed that only 40% of Israeli Arab youth said they were willing to do community service in Israel. “It’s not easy for us to work with [Israeli Jews],” Iskafi offered. “We can’t just…act as if there is nothing between us.”

Many experts predict that there will be some form of compulsory community service for Israeli Arabs in the future, but that lawmakers may punt on that for now. As for ultra-Orthodox Jews, Sachs said the law will likely offer them a compromise preserving certain exemptions and allowing enlistment at 22 instead of 18 years old.

Some Israelis - Gazit one of them - feel it might even be a better idea to have ultra-Orthodox, like Israeli Arabs, do community service rather than enlist in the military. “It would put them more in touch with the society they are ostensibly a part of,” Gazit said. “But it's never going to happen. This is the Middle East, land of the status quo.”

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