A Uniform Approach? Far From It

While singer Ivri Lider is asked to declare his support for the IDF, the state is busy allocating millions of shekels to non-Zionist youth groups that distance young people from army service

It's easier to cancel the participation of singer Ivri Lider in the salute to the Israel Defense Forces because he didn't complete his military service (due, his agent says, to health reasons), than to deal with the Tal Committee's recommendations to exempt thousands of young ultra-Orthodox men each year from service. It's much sexier to prevent youth idol Aviv Gefen from presenting the "Night Owls" program on Army Radio, than to invest in assisting marginal youth so that they'll reach the IDF induction center instead of the office of registry at the Israel Prisons Service. It's cheaper to attack film and theater actors who didn't complete their military service than to contribute to secular Zionist youth movements, for whom completing army service is a primary principle.

Lider's performance was cancelled because he rejected the demand of Chief IDF Education Officer Brigadier General Eli Shermeister to sign a document that states, among other things, that he "loves the IDF and respects its values and wants to perform in front of soldiers as his reserve duty." Had the popular singer enlisted in the Chabad movement, grown earlocks and placed a black skullcap on his head, not only would he receive a legal exemption from service: The country would recognize him as a member of a youth movement and give him generous financial support.

In such cases, the youth movement leader - excuse me, the rabbi - is supposed to ensure that his or her movement's constitution considers service in the IDF and the security forces, or national service of at least two years, or structured volunteer work, as being of primary educational-national value, which reflects the contribution of every citizen from every sector to the good of all the citizens of the state.

The sting lies, of course, in the bit about "structured volunteer work." This is an addition that was sewn to order in March 2005, in the Education and Justice Ministries, to suit the dimensions of ultra-Orthodox institutions. It enables Chabad and other non-Zionist movements that effectively distance youths from the IDF, to benefit from the amendment supporting youth movements.

According to the Israel Council of Youth Movements (ICYM), 20 percent of all financial support allocated to youth movements is, in fact, given to organizations that are not youth movements, are not Zionist and do not meet the accepted criteria (as compared to only 3 percent in 1992). As a result, the movements have been forced to cut back on almost a quarter of their budgets. The council petitioned the High Court of Justice in the late 1990s against the Education Ministry's decision to recognize several ultra-Orthodox movements as youth movements and to fund them accordingly. One of them was the Bnos Agudath Yisrael (the girls' youth movement of the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Yisrael), whose constitution does not mention military service or alternative national service, as stipulated in the regulations, or identification with Israeli values such as Zionism and democracy.

Mishael Cheshin, deputy president of the Supreme Court at the time, did not conceal his opinion about the claim by the Education Ministry that Bnos Agudath Israel had changed its constitution as required: "And did the respondent change its skin from one day to the next? And did the respondent change from a Torah movement to a Zionist movement that educates its children for military service and national service? We did not hear from it even a hint about the fact that it has changed its ways."

'Zionist pioneering'

One can guess what the bottom line was in Cheshin's decision. However, the government ministries quickly prepared a constitution that bypassed the High Court ruling. The Education Ministry demanded that the ICYM change its constitution. The sentence "the ICYM will develop cooperation with the IDF in order to educate the youth for pioneering" was omitted. The old constitution had stated that the council "will educate its members toward Zionist pioneering, according to the best Zionist tradition"; the new one stated that it "will educate its members toward pioneering, according to the best tradition and heritage."

The Justice Ministry spokesman's response, when asked about this recently: "The support of the Education Ministry for the youth movements and the youth-movement umbrella organizations is based on certain criteria for financial aid. The criteria were determined by a public committee headed by Prof. Rina Shapira, after consultation with members of the public, including representatives of all the youth movements. The Education Ministry and the Justice Ministry did not demand that the ICYM change its constitution. The council, like any body that receives support, is obliged to adapt its activity to these criteria, if it wishes to receive government support.

"This minimal demand was designed to guarantee significant representation of the youth movements in the council. The claim that the values of Zionism and service in the IDF are not acceptable to the Justice Ministry and the Education Ministry is not correct. Special support was granted to youth movements that prepare their members to serve in the IDF or to participate in national service, as well as to movements that educate their members to identify with the values of the Israeli Declaration of Independence. The Justice Ministry did not at any stage reexamine the wording of the constitution of the ICYM and the degree to which it suits the relevant criteria."

This response infuriates the secretary general of Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed (working and studying youth), Pesach Hausfater. He claims that it was the Justice Ministry that conditioned budgetary support for the ICYM on the inclusion of organizations that are opposed to Zionism and to military service. "The Justice Ministry forced the removal of the values of Zionism and meaningful service in the IDF from the council's constitution," he says, "by means of legal tactics that reflect an ethical viewpoint that opposes the values of Zionism and military service."

Hausfater claims that the Justice Ministry also opposed an alternative that would have made it possible to preserve frameworks that educate toward significant IDF service and Zionism, and in addition to having a council that includes all the youth organizations. "The opposition to this alternative is proof positive that this is an ideological stance," says Hausfater. "The Israeli government is adopting a double standard: On the one hand, it demands that youth do significant service in the IDF, and on the other, it undermines groups that educate youth toward these important values."