Reconciling Conscription

When the ultra-Orthodox dodge army service, they create severe discrimination and hurt Israel's security.

At the end of 2000, the ultra-Orthodox Degel Hatorah daily Yated Ne'eman published a flustered apology: "Unfortunately, in the Friday edition an ad appeared that has no place in Yated Ne'eman," it read. The problem was neither immodesty nor leavening, as the paper clarified: "The ad was sent by a group that seeks reconciliation between the secular and the religious," the paper explained, shocked at itself. "We apologize to readers for the mishap. Steps have been taken so it will not recur."

And what is so dangerous about reconciliation? "We must clarify," the paper wrote, "that any Jew who believes in the 13 Articles of Faith can never acquire a friendship with those who deny faith in the Creator of the world... We can never forget nor can we reconcile with secularism, which moved hundreds of thousands of children from religious education to an education of forced conversion from Judaism through deception and corruption."

This year, the ultra-Orthodox monthly Lamishpacha revealed in its Passover edition that President Shimon Peres wants to use the 60th Independence Day for an Orthodox-secular reconciliation initiative. According to Lamishpacha, Peres told rabbis Israel Meir Lau and Yitzak David Grossman that he would turn "first of all to the secular people. Before coming with complaints to the ultra-Orthodox and to others, let's examine ourselves before preaching to others. After all, we're the majority. This is no way to behave - with disrespect, with lack of restraint." Three weeks earlier, at the Weizmann Institute, Peres said that "the secular public must stop treating the ultra-Orthodox public with contempt."

In the ultra-Orthodox press, secular people are regularly presented as animals, beasts and cockroaches. The president should also remember how much respect the ultra-Orthodox showed gay people (usually expressed by the word "beasts"), and to Reform Jews (the usual term is "clowns"). Thus to ask secular people to stop denigrating the ultra-Orthodox is like asking battered women to show tolerance toward their aggressive husbands.

The truth is that Peres himself can attest more than anyone else, from first-hand knowledge, to the amount of tolerance the ultra-Orthodox show to the secular. He has done so much for them, they owe him so much, and any time he really needs them (at least until the last presidential elections), they preferred Likud. That happened in the "stinking trick" in 1990, the 1996 elections, and the presidential elections in 2000. They were not prepared to forgive him his Mapai heritage, and in Shas they did not forgive his Ashkenazi origin. "The ultra-Orthodox told me, cast your bread on the water," Peres would complain. "I cast entire bakeries."

Above all, his excellency the president should remember that the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, which he expects secular people to respect, is no theoretical matter for the secular community. When the ultra-Orthodox avoid studying math, English and civics, they sabotage Israeli democracy and economy. When the ultra-Orthodox dodge army service, they create severe discrimination and hurt Israel's security. When the ultra-Orthodox shirk work, they contribute to Israel's decline to employment patterns typical of the developing world. The damage caused by these phenomena is worsening. The draft rate is constantly falling, and Israeli society can no longer bear the outcome.

His excellency President Peres is right: There is an urgent need for reconciliation, because otherwise we can expect confrontation, forced draft and a terrible rift that will make disengagement pale in comparison.

However, this reconciliation should be achieved by persuading the ultra-Orthodox to agree to a quota of yeshiva students who will not be drafted, to accept the core curriculum and to recognize that at least some of them should work. This is not a matter of multiculturalism that can be solved only by tolerance. This is about exploitation and discrimination, and they are real. There can be no reconciliation without drafting at least some of the ultra-Orthodox. The president, and especially the ultra-Orthodox, should understand this before it is too late for all of us.