Put Everyone in the Same Tent

The only true way to share the burden of Israeli national service is equally. This is also an effective way to close gaps and to reduce prejudice and hatred among different population groups.

How much money is the life of a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces worth? It's tough to quantify that. Should the value be set in accordance with how high a salary he could have earned had he lived? With the tremendous pain his death has inflicted on members of his family? Or perhaps with the loss accrued to the country and to society at large?

The committee tasked with drawing up new draft guidelines, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disbanded yesterday, had a chance to pin a monetary value on a soldier's life. Indeed, an argument took place among members of the Plesner committee over the question of what sanctions should be imposed on ultra-Orthodox men who refuse to either enlist in the army or perform national service. The committee wanted a fine of NIS 90,000. That, apparently, is how much an IDF soldier's life is worth. With NIS 90,000 you can buy an exemption. Is there any better deal than that?

But that calculus was undermined when the committee explained that NIS 90,000 is the amount yeshiva students receive from the state for spending five years in yeshiva. That means a yeshiva student who had to pay the fine would merely be returning the money he had received by the time he turned 23. If that's the case, then the life of a soldier is worth nothing. Isn't that sad?

This absurdity results from the committee's attempt to square the circle: to satisfy everyone and keep Kadima in the coalition. With that in mind, it made several complicated proposals recommending a foreshortened form of military service. The committee also proposed allowing Haredim to perform national service in lieu of serving in the army, which would give them the license to continue allowing their secular and religious Zionist counterparts to be the beasts of burden who bear the risk of being killed or wounded while protecting the homeland. Because everyone should be aware that the ultra-Orthodox greatly cherish life, though they are willing to make an exception and have soldiers fight to the last drop of blood - as long as that blood doesn't belong to the Haredim.

The Plesner committee featured plenty of lofty talk about equitably sharing what is referred to in Hebrew as "the burden" of service, but they actually proposed the opposite, because national service is the opposite of equality. It is evasion. It is an outrageous form of discrimination between one person's blood and another's. How is it even possible to compare those who enlist for three exacting years of military service - especially those who have a good chance of serving in the Golani Brigade, the Paratroopers Brigade or the Armored Corps, where they put their lives at risk on a daily basis - with those who plant flowers or help nursery school teachers or wander around hospitals for a few hours a day, getting time off for the holidays and vacation days while earning more than a soldier doing compulsory service?

A random check carried out recently found that young ultra-Orthodox men performing so-called national service were working as tutors in yeshivas in Bnei Brak. Indeed, it came out during the Plesner committee discussions that Shas leaders are willing to support national service, on condition that it is performed "in the community" - that is to say, in their institutions and under their management. If that happens, it will turn national service into a new pipeline for channeling millions of shekels to the Haredim: not just the NIS 800 for those who register for national service, but the big money that will go toward the Haredi administrators and associations involved in the process. And all of this will go toward activities that are unnecessary and ineffective, whose losses outweigh the benefits.

Some members of the public hold the naive belief that people performing national service will be working as compassionate nurses or brave firefighters and saving lives. How heroic, and what nonsense. Hospitals and fire stations need people who have been properly trained, not forced laborers barely willing to do menial tasks. And if some national service volunteers do wind up doing a good job, they will cause terrible damage if they end up replacing the regular workers, who could end up getting fired because their employers realize they can get someone to do the work for free.

Moreover, forcing citizens to perform national service is undemocratic. The state must not enlist forced labor, paying the workers virtually nothing. That is a violation of the rights of the individual. No country does such a thing. On the other hand, it is permissible for the state to conscript all the youngsters into military service, because that is meant to protect lives. So instead of getting caught up in coming up with a second Tal Law on draft exemptions, whose outcome will be just as bad as the law it is meant to replace, we must adopt the only just solution: Enlist all Jewish (and Druze ) citizens to the IDF at the age of 18, without discriminating among the secular, the religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox.

This is the only true way to share the burden equally. This is also an effective way to close gaps and to reduce prejudice and hatred among different population groups. When secular and religious soldiers, including Haredim, live together in the same tent, the walls between them will automatically fall. I am even willing to bet that if Haredim have to join the army, an impressively large number of them will choose a life of productive employment instead of returning to yeshiva.

But is the government likely to take the initiative on adopting a genuine, honorable solution? As soon as Yisrael Beitenu, Habayit Hayehudi and the Haredim expressed opposition to the Plesner committee recommendations, Netanyahu disbanded the committee. He is not seeking an equitable way to get Israelis to join the army; he just wants to protect his seat in the Prime Minister's Office.