Haredi protest - Shiran Granot - 26.6.2012
Haredi men attend a protest against the Tal law in Jerusalem, June 25, 2012. Photo by Shiran Granot
Text size

The debate over the so-called Tal law regulating Haredi enlistment to the army goes beyond the scope of coalition disputes, touching upon the underlying foundations of Israeli identity. The call to enlist Haerdim and Israeli Arabs to the military, or to civilian service, exposes a reality in which the Israel Defense Forces is no longer a "melting pot," becoming instead a site of divisions, disagreement and tribal quarrels. That's the issue at stake, not whether Vice Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz was snubbed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or whether Kadima will or won't stay in the government.

The change in the IDF's social status and function stems from the rising power of the Arab and Haredi minorities, which are exempt from obligatory military service, and which have low employment rates. In order to remain economically viable, Israel has to do more to introduce Arabs and Haredim into the job market (updated data concerning Haredi employment, and the danger it poses to Israel's future can be found in Meirav Arlosoroff's article). But this move to integrate has its price: Both Haredi and Arab populations, left out of the national ethos back from the time of former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, won't accept that ethos' rules – they won't give up their privileges, with the exemption from military service topping that list.

The growing influence of minorities on Israeli society increases the pressure on the secular and national-religious "mainstream," which has been carrying the loads of both military service and taxes. That's the driving force behind the public debate in Israeli society in recent years. That's what led Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's right-wing government to initiate a wave of anti-Arab legislation and to the waving of the "Jewish state" banner, in an attempt to hold on to an identity that has been fraying since the days of the early Jewish settlement and the State of Israel's onset. That's what sent the Ashkenazi middle class into the public squares and streets last summer, in an attempt to retain the position of power it had forever lost. And that is what is leading Mofaz and Yair Lapid to target the Haredim, and Netanyahu to follow suit. All of these struggles bear the same fruit: nothing at all. No amount of political verbiage can deal with the demographic shift and its implications on Israeli identity.

The identity debate is also affecting the IDF's character. With most of Israel's youth – Haredi, Arab, religious and traditional women, the physically challenged, felons, and plain old draft dodgers - exempt from military service, it becomes harder and harder to hold on to the tired old slogans, such as "the people's army" and "melting pot." And this trend will only gain momentum in the coming years. Most of the children in lower elementary-school classes are Haredi and Arab, the immigration from Israel abroad is made up mostly of seculars, and the overall enlistment rate will only go down. The people's army will become the minority's army.

What can be done? Mainstream politicians, headed by Netanyahu, have been looking for a formula that would allow them to drag on the old lie of the "shared burden" for a several more years. Haredim and Arabs don't want to enlist? Let them go to "civilian service" – a euphemism for forced labor – or "community service," meaning the same situation existing today, only sanctioned by the state. And if reaching such a formula is impossible, you threaten to "use the security service act." Come on. No one really thinks that the boys of Sachnin and Ramat Beir Shemesh will be hunted down and transported to the enlistment bureau. It hasn't happened, and it won't happen.

But there is another way of achieving a shared burden – removing it. Striking down mandatory military service, and turning the IDF into a professional army that will enlist only those who desire to do so. The army would then have to compete with other employers over the quality recruits, to pay them a real salary. The social makeup of the military will be determined by the market's needs: if there will be Haredim and Arabs that want to serve, instead of having a civilian job or of studies in the yeshiva or in the university, and they will meet the requirements of those positions that need filling, they'll wear uniform. Just as in all the western democracies, the same Israel prides in comparing itself to.

The IDF website writes that the IDF's goal is to "protect the existence, integrity, and sovereignty of the State of Israel, as well as the wellbeing of its citizens, and to thwart enemy efforts to disrupt normal life." It doesn't say that the army's purpose is to bring about an egalitarian Israeli society, to enlist most young men and women to its ranks, or to safeguard the coalition. The stated purpose of defending the state can be achieved with a professional army, one that, by default, will be more efficient than its current form, overburdened by unnecessary administrative soldiers. A similar bid at efficiency forced on reserves units a few years ago greatly reduced the burden, and placed the final seal on the grave of such ancient slogans such as "the people is in the reserves" and "every Israeli is a soldier, that has an eleven-month leave every year."

There are some substantial arguments to support the continuation of obligatory service: the ability to choose the pick out of all of the graduating high-school classes to flight school, elite units, and to intelligence; or the participation of society's social and economic elites in the burden of mandatory and reserve service, as well as in the danger of being killed, wounded, or taken captive. Those justifications, however, must be placed against the demographic facts, which are turning the IDF into the "obligatory army for some" or "the army excluding Haredim and Arabs."

The fiction that is "the people's army" is so entrenched in Israel that a debate regarding the professional alternative doesn't even exist. Journalist Ofer Shelah's 2003 book "The Platter and the Money" [a play on a quote from Israeli poet Natan Alterman, which compares soldiers to a silver palter, on which the State of Israel is served to its citizens], was almost a lone voice regarding this possibility. None of the politicians now flapping their jaws has raised this simple solution. It's a shame that they would prefer empty, populist slogans over a fundamental debate concerning the change of the mode of service, in the cancellation of mandatory enlistment and in the formation of a professional army in its stead. That would be a first and evident step toward the formation of a new national ethos, one that would include Herdim and Arabs.