So no Charedi draft, until next time

November 24, 2015

The current wave of violence in Israel – Palestinian attackers have kept trying, and at times succeeding, to kill Israelis in the last two days – is a blessing for no one. Israelis are suffering, Palestinians are suffering, Israelis are getting killed, Palestinians are getting killed. But some people did benefit from it yesterday: Israel's politicians. Their show of lack of seriousness – legislating one day, changing the legislation the next day, declaring a revolution one day, canceling it the next day – was overshadowed by terrorism. Israel just reversed its policy on the issue of “sharing the burden” of military service, and this dramatic development barely got any attention from a public and a media too busy with looking around for knives to worry about the Charedi draft.

Unceremoniously, the Knesset “approved in second and third readings an amendment to the Equal Service law, which dramatically rolls back the 2014 reforms on ultra-Orthodox recruitment into the IDF and strikes the communal penalties imposed if the annual quotas for Charedi soldiers are not met”. That is to say: whatever the previous government was able to achieve in its attempt to finally put an end to the unjust, not smart, and unsustainable draft exemption for ultra-Orthodox youngsters, was rolled back. The Charedis did not just get what they want legislation-wise. They also regained their confidence that whatever might happen with the draft in the future is only a temporary obstacle that, with a little patience and a show of stubbornness, they can quite easily overcome.

Not long ago, in an article for Moment Magazine, I explained that for the Charedi draft exemption to end, one of three things has to happen: either Israeli voters make it a high priority (politicians understand what the voters truly care about); a crisis with the existing IDF draft makes the current arrangement no longer sustainable; or the Charedim themselves gradually and voluntarily alter their ways.

Yesterday it was quite evident that the public is not likely to make this a priority. Or, at least, that the politicians are not afraid that the public will make it a priority. Israelis, in general, do not approve of the current arrangement and want more Charedis to contribute to Israel's defense. But the politicians were not bothered by what the public thinks. They were not bothered by it because they don't think that many votes will be changed as a result of dissatisfaction regarding the draft.

Will a crisis do the trick? That is always a possibility. Last week, as draft numbers were made public, Israelis, once again, learned that 50% of 18 year old Israelis do not serve in the IDF. About half of them are Israeli Arabs. The rest are mostly Charedi, or religious men and women. Obviously, this is not a healthy situation. It is not one that makes it easy for other Israelis to educate their sons and daughters to serve. It is a situation that prompts more calls for civil disobedience – one of the leaders of the NGOs that work to promote a change in the draft laws called for such disobedience last week, concluding that no other measure is likely to change the politicians' hearts (or political calculations). If young people will heed their call, if angry Israelis will take matters into their hands, they can easily force the Prime Minister to reconsider his latest legislative actions. But of course, in a sensitive time such as this, calling for dodging the draft is trickier than ever.

Will Charedi draftees alter their ways? That is the promise the coalition keeps making. It might be an excuse: all the coalition really wants is to retain its power, and hence it is willing to sacrifice the once sacred goal of sharing of the burden in exchange for Charedi votes. Or it could be a realistic assessment of what is desirable and possible: rather than picking a fight in which the state can't win – because no one is going to send thousands of Charedi men to jail over their refusal to serve – choosing a path that leads to less friction while hoping for further change within Charedi society.

Do we see any change in Charedi society? Surely, we do. Charedis are becoming more mainstream “Israeli” in many ways. Their youngsters are not always happy to feel isolated from the rest of society, they have strong views on political and military issues, they have a strong sense of patriotism – they might not identify publically with the secular state, but they do have a strong affinity with the Jewish public (and negative views concerning the non-Jewish public). Many young Charedis want to serve, or take part in some way in defending Israel. Many are afraid to do such a thing because of the implications such deeds might have on their future within Charedi society. There are members of the Netanyahu coalition that are quite cynical about the legislation passed yesterday, but there are also members who truly believe that change is coming from within and that coercion is the wrong, destructive path to solving a complicated issue.

The problem with the new legislation is that, once again, what Israelis see is postponement: we will not know for a long while if the new, more mellow version of the legislation has the right impact. In the meantime, there is no equality. There is Charedi triumphalism that could lead to more stubbornness on other issues. There is more reason for youngsters to feel disheartened by the demand that they keep contributing by serving in the IDF. And there is another reason for all Israelis to suspect that their legislators and leaders are engaged in political survival much more than in solving important problems.

In fact, this might be the most disappointing outcome of last night's voting. That is, because there is a good case to be made for the old legislation and there is a good case to be made for the new legislation. There is a good case to be made for the approach of more coercion and more pressure, and there is a good case to be made for the approach of less coercion and more reliance on gradual social integration.

There is no case to be made for zigzagging, indecision, caving under political pressure. There is no case to be made for changing a decision from a year ago that was never truly tested. There is no case to be made for a lack of seriousness and for wasting time on empty legislative maneuvers. There is no case to be made for a government that, rather than doing, is spending its energy on undoing.

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