Another Missed Opportunity

What could have been an amazing opportunity to reorganize Israeli society and reduce its internal tensions remains a ticking bomb of the type from which not even America can save us.

How typically Israeli: The declaration in February by the High Court of Justice that the Tal Law was unconstitutional was followed, a month and a half later, by the very public entrance, and then quick exit, of Kadima into and out of the government; the disbanding of the Plesner Committee; and the demonstrations demanding that the ultra-Orthodox do military service. Despite all the uproar, the issue of universal military or civilian service has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared from the public discourse.

During the public tumult at the time, no one seemed to notice an incredible thing that has finally emerged: The government of Israel has no realistic future plan for the military draft.

Let’s say the Tal Law, which codified the terms of Haredi draft deferments and options for civilian service, had not been struck down by the High Court; the number of Haredim is constantly growing, the number of Arabs is constantly growing, the economic and social realities keep changing − and still the government hasn’t drawn up any contingency plan. It doesn’t even seem to have an outline, or a smidgen of a thought, about a model for a future draft or a future army. Yes, over the previous decade there have been three committees that examined, inter alia, the issue of compulsory service. But none of their recommendations turned into an action plan.

The issue of drafting or not drafting Haredim into the Israel Defense Forces is just another example of how Israeli governments do not manage the country in any way, shape or form − certainly not with an eye toward the long term. Our leaders are so busy with thoughts of destruction that they ignore the actual terms of our existence. And it’s not as if there would be no place from which to draw inspiration, thought and knowledge, if they so desired.

At the end of 2011 the military sociology section of the Israeli Sociology Society, together with the Open University, conducted a simulation in which I had the privilege of participating. It presented a model for a different type of military draft. Thus, even before the Tal Law was declared unconstitutional in February of this year, different draft models and their ramifications were being debated.

Participants in the simulation included sociologists whose entire careers had been devoted to studying the structure, context, and social significance of the military: Prof. Yagil Levy, Prof. Stuart Cohen, Dr. Orna Sasson-Levy, Dr. Zev Lehrer − as well as experts on Haredi and Arab societies. But not a single decision maker or policymaker was present; neither the IDF Personnel Directorate nor the Defense Ministry director general’s office responded to the invitations they’d been sent.

Last week, the same forum conducted a seminar that examined alternatives for drafting Haredim, following the cancellation of the Tal Law on August 1. Once again, not one official from either the government or the IDF was present. Even if we were to argue that these officials have no time for conferences, it’s still inconceivable that not one of all the above-mentioned experts has ever been invited by a government or security official to contribute his or her knowledge, or to offer an opinion on the issue of IDF conscription. Not before the Tal Law was struck down and not after.

On Friday, Amos Harel reported in Haaretz that at the beginning of August, Defense Minister Ehud Barak had appointed a team to draw up alternatives to the Tal Law. A parallel team was set up in the IDF Personnel Directorate, according to the report. Neither team includes any experts from academia as members. After all, since when does anyone know better than Barak or Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Anyone who knows them must have noticed that they are doing the talking, not the listening.

Over the past two decades, successive Israeli governments have related to academia as the enemy, and officials have regularly denigrated it. Certainly it doesn’t occur to government officials that they might be able to learn a thing or two from its members, to use the vast knowledge that academics have accumulated for the benefit of the state and its citizens.

With regard to this particular issue, in fact, the prime minister would have received the equivalent of a doctor’s note: As it happens, all these researchers believe that the forced draft of Haredim into the IDF is not practical and would be extremely damaging. The prime minister could have gotten an academic stamp of legitimacy, based on the learned opinions of independent experts who certainly are not suspected of preferring inequality. He could have then started to build a program that would serve Israel over the long term, not just during the current period of coalition constraints.

But there’s no need to worry. The director of Hiddush: For Religious Freedom and Equality, Shahar Ilan, was quoted in Harel’s report as saying that these Defense Ministry and IDF teams are aimed primarily at supplying the state with an alibi, in case there are petitions to the High Court of Justice demanding that Haredim be drafted.

Thus, what could have been an amazing opportunity to reorganize Israeli society and reduce its internal tensions, remains a ticking bomb of the type from which not even America can save us.