Opinion |

It's Time to Replace the Draft With a Professional Army

Israel’s ‘people’s army’ is being torn apart by efforts to meet the competing, contradictory goals of sexual equality and religious rights

Uri Misgav
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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protest against new military conscription legislation in Bnei Brak, July 2018.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men protest against new military conscription legislation in Bnei Brak, July 2018.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Uri Misgav

The “people’s army” is falling apart. Secular liberals cannot continue to serve in it. More and more of them will seek a way out. The host of recent examples of religious coercion and the protest they have sparked represent a blessed awakening of the secular mule, but also highlight the fact that there is no lasting solution on the horizon.

There are two moves being promoted by secular liberals that clash head-on in the Israel Defense Forces: equal opportunity for women and equal recruitment of ultra-Orthodox men. These represent conflicting values. There cannot be a mass conscription of Haredim, religious Zionists and Haredi Zionists (so-called Hardalim) while also protecting the rights and dignity of women in the army. To be frank, it is already impossible to defend the rights and dignity of liberal secularists, male or female.

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The balance was upset long ago. The bridge is always one-way. In Israel in 2018, to “consider” and “avoid offending” the religiously observant, one must oppress and trample on secular liberals. One must impose on them extreme kashrut rules and bizarre Shabbat edicts; exclude and humiliate female soldiers; forbid them to sing or to wear shorts in physical education lessons or white T-shirts during training; force soldiers to wear pants and long sleeves in the pool during a summer field day — the pool remained empty despite the heat. This is the reality, and efforts to whitewash it won’t change it.

Beneath the storm over religious coercion is a deep rift. The overlap may not be total, but in broad terms it could be described as a conflict between Judea and Israel. That rift has simply been reproduced in the Israel Defense Forces — and it is no wonder that such a thing happens as long as it is defined as the people’s army. Just as the state will not be able to contain this conflict over time, nor will the IDF.

The melting pot is dead. The seams are fast unraveling. There is a price to pay for religious ultranationalist tyranny, for the wild behavior of the populist, pro-Netanyahu right, for the constant capitulation to Haredi whims. The price is that secular liberals are having an increasingly hard time finding their place in the IDF, particularly in the ground forces. They do not identify with those forces being turned into a police force, whose primary mission is to protect the occupation and the settlements. In the long term, they certainly won’t agree to serve under the jackboot of religious coercion, nor to suffer abuse from kashrut supervisors or the benighted, misogynist humiliations of the students of the premilitary academy in Eli and similar institutions.

Nor will they continue to be suckers and enlist while their kippa-wearing peers receive exemptions, shortened service tracks and other benefits. Secular liberals have begun flocking to the air force and to Military Intelligence, or looking for ways to avoid military service altogether — at best, by doing civilian national service; at worst, by obtaining a medical exemption.

Social processes take time and there are always detours, fluctuations and exceptions. These make it difficult to see the overall picture and help those who prefer to bury their heads in the sand. But the direction is clear, and it has a political-diplomatic significance, which is also convenient to ignore right now: A ground army based on religious and nationalist soldiers, who are responsible for perpetuating the occupation and the settlements, some of whom grew up in them or live in them, will not do its part if circumstances change and an order is given to withdraw and evacuate.

We are thus faced with a ticking bomb from every perspective. The only way to neutralize it is to move quickly to a totally different model, giving up the compulsory draft and building a professional, efficient and economical army that will function alongside tracks for national and civilian service. Responsible politicians should have been dealing with this from morning to night, instead of passing stupid nation-state bills or worrying about scandalous tax benefits for the prime minister and his family.

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