The debate over universal, mandatory military conscription in Israel is heating up. It is a very important debate, which may change the character of the country quite significantly.
Israel has in place universal military conscription for its citizens, men and women, at the age of 18. Until now, there have been a number of categories of exemptions. Military service in Israel is of great importance. Aside from the existential threats that Israel faces on a continual basis, the military plays an important rule in developing networking, leadership skills and employment opportunities for many of Israel's young adults, across class lines. This is discussed at length in Start Up Nation, which I reviewed recently. Those who do not serve in the military or some other form of national service likely face reduced employment prospects and opportunities in Israel. Hence, the development of greater equality in Israeli society, across various lines, is hindered by the large scale exemptions, which have existed until now.
One category has been the ultra-religious ("Haredi") community. At Israel's inception, Israel's founding government agreed to provide an exemption from military service for a limited number of ultra-religious Yeshiva (a Jewish seminary) students, who would devote all of their time to the study of Torah. There was some basis in Jewish law for the institution of this type of arrangement on a limited scale.
However, over the years, the exemption became broader and broader as the Haredi community grew and came to be viewed as a general exemption from military service for all young Haredim who attend a yeshiva. Over time, the effects of this exemption have been dramatic and extremely harmful to Israeli society. The exempt Haredim who choose to study full-time rather than perform national or military service have wound up with significantly limited employment opportunities. This is not only a result of their exemption from national service but also because of the lack of a general studies curriculum in the schools at which they attend. This combination of non-integration with Israeli society and the failure to develop employable skills has led to toxic levels of poverty in the Haredi community. Yet Israeli governments have continued to fund this system due to the nature of Israeli coalition politics and, particularly, the fear of alienating the Ultra-Religious parties.
Recently, Israel's High Court of Justice struck down the law exempting the Haredim and held that equality in Israel would require a completely different apporach. A committee was formed, the Plesner Committee, to institute a replacement law and conscript the Ultra-Orthodox. Yet the religious parties have continued to hold substantial power in Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu has been very reluctant to upset the Haredim by changing the conscription law to include the Ultra-Orthodox community. The media has been filled with reports of extreme statements from members of the Haredi community about intended civil disobedience in the event of mandatory conscription. On-line news channels, such as Ynet News - Op-Ed have printed guest editorials attacking the idea of forcing this change on the Haredi community.
Yet, there is nothing in the Torah, the Talmud or other Jewish sources that would exempt all observant Jews from serving in the military. To the contrary, Jewish sources, historical and biblical, are filled with stories of military events and of the necessity of defending the people and the nation. As the Haredi population continues to grow, its members simply must recognize that they are as responsible for national defence as any other Israelis. They are also responsible for economic self-sustainment and these goals will intertwine. Haredi veterans of the Israeli Defence Forces are almost certainly going to be much more employable than those who are exempt. This will benefit the Haredim and the rest of Israel.
The other broad category of exemption has been Israeli Arabs. Israel has historically recognized an exemption for its Arab citizens due to security concerns and other related issues. But this is also a matter that must be reexamined.
The discussion here is about Arab Israelis, that is Arabs who are citizens of Israel. These Israeli Arabs enjoy the right to vote, access to full health care, education, freedom of speech, religious freedom and all of the other aspects of a free, open, democratic country that is far ahead of its Middle Eastern neighbours by any measure in any of these areas. There are Arab Members of Knesset (MKs - members of Israel's Parliament), Arab judges and Arab Israelis in high level positions across the country.
To be sure, many Arab Israelis have certain grievances and concerns, many of which are legitimate. They would like to see equality of funding for health care, education, housing and other areas. They would like to see employment prospects improve. They would not want to be forced to fight against their cousins or family members in Gaza or the West Bank.
These are all legitimate concerns and should be addressed as mandatory universal military or national service conscription is instituted. But for the same reasons that apply to the Haredi community, Israeli Arabs who are citizens should face the same obligations as other citizens. Military service will improve relations between young Israelis and young Arabs. It will improve employment prospects and will lead to greater equality.
This week, it was Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who led the charge to institute full conscription for everyone including Haredim and Arabs. Though he has dragged Prime Minister Netanyahu towards this goal kicking and screaming, it is Lieberman who has taken a principled, equality-oriented approach, regardless of the political intentions that Lieberman may have.
The reaction from the Israeli Arab community has been as shrill and rejectionist as the reaction from the Haredi community. According to Ynet News, One MK, Jamal Zahaka, called the attempt to force compulsory service on Arab youth a "declaration of war on the Arab sector." MK Ahmed Tibi urged the government to talk about "equal infrastructure, education, land allocation and employment" rather than military service. To which Netanyahu responded that this is all "solvable." There should be little doubt that universal military or national service conscription would lead to greater equality for Israeli Arabs who would come to be viewed as partners in Israeli society (like the Druze community currently) rather than as a potential fifth column.
Since the Kadima party, now lead by Shaul Mofaz, joined the current coaltion government, there has been a sense that some changes can be made to Israeli law in a number of areas. One of these key changes, is a more equal approach to military and national service for all Israelis. This is something that Lieberman is pushing very hard and that Mofaz seems bound to support (with his Kadima party). Once it is addressed properly, the government can begin to address the even trickier issues of religion and the state, the electoral system - and of revised economic priorities. These kinds of changes will only be possible with a broad governing coaltion in which the constituent members are all willing to stand up to the pressure from minority Haredi and Arab parties and to act for the benefit of all Israelis. We will soon see if Prime Minister Netanyahu's current government can meet that test.
Postscript (Added July 3, 2012): Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday announced that he was dissolving the Plesner Committee - and essentially caving in to the pressure from the Ultra-Orthodox. It is unclear what will happen as a result of the High Court's decision, which mandated a change to the Tal Law. However, it has become clear that Netanyahu will not readily support, at this time, a universal conscription bill that would include Ultra-Orthodox and Arab recruits.