Compulsory service for Arabs, haredi continues to simmer
By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM — Lots of politics, brought about by the high intensity squabbles over what to do about the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim), and to some extent the Arabs.
Animosity toward the Haredim and a somewhat different concern about Arabs is always present, along with whatever else is happening. Feelings about the Haredim peaked some months ago with several episodes concerned with their insistence on separating men from women, boys from girls. Remember the cursing and spitting on the little girl in Beit Shemesh who, with her mother, walked to school on the sidewalk the Haredim wanted reserved for boys and men? And the daring young women, an Israeli version of Rosa Parks, who insisted on entering a “glatt kosher” bus via the front door?
Lots of Israelis are tired of the state (i.e., their taxes) supporting the families of ultra-Orthodox men who do not work, have lots of children, and get special deals on mortgages, water bills, and local property tax. There is a persistent demand that young ultra-Orthodox men serve in the IDF, or at least put in some years doing community service, and then go to work and support themselves.
The Supreme Court put the politicians’ feet to the fire by a decision that the law granting exemptions to ultra-Orthodox violates legal requirements of equality, and must be altered by August 1st.
For some time now the other macro issue of peace with the Palestinians has been in a deep coma, due partly to Palestinian paralysis resulting from the split between the not-so-moderate Fatah in charge of the West Bank and the extremely extreme Hamas and their allies in charge of Gaza. Arab uprisings have not helped the cause of the Palestinians, insofar as countries from Morocco to Indonesia are more concerned with their own problems than with the Palestinians and Israel.
The latest Palestinian kerfuffle comes from Yassir Arafat’s widow (with whom he managed to live for only a short while before a separation), wanting to dig up his remains to test for the possibility that he was poisoned. We can expect fingers pointing to Israel, without Israel having an opportunity to examine what remains of the body.
The government appointed a committee to propose alternatives to the existing exemption of Haredim. It met over the course of several weeks, with the Haredi MK’s appointed to it refusing to attend the meetings. A lawyer identified with them left the committee in a huff, charging that it was blind to the needs and contributions of the ultra-Orthodox. Then the prime minister dismissed the committee, but its chairman continued on his course and produced a formal announcement of his, or the committee’s, recommendations.
They include a limited number of annual exemptions from military service, meant to be given to Torah students of exceptional talent, along with some options of public service or the IDF for the mass of Yeshiva students, and a reduction of material benefits for those who refuse to serve.
There is also a provision in the proposal for enrolling an increasing number of Arab youths in some kind of national service, with the whole thing–for Arabs as well as ultra-Orthodox–to be phased in over several years.
Nobody is leading the cheers.
For some, the pressure on Arabs is not great enough.
For others, the pressure on Haredim is not great enough. Requiring them to serve only two years does not stand up against the requirement that non-Haredi Jewish men serve three years and then face several decades of reserve obligations.
We hear that some Haredi rabbis are willing to go along with some of the proposals, while other Haredi rabbis ridicule anything that denies their young men the opportunity to choose a lifetime of Torah study. It is that activity, according to one of the mantras, that provides the essential defense of Israel.
The chair of the defanged committee is a Kadima back bencher who has spent some years being concerned with the issue of drafting Haredim, and is said to have been insufficiently flexible in entertaining any proposals other than his own. The chair of Kadima is the former Defense Minister and Chief of the IDF General Staff, Shaul Mofaz, who has made reform of the Haredi issue the key reason for bringing Kadima into the government coalition. Mofaz is threatening to leave the coalition if the Prime Minister does not support something close to what his party colleague is proposing. The Prime Minister has said that the proposal is a decent starting point of negotiations.
There are signs of a split among Kadima MKs. Some say that if Mofaz cannot obtain a reform close to the proposal on the table, and decides to leave the coalition, he will mark himself and Kadima as unable to accomplish anything. Others say, in contrast, that by sticking to his demand, Mofaz will rescue Kadima from disappearance; he will show that Kadima stands by a principal that appeals to the country’s secular middle class. Some Kadima MKs are taking advantage of the dispute about Haredim to rekindle the battle between Mofaz and former leader Tzipi Livni, who resigned from the Knesset after losing the party leadership to Mofaz.
Also in the air are a couple of former political stars, both talented but with one of them forced out of government due to a verdict of sexual harrassment, and in the other because of political corruption.
Haim Ramon is talking about forming another centrist party on the claim that the several other centrists parties really aren’t centrist parties. Tsachi Hanegbi is trying his hand at being a mediator. Ehud Olmert is also rendering advice, while he is not busy in a Tel Aviv court that is hearing criminal charges against him for accepting bribes while mayor of Jerusalem, and waiting the verdict of a court in Jerusalem on other charges.
A group of young men calling themselves suckers (פריירים) for accepting military service began demonstrating against insufficient efforts to make the Haredim take on the burdens of citizenship. It is no surprise that the national organization of university students has signed on to their cause, due to most university students having been through two or three years (depending on gender) in the IDF. This campaign in regard to the Haredim is threatening to divide those aspiring to lead another season of middle- and upper-middle class secular Israelis demonstrating about a more extensive list of social problems.
The Arab issue in all of this is something of a minor chord, except that Avigdor Lieberman has threatened to vote against any arrangement that does not impose significant demands on Arabs as well as the ultra-Orthodox. Lieberman also is insisting on recruiting the Haredim to the IDF at the age of 18, as in the case of other Israelis, rather than giving them more years to decide about the military or some other kind of public service.
And somewhere in the muddle is simmering disunity between SHAS and Torah Judaism. One is the political party of the Sephardim, mostly those with a North African background, and the other the political party of the Ashkenazim. Both are ultra-Orthodox, but the Ashkenazim do what they can to hold onto their esteem as the most pious, most familiar with religious law, and generally of better stock. Every once in a while there is a headline of an Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox school not admitting Sephardi applicants on the ground that their level of observance is not up to snuff.
There are some signs that the SHAS rabbis/Members of Knesset are more forthcoming with respect to recruitment to the IDF or some other national service. In the competition between rabbis as to who is the greater guardian of holy tradition, however, none of this may go beyond the indications perceived by commentators who are not directly involved in the inner most conversations.
Also in the air are claims by ultra-Orthodox spokesmen that their people actually are serving in public service, obtaining higher education, and working in real jobs more than secular critics acknowledge.
One can wish for hard facts or real numbers from an official or at least an unofficial reliable source. That is not likely in a contentious arena where religious dogmas (note the plural) as well as anti-religious dogmas (also plural) dominate the conversations (again a plural) about military service or something else.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University. He may be contacted at email@example.com
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