One Nation, One Barak

Barak must act, not talk. He must bring about the cancelation of the Tal Law; without an equal draft for everyone, the moral basis for compulsory service will be undermined and draft-dodging will increase.

Ehud Barak set a new record for cynicism this week with his inflammatory speech against draft-dodging. "The Israel Defense Forces is gradually turning from the people's army into the army of half the people," he said. "The time has come to return to the days when serving was a privilege and an honor, and draft-dodging was like bearing the mark of Cain."

If Barak were a publicist or a columnist, he would have earned plaudits. But Barak is the very heart of the establishment. For years, he was at the center of Israel's decision-making, as chief of staff, minister and prime minister. He does not have the privilege of making lofty statements like a critic from the sidelines. His job is to do something. That is how he will be judged.

When he ran for prime minister in 1999, he coined the slogan "one nation, one draft." Many innocents voted for him out of the belief that he would keep his promise. But after beating Benjamin Netanyahu, Barak handed the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) their greatest victory ever: the Tal Committee, which gave legal backing to the most prevalent form of draft-dodging - Haredi draft-dodging.

Therefore, it takes no small degree of chutzpah to speak of combat soldiers who "feel like suckers" and are not sufficiently appreciated. After all, they feel this way because 50,000 young men just like them, who are just as healthy and just as talented, are enrolled in yeshivas (enrolled, not necessarily learning) and being "killed" in the tents of Torah, while they are being wounded and killed in defense of their country.

There is also draft-dodging among the secular, but on a much scaller scale. It is admittedly upsetting to see the new cultural icons - dime-a-dozen models and singers who evaded army service - but that is not the norm. The vast majority of both secular and religious Zionist youths are drafted and complete their full service.

Among the Haredim, 100 percent do not serve, whereas among the secular and the religious Zionists, only 17 percent fail to serve. Some are not drafted because they have health problems or criminal records, or reside overseas. Granted, there has been a worrying rise in the number of people who evade the draft by lying about the state of their health (mainly their psychological health); nevertheless, the vast majority - 83 percent - do serve and bear the burden.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, the IDF is interested in having the Haredim: The army is short on combat soldiers, combat support soldiers and logistics specialists. Major General Elazar Stern, head of the IDF Personnel Directorate, says he would like an extra battalion of Haredi conscripts, which would enable the army to forgo calling up 15 battalions of reservists a year. Reservists would be called up only for training, and would not have to engage in operational activity.

There is no halakhic problem with serving in the IDF. On the contrary, the Jewish sources state that during an obligatory war - a war for our existence - everyone must go out and fight, even "the groom from his wedding canopy."

There is also inequality of service in the hesder yeshivas (which combine Torah studies with army service). Hesder students serve for only 16 months, instead of the normal 36 months. In recent years, a growing number of yeshiva high school graduates have been choosing the hesder route instead of regular military service, which has reduced the IDF's manpower.

Therefore, we need to return to basic principles: "one nation, one draft," no exceptions. Haredim and hesder students also must serve 36 months, with no breaks or discounts. At the same time, however, we must raise conscripts' wages, which are disgracefully low.

The IDF is still the melting pot of Israeli society. Only there can a young man from Tel Aviv share a tent with a kibbutz member or a resident of the periphery. Only there can "Russians," "Ethiopians" and yuppies race together over the hills in squad exercises. There is no reason why Haredim and hesder students should not enter this melting pot fully.

Therefore, Barak must act, not talk. He must bring about the cancelation of the Tal Law and the true implementation of the Compulsory Service Law. Anyone who thinks this is impossible must understand that without an equal draft for everyone, the moral basis for compulsory service will be undermined, draft-dodging will increase, the desire to serve in combat units will decline and the IDF will cease being the people's army - which would endanger our very existence.